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The popular uprising against the Islamist-Military regime of Omar al-Bashir started in December 2018, and women were at the forefront of the peaceful protests in many locations throughout the country. The uprising, which is now popularly known as the December revolution, started in Damazeen in Blue Nile state with schoolgirls and boys protesting the poor living conditions and scarcity of bread. Street protests spread throughout the country, including to the capital Khartoum. Economic grievances were put in the context of authoritarianism and the corruption of the Bashir regime, which had ruled the country with an iron first for three decades (1989-2019). The main slogan of the protestors became “fall that is all” and “freedom, peace and justice”.

After eight months of protests, Bashir was ousted from office through an internal military coup in April 2019. A transitional military council consisting of Bashir’s former allies took control of the state. Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese citizens formed a sit-in in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum demanding a transition to a civilian government. On June 3rd, the sit-in was crushed by a branch of the military, namely the rapid-support forces (RSF) which until six years ago were better known as the militia janjaweed that fought the war in Darfur on behalf of the Bashir regime. Despite the killing and arrest of protesters during what has been coined the “Sudan massacre”, the protests continued. In August 2019, negotiations between the transitional military council and the Forces for Freedom and Change[1] facilitated a new transitional government guided by the Constitutional Declaration.[2] However, in October 2021, the military hijacked Sudan’s transition to democracy and the transitional government they were part of. This kickstarted new calls for a freedom, peace, and justice under the umbrella of a civilian state. Protests are still ongoing, over a year after the military coup.

Despite it being a revolution that started in marginalized areas, most of the research conducted thus far has been entirely focused on the capital. This includes the research conducted on women’s role in the revolution and its aftermath (see Grabska and Aziz 2022; Al-Nagar and Tønnessen 2021; Nugdalla 2020; Adam and WagiAlla 2021)[3]. In this paper, we build on original interview data with young female revolutionaries from seven states (South Kordofan, South Darfur, Blue Nile, Senar, Red Sea, Kassala and Gadaref) to give a regional perspective on women’s role in the revolution. A total of 72 unstructured interviews were conducted with young women, aged 18 to 35, in these states.[4]

The paper examines the revolutionary activism of young women from different regional locations in Sudan. What motivated these young women to participate in the revolution and what type of roles did they take, and what challenges did they meet? Some of the locations where we have conducted fieldwork are among the most gender-conservative in the country, where women historically have largely been excluded from public spaces (Abbas and Tønnessen 2022). Furthermore, what is their experience with political activism during the transitional period? What implications does this new political activism by female Sudanese youth have on the women’s movement?

Based on the original interview data, the paper argues that the participation of young women in the revolution reflects an emerging feminist mobilization in Sudan that challenges patriarchal structures, including the dogmas of a historically Khartoum- and elite-based women’s movement.

Our findings suggest that young women participated in the revolution by playing diverse roles, including roles that challenged traditional perceptions of appropriate gender relations. A common trend across the interviews, which also echoes the narratives from Khartoum (S. Abbas 2020; Al-Nagar and Tønnessen 2019), noting that they participated despite family restrictions. In many ways, they broke cultural barriers about what is considered “appropriate” for young women and thereby challenged prevailing social and political norms. However, these norms differ across the locations. In eastern Sudan, the conservative belt, merely being out in the streets protesting was regarded as deeply inappropriate, meanwhile in Darfur, where women’s public presence as such does not conflict with cultural norms, other types of restrictions emerged.[5]

There is a range of different motivations that prompted those interviewed for this study to participate in the December revolution. In contrast to earlier work with a Khartoum bias (see Grabska and Aziz 2022; Al-Nagar and Tønnessen 2021; Nugdalla 2020; Adam and WagiAlla 2021)[6], the economic motives and the demand for a dignified life come out more clearly in these interviews. This is perhaps related to the continuous economic marginalization of the regions, so that the ongoing economic crisis was felt more outside of the capital. However, these motives were coupled with gender-specific motivations such as discriminatory laws and the lack of job opportunities for women. “Dignity”, which echoes the Arab spring in Egypt (Singerman 2013), is a frame within which demands for change were presented. In the views of our interlocutors, the Bashir regime restricted the lives of women in undignified ways.

Despite the broad participation of women and especially of young women in the December revolution, they were largely marginalized and sidelined in the transitional period (Al-Nagar and Tønnessen 2021, Tønnessen and Al-Nagar 2020; Abbas and Tønnessen 2022; R. Abbas 2020; SORD 2020). In terms of the general literature, the Sudanese case sadly follows the general trend. Although women have played key roles in protest movements worldwide and even when they are prominent actors in these protests and movements, they are largely excluded from political decision-making processes afterwards, which remain male-dominated (Molyneux 1998; Haider and Loureiro 2021; Johansson-Nogués 2013; Tripp 2015; Saad and Abed 2020). However, this exclusion from political decision making, often justified by the lack of experience in political activism, has fueled the formation of new women’s groups and solidarity networks (both formal and informal), which is also a common response seen in similar cases (see a summary of the literature in Affi and Tønnessen 2021; Adjei 2019). They often use the label “feminist”, and the use of this word (which has largely been rejected by the older generation of women’s rights activists[7] during the Bashir era) suggests a realization that the fall of the Bashir regime is not enough to change the situation of women. A women’s revolution is needed, as patriarchy is deeply embedded in social, economic, and political structures. In the case of Morocco, Fatima Sadiqi (2016) presents the “center” as a post-revolution space for the women’s movement. In Sudan, “feminism” is emerging as a space for the women’s movement (Tønnessen and al-Nagar 2023). The revolution has created a new discourse on feminism by self-identified feminists and women activists and organizations (Ali 2022). However, our findings suggest that the establishment of several new youth-led feminist groups has made visible a growing generational gap between the older and younger women’s activists. As such, the exclusion of young women does not only occur in political parties and institutions, but also in social movements and women’s groups that have been dominated by people who do not believe in the capabilities of young women and are unwilling to be considerate to intersectionality.


[1] Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC) is a wide political coalition of civil and rebel forces created as part of the popular uprising (including rebel groups, political parties, labour unions, civil society and neighbourhood resistance committees). The alliance drafted a charter for freedom and change which was originally signed by 22 organizations and political parties. During the transitional period and after the 2021 military coup there have been major fractionalization within the FFC. A continuous critique throughout has been the patriarchal nature of the decision-making structure within FFC, whereby women and youth have been sidelined. See for example Tønnessen and Al-Nagar 2020.

[2] You can access the Constitutional Declaration via the following link: Sudan Constitutional Declaration August 2019 | ConstitutionNet

[3] In addition, several blogs and news articles have been written on the topic, all with a Khartoum bias (see Tønnessen and al-Nagar 2019; Abbas S. 2020, Abbas 2019, Engeler and Manzur 2020, Lavrilleux 2019, Malik 2019; Abdel Aziz 2019a; Abdel Aziz 2019b, Abdel Aziz and Grabska 2019).

[4] The young women interviewed include university students, professionals, activists, and members of resistance committees and other civil society groups; all of whom participated in the revolution.

[5] Although there are cultural norms in Darfur that allows women’s participation in public spaces, these do not entail that their rights are better protected than elsewhere in the country. Not only has the region has been haunted by armed conflicts and displacement which has had severe consequences for women, but women’s presence in public spheres in terms of trade and wage work is largely exploitative.

[6] Ali (2019) also did a study of women’s online activism during the December revolution.

[7] With some exceptions. Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre established in 1997 and was closed down by the Bashir regime in 2014.

Liv Tønnessen

Director of Center on Law and Social Transformation and Senior Researcher