#SudanRevolts: Women lead a revolution

By — August 6, 2012

In June, female students at the University of Khartoum held an impromptu demonstration against the dramatic rise in the cost of living in Sudan. Rising inflation, exacerbated by the secession of South Sudan in July 2011 and with it, a third of Khartoum’s revenue, has led to soaring costs in the country. Many people struggle to make ends meet, not least university students who find it difficult to cover even the most basic needs.  

Quickly joined by their male counterparts, the female marchers were met with fierce batons and firing of tear gas. Sparking a wider protest movement—from Port Sudan in the northeast to Al-Obeid in the southwest—the issue has drawn in Sudanese from all sectors of society and was quickly coined #SudanRevolts by its tech-savvy protagonists. The demonstrations have been slow-burning and often relatively small but remarkably consistent: Sudanese and international commentators alike have acknowledged that women have led the protests against the ruling regime despite the mass arrests and use of tear gas, rubber bullets, live ammunition, torture, and rape against them.  

Many activists have asserted that the demonstrations are much more than anti-austerity protests, having an eventual aim of overthrowing the ruling regime of President Omar al-Bashir and his National Congress Party. Wanted by the International Criminal Court on charges that include genocide, Bashir and his supporters are waging conflicts in Darfur and South Kordofan, where their brutal tactics include the bombing of civilian villages and the use of systematic rape and cluster bombs. Seventy percent of Sudan’s budget is spent on military and defense, even as food and fuel costs skyrocket. Bashir employs a number of security apparatus to retain social and political control, including the notorious security services called NISS—well known for its use of torture, including rape.  

Sudanese women protest on Kandake Friday. (Gihan Eltahir)

Women are at the forefront of the Sudan Revolts movement likely because they have suffered immensely under the repressive laws of the ruling regime. Official police figures reveal that in Khartoum state alone in 2008, 43,000 public order offenses were allegedly committed by women. These “offenses” are determined by the “public order” police at their own discretion and may include wearing trousers or makeup and result in punishments that vary from monetary fines to public lashings.  

Since June, two women have been sentenced to death by stoning in Khartoum for committing “adultery.” Instisar Sharif Abdallah was accused of having a relationship with a man to whom she was not married. Both she and the man in question denied the allegations and the case was dropped. However, her brother subsequently beat her until she “confessed,” following which a second court found her guilty and ordered her to be stoned to death—after only one court hearing and no legal representation. She was finally released after three months as a result of widespread international outrage and a lack of evidence.  

What happened with the second woman, Laila Ibrahim Issa Jamool, remains unclear. Sentenced on July 10 after becoming pregnant during the process of divorce negotiations, she was also denied legal representation and is currently being detained along with her six-month-old baby.  

The largest of the protests have taken place on Fridays, after prayers. They usually have a title: There was “Sandstorm Friday,” a reference to the sand and political storm about to engulf Khartoum, and everyone’s favorite, “Elbow-Licking Friday,” a jibe at Bashir’s remark that the protesters might as well try to lick their elbows—such would be the impact of their protests. But the quirky names shouldn’t detract from the reality of the situation. Peaceful protesters have been shot, arrested, beaten, tortured, and detained for weeks.  

July 13 was coined “Kandake Friday.” Maha, an activist who asked that we use only her first name to protect her identity, explains that "Kandake" (Candace) in the Kushitic language is a title for strong women. “The term was used by the Kushites to refer to their queens,” Maha said. “It’s a reference to the brave and revolutionary women of Sudan.”  

On Kandake Friday, women led nearly 300 protesters following prayers at Wad Nubawi, a mosque in the Omdurman suburb of Khartoum that has become a flashpoint. Tear-gassed and shot at, more than 30 activists were arrested, including the mother and sister of the already detained activist Mohamad Salah. Aliah Khaled, detained along with her mother and sister, took to Twitter after her release, saying: “I can’t even count the bombs [of tear gas] fired at us.”

A security crackdown on activists, with many now facing charges of treason that could potentially result in a death sentence, and the advent of Ramadan, when people traditionally remain indoors during the day, led to a brief cooling off of protests. On July 31, however, more than 1,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Nyala in Darfur, witnesses told Reuters. Scores of teenagers were among the protesters when the police fired live ammunition, killing at least eight people, including one schoolgirl and wounding dozens more.  

The next step is unclear. A rapid revolution is unlikely; Bashir has been in power for 23 years and both the military and security services are extremely loyal to him. The protests have proven to be more than a flash in the pan, however, and with doctors and lawyers joining students in the streets, their appeal is growing. But the danger to protesters and activists, particularly female, is immense. As in Syria, women activists are risking their own safety not only by joining the protesters but by keeping the outside world informed of their progress through social media. The opposition has so far been unable to mount a campaign that has actually led to major social and political change. This means there is an even greater risk to female activists when they speak out—they have absolutely no protection.  

Considering the dangers, “Kandake” doesn’t seem a strong enough word for their courage.