How torture and intimidation is used to tame women’s rights activists on the frontline of Sudan revolution.
Urgent Action Fund-Africa is following the activities of women activists in Sudan and working with local women’s groups to document how the ongoing protest is impacting on women’s lives in Sudan. In this piece we recount how violence and intimidation is used to force activists out of the streets.
Women were the majority in the large-scale protest movement that brought down Al-Bashir’s government, but their position on the frontline of the movement put them at risk. The risk is not only from security agents, it is also from their family as some families disapprove of their daughters taking part in protests.
One of the young women who was arrested said she was more scared of her brother who was coming to pick her up from the security premises than the security officers themselves. She said she would be beaten for taking part in the protest. Security forces also use this against women detainees, telling them that their families have called and said that they should just keep them as they have shamed their families.
Another activist said that an older woman who was detained with her and before she was released, she told her, “I am now going home, next time you see me, I could be divorced.”
Sudanese society is deeply patriarchal and oppressive towards women. The family structure is brutal in how it used control and tame women. Many women went to the protest without the knowledge of their families only to suffer when they were arrested, and their families found out. They are punished in various ways; some were beaten, while some were prohibited from leaving the house for a period of time.
It takes courage and resilience to escape being broken by your family and the society. It takes awareness, self-confidence and even economic empowerment to be daring and think outside the box. This awareness led women to the protests because they know that the problem, they are facing at home is much bigger. The nation was at war with them through its discriminatory policies and laws, state-sponsored and sanctioned violence and conflict-induced violence, economic impoverishment and displacement.
Women protesters who got detained are punished by security agents who are bent on breaking the women. Beatings, threats of rape and sexual harassment was the norm. Some women are subjected to rape and those subjected to sexual violence couldn’t find words to describe their experience.
As I watched the video of what is going on, I kept remembering my friend’s story, said one of the activists. “We met in 2013 and grew very close during the deadly protest in September 2013. One day we were talking about the protest of June and July 2012 when she told me her story. At the time, she was working outside Khartoum and the protests began spreading outside the capital. When it spread to the state where she works, she was arrested. A colleague had reported her to the local security office, and she was summoned for questioning.
The questioning turned into a degrading session as she was forced to strip naked and the security officers took photos of her. They continued to haunt her with the nudes until she quit her job and returned home. They really did break her and as she kept trying to muster the courage to find herself again, find a job and move on with her life, the security agent kept coming into her life. The security agent kept communicating with her and telling her that he keeps looking at her photos. Everytime she received a message from him, her world shattered”.
After the fall of Al-Bashir, the arrests have stopped, but the violence continued. One of the women on the frontline was raped by a soldier at the sit-in, in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum. She did not share much details of the incident, however, many women have complained about sexual harassment at the sit-in. Some were gropped, others were cat-called or verbally harassed. The sit-in began on April 6th after four months of protests, hundreds of thousands marched to the army headquarters in Khatoum and decided to camp there until Al-Bashir is gone.
Six weeks later, the protesters remain there as they’ve set-up tents that accommodates their whole eco-system in an attempt to stay until a civilian government is in power. Men and women are there chanting, breaking bread, speaking, discussing, painting and spending the night as they guard the uprising that many died to sustain.
The sit-in which was the culmination of the uprising should’ve been a safe space. A space where women are respected and acknowledged as equals. The truth is women will never be equal, respected and protected from violence if the mentality that governs the country and has been passed down the line does not subside.
It is a mentality that uses political maneuverings, fundamentalist religious interpretations and resources to keep women alienated from the decision-making process. It also uses violence and insecurity against women to push them back.
This is why the crackdown on women during the protests was very harsh. It is not just because the authorities were worried of political change, it is also because this political mentality felt at risk. Their monopoly over resources and political power was being challenged by the largest group they’ve been ostracizing. Women were not broken, and they are now in large numbers at the sit-in in Khartoum and other states. They are giving public lectures, mobilizing people, managing platforms and working at the clinic.
They are also staying the night at the sit-in and in turn breaking all societal norms about women being unable to stay outside their homes past certain time. Women are speaking up about rape, exporting the feeling that they are confident that they are not at fault and publicly shame the rapist. This is the real uprising.
2. Women’s Human Rights Defenders Resist Opposition to demand Women’s Place in Proposed New Government in Sudan.
As UAF-Africa continues to follow the impact of the Sudan Uprising on the lives of women, Women’s Human Rights Defenders (WHRDs) recount how they are resisting opposition to demand women’s representation in the proposed civilian government.
Sudanese women were the majority in the protests that ragged for four months and brought down Omer Al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictator for nearly three decades. Al-Bashir is out, the men are back in control, women are continuously been pushed back to the sidelines.
When the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) called for a march to the presidential palace on Christmas day in December 2018 to submit a memorandum demanding that Al-Bashir steps down, thousands of protesters showed up. Most of them were under 35 years old and the majority were women.
Over the next four months, as villages, towns and urban centres took to the streets calling for the removal of Al-Bashir and his government and the protests reached markets, neighborhoods, universities, schools and other spaces, it was evident that Sudanese women were on the frontline.
The women were fearless. They challenged police brutality and they hid fellow protesters in their houses, risking arrests and beatings as a result. They were dragged out of their houses and arrested; many were kept in sketchy detention facilities for weeks. They were beaten, sexually harassed and fired from work, but they still came back to the next protest. They were resolute in being the main cast in Sudan’s uprising.
In April 2019, Al-Bashir was ousted after almost four months of sustained protests and five days of a wide-scale sit-in in front of the army headquarters. The sit-in that saw men and women come together to face bullets and sleep on the tarmac ended Al-Bashir’s rule and currently the Transitional Military Council (TMC) which has components of the Sudan Armed Forces (SAF) and the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) is in power.
Since then, the TMC has been in talks with the Freedom and Change Coalition (FCC) which brings under its umbrella a number of opposition parties and civil groups such as the Sudanese Professional Association, who are one of the main groups in the uprising. As the talks continued, FCC as the representative of the people still camped out at the sit-in, looking to reach a deal where it will form a civilian government, the question of women’s participation was brought up many times.
The discussion became intense and polarized when the FCC selected a delegation of negotiators to sit-down at the mediation table with the TMC to reach an agreement on handing over the government to a civilian government. The FCC’s coordination body asked the different components of the FCC to nominate candidates. Each component put forward two representatives and out of eight candidates, only two women were selected.
The women representative, Mariam Al-Sadig is a controversial figure, she was not seen as someone who would represent women’s issues as she is not known to be a women’s human rights champion. Al-Sadig was soon replaced with a male candidate due to internal party dynamics and politics. The other candidate, Mervat Hamadalneel, a young woman, activist and strong feminist was believed to have the potential to represent women and seen as a good women’s rights advocate.
The women groups were unhappy that women were not given 50% of the seats at such an important delegation seeing their important role in the uprising. Once the FCC was put under scrutiny, they gave various reasons for why they couldn’t nominate women to such important negotiation. The coordination body said that the different coalitions within the FCC such as the Sudan Call and the National Consensus Forces (NCF) were given seats but they all decided to nominated men.
Within the parties, the situation is murkier. The party leaders claimed that they don’t have women at the leadership structures within their parties, while the fact remains that well-known women leaders were within the leadership of those parties. Another reason given for not nominating women was that women do not have experience in negotiation, that men are more experienced in negotiations compared to their female counterparts as they have been engaged in negotiations for a long time with the former ruling party.
This type of stereotypes has continued to hold women back from claiming their space in the negotiation for a new civilian government in Sudan and taking the opportunity to address the gross violation of women’s rights in the country. In the past few weeks, Mansam, a coalition of women’s political and civil groups has been working hard to document potential women nominees. They have submitted a consolidated list of women nominees (as well as back-up candidates) to all the different leadership hierarchies that the FCC is proposing–– the leadership council, the legislative council and the different ministries and commission that form the executive body.
Mansam is pushing for 50% representation of women in Sudan’s proposed new government, but the FCC insists that women will have 40% representation although they insist that women are a critical force and will be equally represented at all levels in the upcoming civilian government, they have not met the expectations of women in the last month and a half. Equality for women in Sudan will be an ongoing fight and will continue even if a civilian government takes over. Women’s subordination and misogyny in Sudan was not limited to the ousted government. It is a deeply-rooted culture and manifests in all its political structures and society in general.
Activists on the frontline of the current Sudan uprising recognise that women’s issues are an integral part of national development and the fight to achieve it is far from being over. “Accessing 50% of power is just the beginning, we have to work to address laws and legislations that discriminate and subjugate women. Through power, legal reform and serious economic empowerment, we can have more leeway to work on social norms and fundamentalist religious interceptions that gives men room to maneuver more power and keep us on the sidelines”, said one of the activists.