Nada Mustafa Ali
Salah – a young, female university student
One of the
most popular images from Sudan’s protests that led to the overthrow of Omar
al-Bashir is that of Alaa Salah – a young, female university student. The image
of her speaking to a crowd highlighted the presence and role women had in the
video challenged narratives prevalent in global media – which sometimes portray
African and Muslim women as victims who lack agency – Alaa Salah’s courage is
but an extension of the roles that women have played throughout Sudan’s
queens and queen mothers had crucial power in Sudan’s ancient kingdom of Kush
and its metropolis, Meroe (circa 1069BC to AD350). Women, like the poet Mihera
Bit Abboud, mobilised men against the Turko-Egyptian colonial invasion of Sudan
in the 1920s and Anglo-Egyptian rule in the 1950s.
also major actors in the opposition to Bashir’s regime throughout its 30 years
of rule, which began when he led a military coup against a democratically
elected government in 1989. This resistance was not unusual given the regime’s
discrimination against women, in both law and practice. This included the use
of rape in war and also violence against women activists in youth movements.
locally and abroad, Sudanese women led organisations to help women challenge
human rights violations, build leadership skills, protest and mobilise. For
example, when Bashir’s government imposed austerity measures in 2013 and 2016 –
causing the prices of basic commodities and medicines to soar – women mobilised
hopes that the overthrow of Bashir would lead to change in the situation of
women. But there are now worries under the Transitional Military Council, which
assumed power and has since violently suppressed protesters. The council has
created an atmosphere where it is difficult to advocate for broader
participation for women, commitment to women’s human rights, or gender
become less of a priority as the situation worsens.
– Good and Bad
learn from the experiences of neighbouring countries. Take Egypt. The
transition to civilian rule, following the Arab Spring in 2011, was accompanied
by a backlash in women’s human rights and a rise in sexual violence and
teaching about the uprisings in north Africa (Arab Spring) as the protests were
unfolding. As with Sudan, women played a key role in the 2010 and 2011
protests. Initially, Egyptian feminists described Tahrir Square, where
Egyptians camped, as a “utopia” where sexual harassment against women in public
spaces, for example, disappeared. Unfortunately, women later faced various
forms of sexual violence and harassment in the streets. The government also
attacked women’s organisations.
Egypt’s women’s movement continue to face arrest and detainment. The director
of Nazra for Feminist Studies, Mozan Hassan, was unable to travel to New York
to attend the United Nations’ Commission on the Status of Women this year
because of a government-imposed travel ban.
possible, however, to also learn from partial successes in post-conflict
countries on the continent. These include Rwanda and Liberia.
one of the highest number of women legislators in the world. The country has
also introduced several laws that promote women’s rights.
a broad and vibrant women’s peace movement played a key role in resisting the
oppressive government of Charles Taylor. This ended war and paved the way for
Liberia to elect the first woman president in an African country. Former
president Ellen J Sirleaf introduced important laws and policies to safeguard
women’s rights during her presidency.
mourns for those who have lost their lives in recent crackdowns and massacres,
there is an urgent need for immediate action – in the form of independent
investigations – against human rights violations. These are crucial for
the future, as I argue in my book Gender, Race, and Sudan’s Exile Politics: Do
We All Belong to this Country?, Sudan needs to build a strong and independent
women’s movement that reflects the diverse priorities, realities, and visions
of Sudanese women.
And as the
country looks to a possible transition, the ruling transitional council must
hand power over to a civilian-led government with at least 40 per cent
representation of women. It is crucial to ensure that women have meaningful
participation at all levels, and that commitments to gender equality and
women’s human rights permeate constitutional, legal and policy reform.
Nada Mustafa Ali is a faculty fellow at the
Centre for Governance and Sustainability and a lecturer in women’s gender and
sexuality studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston.