Photo: Abdulgader Bashir

In their fight for democracy, the women of Sudan face patriarchal violence in all aspects of their resistance. Not only the militarized government tries to curb their participation, but also their male co-protestors turn to violence against female protestors in the guise of protecting them. The question remains: Who are they trying to protect? Are these women who have taken to the streets to demand justice and freedom really not capable of protecting themselves? The answer lies in Sudan’s patriarchal culture.

In the Million’s march on December 19th, we saw footage of a young Sudanese woman being slapped by a random young man as the crowds were dispersed at the sit-in at the republican palace. He assaulted her under guise of protecting her while ordering her to "leave the place", as if she was incapable of making her own decisions as to when to run and hide or to keep documenting the events. The fact that he automatically turned to violence, and not dialogue, speaks volumes about how we treat women. It is very unlikely that he would have chosen to slap a man. The logic behind his actions, and many similar actions that have taken place during the past few years of protests is that it is okay to use violence if it's "for the sake of protecting women''. It is also the presumed lack of ability women have to make choices about taking part in protests even if they turn violent, as if they are incapable of protecting themselves. These assumptions translate into actions; preventing women from taking part in building blockades, or forcing them to leave the demonstrations. It is about time we are honest, and brutally so: This is the same patriarchal logic that is also manifested in the gendered violence practiced by the different branches of the Sudanese military.

Keeping the women out
The violence women face while engaging in resistance activities isn’t always physical. Women are being excluded and marginalized within the resistance committees. Taking into account the freedom of movement and mobility that men enjoy in our societies in relation to their female peers, resistance committees have become bodies dominated by a male presence. Women are excluded from participating in resistance committees by removing them from decision-making positions and stereotyping their roles within the committees by assigning them into roles that are considered more typically "female", due to their nature of care or reproduction. Women end up in service committees, where they organize people's access to food and plan campaigns to clean the neighborhood, while their male peers take up the decision-making positions. The male-dominated nature of the committees has even affected women’s opportunities to attend the committees’ meetings, as meetings are set in places and times that are deemed unsuitable for women, for example, late at night in mosques, male neighborhood clubs, Nile Street, or other places where women cannot be present due to social considerations that restrict their movement. And the patriarchal practices don't stop there: Verbal and sexual harassment during protests have become a phenomenon that is deliberately overlooked.

Women are being excluded and marginalized within the resistance committees.

‘Don’t break the ranks of the revolution’
All of this complements a discourse that has risen since the revolution in 2018, and that thrives now as demonstrations against the coup are taking place. A dialogue deprioritizing women’s issues has emerged in the public revolutionary space, classifying them as issues that should be raised after the revolution ends and the “basic” demands of the revolution are fulfilled. The assumption here is that revolutionary action is an end-point process and not a sustainable cumulative process. Under this assumption, women's rights are marginalized because they do not disrupt power dynamics or influence systems of governance. Through this patriarchal lens, some rights are more necessary while others are luxuries, usually women's.

Through this patriarchal lens, some rights are more necessary while others are luxuries, usually women's.

We’ve seen the public ridicule of women who came forward to address sexual harassment in the AlQiyada sit-in, quick to brand them as “traitors” to the movement and “agents” of the fallen regime, who are seeking to defame the image of the sit-in. Similar sentiments came to the surface in how women were turned away from the sit-in solely based on their clothing. Ultimately women are viewed as disposable to the revolution, as their absence from resistance will not influence its outcomes. The outcome is that slogans of patriotism that seem innocent in its intent, are in reality a tool of sidelining gender issues within the resistance. Phrases like "Let's focus on the country's issues" are regularly used to stop women from addressing issues like sexual harassment in protests, representation in resistance committees and decision-making bodies, and gender-based violence. Women are repeatedly asked not to "break the ranks" of the revolution and silenced when speaking out about gendered violence as it is seen as a threat to the image of the revolution.

The military using sexual violence as a tool of curbing resistance
For as long as militaries have existed, sexual violence has effectively been used as a weapon to crush resistance and break the morale of people and more specifically women across the world in conflict zones and in political turmoil. On the 19th of December 2021 in Khartoum, amongst other violations, activists confirmed two rapes and two other cases of sexual violence, while the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported 13 rapes. The Sudanese military and its militias - Janjaweed, also known as Rapid Support Forces (RSF) - have a long history of weaponizing sexual violence against women for political purposes. The use of sexual violence as a weapon of war and a weapon of political violence in Sudan isn't new, and comes in a package with the military institution that is inherently patriarchal. 

The weaponization of sexual violence isn't a byproduct of the military institution, nor is it incidental. The patriarchal culture of the military looks at the bodies of women as objects to conquer and dominate, and furthermore, looks at sexual violence as a deliberate tool of punishing women who dare to take part in the public spaces by either protesting or engaging in political activities. Since December 2018, the military and security forces have deployed tactics of sexual violence against female protestors. In the aftermath, the patriarchal Sudanese culture blames the women: ‘’If she had not been out protesting, she wouldn't have been raped’’. The military knows the conservative culture of the Sudanese people very well. It knows how it views women as bearers of honor. Thus it becomes a smart tactic to use sexual violence against them as families will restrict the movement of women out of fear for their reputation. Consequently, women's participation in demonstrations, resistance committees and civil society decreases. This also leads to underreporting of sexual violence cases for fear of stigma and victim-blaming.

‘’If she had not been out protesting, she wouldn't have been raped’’.

For the most part, sexual assault goes unpunished due to the societal attitude of indifference towards violence against women, and the implicit acceptance of rape as an unavoidable consequence of women defying their prescribed roles in society. Victims are often afraid of reprisals if they pursue prosecution, as the judiciary system in Sudan is not independent and biased towards the army, security, and police forces. This is further exacerbated via Sudanese judicial legislation which places the burden of proof of rape on the victims, through exhausting and humiliating procedures, in addition to its lacking of legislation that distinctly criminalizes rape in times of political turmoil as a war crime subject to prosecution by specific laws and procedures.

Protesting for democracy in a holistic and inclusive way
The revolutionary movement cannot be a comprehensive movement unless it includes women and addresses the problems of violence and prejudice against them within its ranks. This has to be done in a transparent manner that avoids denial and exclusion as a solution to the problem. The trivialization of women's issues weakens the political momentum towards addressing them and, subsequently, towards achieving a democratic transition. A revolution is an act of collective effort, and if the grievances of parts of the collective are not addressed, there will be no revolution.

We need to explore our biases, and examine the reasons why we are willing to dismiss women's issues and suffering just to protect the image of the revolution. Are we putting the image of revolution before the goals of the revolution, or was equality never a goal to begin with?

A revolution is an act of collective effort, and if the grievances of parts of the collective are not addressed, there will be no revolution.

By acknowledging how patriarchal norms are a driving factor in gender-based violence within both the revolution movement and the military, we are better equipped to tackle it. Gendered violence is standing in the way of a democratic transition. We need to understand it if we are to dismantle the authoritarian military council. The Sudanese resistance cannot lead to democracy if the movement itself lacks the ability to treat women as equal agents of change.


This Sudan blog post is written by Ilaf Nasreldin. She is an advocate for human rights, peacebuilding, social justice, and development with a special focus on gender-related issues. Nasreldin is a freelance content creator and an aspiring young researcher, in topics relating to social movements and politics."

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the ARUS project or CMI.