By Nasredeen Abdulbari
April 15, 2019
The protests that have now led to the
ouster of Sudan’s president, Omar Al Bashir, have been dominated by women. Day
after day, on the streets of Khartoum, as many as two-thirds of those who turn
out have been women. Photos of women — angry, defiant, celebratory — have
become the emblems of the uprising.
Various segments and groups of Sudanese
society have taken part in the protests. People from different political,
ethnic, religious and social backgrounds have participated in the protests,
culminating in a historic sit-in at the headquarters of the Sudanese Armed
Forces. But women — always — have been at the forefront.
There is an overarching reason, stemming
from the role of women in Sudanese society. But there are particular reasons,
too: the ferocious oppression that women have experienced under the previous
government as well as the hardships that they felt as the economy deteriorated.
Throughout Sudan’s history, women have
played a central role in society. In the ancient Sudanese Nubian kingdoms,
women were queens and queen mothers, and they were referred to as “Kandakat,”
or strong women. In the Darfur region, and western Sudan more broadly, women
who write poems in support of virtues and traits such as bravery in times of
war and generosity in times of peace have historically played a significant
social and political role. This tradition has helped give strength to and
inspire those leading the current uprising.
But perhaps a stronger motivation is the
oppression that women in Khartoum and other major cities, experienced in the
past. Under the provisions of the public order law (passed in 1992 and amended
in 1996), women could be arrested, detained, beaten and imprisoned for wearing
indecent clothes, such as trousers or short skirts, going out with their male
friends. Especially victimised by this law were women from poor communities who
worked, for instance, as tea and food vendors. Having typically fled conflict
zones, they are more vulnerable than most and can rarely afford bail when
arrested. Unlike women from affluent communities, they have not drawn much
attention from the local or international media.
In conflict areas outside Khartoum, the
oppression against women was more severe, as most of the human rights
violations in these districts were committed against women and their children.
They have been subjected to violence by militias. They were, in some instances,
driven from their homes and put up in camps for internally displaced people in
Darfur and elsewhere. It was because of this that displaced people, the
majority of whom are women, joined demonstrations in support of the uprising.
Economic hardships may have further driven
women to play a leading role in the protests because they shoulder most of the
burden in maintaining the day-to-day finances of their families. They know that
the economy is faltering under the weight corruption and nepotism. Whether
staying at home to care for their children or working to contribute financial
support to their families, women daily feel, more than men, how life is
Their sons, brothers and husbands can leave
the country to work abroad in the Gulf or elsewhere; and many do, because there
are few employment opportunities in Sudan, and most of the jobs go to the
supporters with relatives in powerful positions in the government. But as women
stay behind to care for their families, they have developed a stronger sense of
obligation to challenge the power that has caused their suffering.
Courageous, defiant and determined to
participate in protests in large numbers, Sudanese women are in fact continuing
to assume roles they have historically played in their communities and country.
The government just gave them additional motivations to take to the streets. As
protesters continued their sit-in at the army headquarters, they faced the
possibility of a violent crackdown. But as one woman, named Wifag al-Gorashi,
told the media of the mistreatment she and other women endured: “We know why we
have taken to the streets. No bad thing that happens to us can make us back
down on what we are doing.”
Nasredeen Abdulbari is a noted Sudanese academic, author and lawyer. He
previously taught law at the International and Comparative Law Department,
University of Khartoum.