Women at the forefront of Sudan change

For 30 years women experienced massive encroachment on their rights, largely stemming from an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam encouraged by the Islamists in power.
Sunday 28/04/2019
Alaa Salah, a Sudanese woman, addresses protesters in front of the military  headquarters in Khartoum, April 10.   (AFP)
Iconic power. Alaa Salah, a Sudanese woman, addresses protesters in front of the military headquarters in Khartoum, April 10. (AFP)

BEIRUT - The revolution that led to the toppling of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir after three decades in power is stamped with a female icon, a university student dubbed “Kandaha,” the title given to Nubian queens of ancient Sudan.

Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old engineering and architecture student at Sudan International University, shot to internet fame after footage showed her standing on a car in a long white garment, singing and leading the crowds protesting outside army headquarters in Khartoum went viral. She became the icon of the Sudanese uprising.

Reports estimate that women made up 60% of the protesters who took to the streets in late December to demonstrate against a government decision to triple the price of bread. The unrest morphed into a nationwide movement against al-Bashir’s rule. He was unseated by the military April 11.

“Sudanese women have always participated in revolutions in this country. If you see Sudan’s history, all our queens have led the state. It’s part of our heritage,” Salah was quoted as saying.

“I wanted to speak against racism and tribalism in all its forms, which affect everyone across all walks of life,” she said on her Twitter account, which she set up following her new-found fame.

“I wanted to speak on behalf of the youth and to say that Sudan is for all,” she said, adding that she has been receiving death threats but “will not bow down” and her voice “cannot be suppressed.”

For many women, the revolution was not just about bread; it was also about fighting a regime that oppressed women.

Women in Sudan were the most disadvantaged group under al-Bashir’s conservative government. For 30 years they experienced massive encroachment on their rights, largely stemming from an ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam encouraged by the Islamists in power. Women demonstrated for equal rights, access to politics and education and against female genital mutilation and forced marriages.

“In such movements, women are widely participating not only for their rights but for the rights of the entire community,” Salah told Agence France-Presse.

Sarah Abdeljalil of the Sudanese Professionals Association argued that female protest has a long tradition in Sudan and that women were at the forefront of organising protest actions in 1964 and 1985, which triggered the removal of authoritarian regimes.

“Women have died. They have been in the middle of the protests, have been detained, arrested and contributed significantly to the (revolution’s) success so far,” Abdeljalil was quoted as saying by Deutsche Welle.

Jehanne Henry, associate director of Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, said thousands had been arrested since unrest erupted last December and that women were among those tortured and kept in custody without being charged. The brutal response did not stop them from placing themselves firmly at the heart of the protests.

Henry said Sudanese women have always been willing and strong and they were active in many revolutions, including those in 2011 and 2013. They came from all classes, interests, occupation and ages.

In 2009, Sudanese women started a movement to protest the so-called public morality laws that curtailed basic freedoms, including controlling the clothes they were allowed to wear.

The long white garment and full moon golden earrings that Salah donned while leading the crowds from atop the car were inspired by outfits that Sudanese women wore during revolutions in the 1960s and 1980s.

During March, Sudanese women wore the traditional white robe in support of the protests and women’s rights. Social media platforms filled with pictures of female protesters wearing the white garment, using the hashtag#whitemarch.

Sudanese women also proved to be instrumental in the demonstrations by creating Facebook groups and posting videos and pictures of abusive security forces. Agents, whose identities were uncovered, were often beaten and chased out of town.

Since her photos and footage went viral, Salah has been a source of inspiration to her compatriots at home and abroad.

Huda Hashim, a Sudanese graphic artist in Paris, represented Salah in one of her works surrounded by mobile telephone screens, in reference to viral images that were instrumental in mobilising populations since the eruption of the “Arab spring” revolutions in late 2010.

“I don’t have words. So I outpoured my heart with painting, while wishing a million times to be on the frontlines with my people,” Hashim wrote, as reported by France’s Le Monde.

Ebaa Elghali, a Sudanese architect in the United Arab Emirates, was quoted by Arab News as saying that most of her female friends and relatives participated in the demonstrations and sit-ins.

“Even my older aunts and grandmother took part in the protests,” she said, “even those who were not politically engaged were there.”

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