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Women lead the charge, and chants, in Sudan protests

Stringer, Reuters | Sudanese demonstrators in Khartoum on April 11, 2019.

Sudan was a repressive place for women under Omar al-Bashir’s Islamist 30-year reign. But women have reclaimed their voice during the latest anti-regime protests and are determined to secure their place in the future.

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Dalia El Roubi was 10 years old when Omar al-Bashir seized power in a bloodless coup. She vividly recalls the drastic changes in her life when public order and civiclaws changed in Sudan shortly after the takeover.

“I clearly remember my childhood was taken away. We were young, but we dressed freely as teenagers and pre-teens," Roubi explained. "Suddenly, everything changed: The way we dress changed, our school uniforms changed. For my generation, it was a strange experience, we had a taste of freedom and then it suddenly transformed. We became sexualised objects and our bodies became a battleground for those in power.”

Exactly three decades after the 1989 coup, the 41-year-old activist and member of the opposition Sudanese Congress Party said she was exhilarated by the leading roles women played on the front lines of the latest anti-government protests.

Speaking to FRANCE 24 in a phone interview from Khartoum where she briefly tore herself away from demonstrations in the heart of the Sudanese capital to access her phone service Roubi described incredible scenes. “Women are at the forefront, the leaders, here. It’s not the stereotype of women in the background cheering the men. Women start chanting and we also regulate the chanting. If the chants include sexist statements or are discriminatory, we regulate it, we just explain, there’s no aggression. It’s a harassment-free zone, it’s exceptional.”

When the latest round of anti-regime demonstrations broke out in December, one of the protest chants described Bashir as weak and compared him to a woman. But demonstrators changed that tune after women began calling it out on social media.

The international community got a crash course in female power this week when a video of a young woman in a white toub, or traditional Sudanese robe, leading a lively protest song went viral.

Standing on top of a car in sneakers, matched with toub and traditional bridal jewellery, Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old architecture student, epitomised not just girl power, but also the cultural diversity that was suppressed during Bashir’s reign.

Following the 1989 coup, Bashir’s alliance with hardline Islamist politician Hassan al-Turabi saw an austere brand of Islamism imposed on an ancient land at the crossroads of African trade routes, where merchants from as far as India and Anatolia settled, bringing with them a cultural heterogeneity that was an integral part of Sudanese identity.

Salah’s garment quickly turned into a symbol of cultural reassertion, a shout out to the Kandakas, or Nubian queens who ruled the Kush kingdom in what is now Sudan more than 3,000 years ago.

On Thursday, Sudanese Defense Minister Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf announced the army had toppled and arrested Bashir and a transitional military council would rule the country for two years.

But demonstrators promptly rejected the military takeover, with the Sudanese Professionals Association, one of the main protest organisers, calling instead for a civilian transitional government to be put in place.

“We are definitely committed and focused on ensuring this is not a military coup and we’re determined to make that clear. It’s not a case of, ‘The military is going to save us.’ We don’t want another Islamist with a different face,” said Roubi.

A byword for human rights abuses

Sudan’s future is being shaped in the days and months to come, and few protesters are likely to accept a two-year transition period led by Defense Minister Auf, a longtime Bashir loyalist who was blacklisted by the US in 2010 for his role in the Darfur conflict.

“The man who for the moment holds power, Awad Mohammed Ibn Auf, is himself associated with many of the atrocities that Bashir was responsible for in Darfur. He is alleged to have coordinated many of the attacks by the Janjaweed, the brutal militia that was so active and caused so many of the casualties in Darfur,” explained FRANCE 24’s chief foreign editor, Rob Parsons.

Sudan protests: 'The leaders of the demonstration wanted more'

Under Bashir, Sudan turned into a byword for brutal human rights violations, including allegations of a genocide against Darfuri men, women and children during the conflict in western Sudan, which led to an indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against the Sudanese strongman.

South of Darfur, in the Bahr al Jabal region, decades of brutal wars between the regime and the primarily Nilotic Christian populace finally led to the breakaway and independence of South Sudan, depriving Khartoum of the third-largest oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa.

Women bear brunt of Bashir’s brutality

But combatants who took up arms against Khartoum were not the only ones who suffered violations by Bashir’s regime.

Sudanese women bore the brunt of the regime’s violations, ranging from vaguely defined public morality laws that limited their movement without male guardians to corporal punishment such as lashings to severe abuses including rape by security forces while in detention.

Women's rights defenders were particularly targeted, in a systematic attempt by Sudanese authorities to silence female activists, lawyers and journalists, New York-based Human Rights Watch noted in a 2016 report.

Roubi herself was detained in 2013 during the “Sudan Change Movement,” which broke out after the 2011 Arab uprisings. Activists say more than 200 people were killed in a crackdown by Bashir’s security forces while Sudanese authorities reported around 70 deaths.

The arrest of a prominent, British-educated activist and former World Bank employee made headlines on pan-African websites. Upon her release, Roubi detailed the conditions of her detention in an interview with AFP.

Six years later, and on a milestone day in Sudan’s history, Roubi was dismissive about her detention experience.

“More than 200 people were shot down in Khartoum in broad daylight. I was detained for eight days. My arrest was nothing compared to what others had to endure. It’s a big problem  the lashings, interrogations, intimidation, beatings, families not knowing where their loved ones have disappeared. My case was different because it had high visibility, I was a World Bank employee and there was a different dynamic,” she said.

‘Strong-willed’ women

During the latest protests, the fear of arrest was hardly an issue, Roubi said.

“There were thousands arrested since the demonstrations broke out in December. On March 8 (International Women’s Day), they released some women prisoners and the government made a big deal about it. But we were ready to fill the jails. If we’re all ready to go to jail, it stops being intimidating,” she explained.

Women protesters take to the streets in Khartoum
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Bashir’s ouster does not mean that freedom in Sudan is guaranteed, but Roubi is optimistic. “It makes me so hopeful when I see young women and men, who do not know what it was like before the repression, campaigning for change,” she said.

Roubi is quick to clarify that Sudan had repressive regimes before Bashir. But, she explains, they concentrated on political and security issues and did not target women’s rights.

Despite the Bashir regime’s assault on women’s rights, Roubi proudly notes that, “at a social level, we have always had strong female characters".

"It’s very rare to find mothers, grandmothers, sisters, students who are not strong-willed. We Sudanese women are breadwinners, we work, we demand respect  that’s our tradition.”

Reclaiming a more tolerant past

While Sudan today is a Sunni Muslim-majority nation, most Sudanese Muslims adhere to the Maliki school of jurisprudence and are deeply influenced by Sufism, a more mystical branch of Islam. The form of Islam imported by the Muslim Brotherhood-linked Turabi and Bashir was alien to the syncretic nature of worship traditionally practiced in Sudan.

Bashir and the late Turabi had a political falling out and a rocky relationship after 1996, but that did not ease the pressure on women. In recent years, economic hardships compounded by international sanctions and the loss of oil revenues from South Sudan  saw Bashir move closer to Saudi Arabia, with its brand of conservative Wahabbi Islam making inroads into the African nation.

Many activists of Roubi’s generation could see the impact that decades of sustained hardline Islamism had on young women. “I was always frustrated discussing gender issues with younger women because the regime had changed their way of thinking,” she said. 

But that bleak assessment appears to have changed since the latest protests broke out last year.

“There’s no generational divide now. Young women have shown so much resilience and courage, mobilising and campaigning. There are obviously discussions still to be had  some want more public participation but are socially conservative while others are not. But we all agree on women’s participation in public life, in work and in leadership positions. Our voices now are louder and we’re being heard.”

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