It all started in December 2018 when thousands took to the streets of Khartoum in protest of Omar Al-Bashir’s oppressive, impoverishing and violent regime. What began as a demonstration against the rising costs of living had rapidly turned into a full-fledged revolution, through which the people were demanding the demise of Bashir’s dictatorship and the rise of democracy in Sudan.
While Bashir sat comfortably on the presidential chair for 30 years, the rest of the country became economically, socially and politically numb. From that very chair, he ruled with violence and governed through war. It was high time for him to be pushed out of it, which is precisely what happened in April of 2019, when, after months of relentless protest by the people of Sudan, the military ousted Bashir in a military coup.
The sounds of celebration and victory were short-lived, as the Transitional Military Council (TMC) declared that they were not going to be transitional at all. Instead, they were planning on governing Sudan under military rule for years to come, thereby erasing the possibilities of a democratic, civilian-led government. That was simply not the deal, and the people were not ready to be ruled, yet again, by another violent and authoritarian regime. The demonstrations continued as hundreds of pro-democracy protesters set up their tents in what became a vast and powerful resistance sit-in, and a space in which a different Sudan was envisioned. The TMC, headed by Bashir’s right-hand man and enforcer, Hemedti, raided the sit-in on June 3rd, and with it, the people’s dreams of a better Sudan.
That’s what should have happened… except that the Sudanese people are relentless. Hundreds were killed, imprisoned and injured by Hemedti’s army, but that did not topple the people’s revolution, nor did it hamper their drive for democracy.
At the forefront of this revolution are Sudanese women. According to some estimations, they comprise of half of the protestors on the ground in Sudan. The Internet has been flooded with imagery and narratives of brave Sudanese women chanting revolutionary slogans, confronting authorities and occupying public spaces fearlessly. The same can’t be said of male protestors… as if protesting has historically been a strictly-male activity, and Sudanese women have only now begun to demand their rights. In reality, if we distance ourselves from the false portrayals of the media, Sudan’s history is rich in instances of women-led protests. Indeed, Sudanese women’s movements have granted women the right to vote, to equal pay and to an equal existence. Fundamentally, however, Bashir’s rule, and the subsequent threat of the TMC’s government, severely disadvantages women who have been the targets of discriminatory laws that render them docile, oppressed and marginalized second-class citizens. It is therefore not unusual, nor is it surprising, that these women, who have been in the public sphere for decades, are taking to the streets in protest of another patriarchal political regime.
Not only are Sudanese women actively protesting, they are direct participants in the organization of and the mobilization for these demonstrations, inside and outside Sudan. In what follows, I will endeavor to list some of the strategies deployed by these women in their pursuit of gender justice and democracy in Sudan.
Digital Activism: Sudanese women carry a significant online presence. In the past, they used Facebook in an attempt to perform their (socially-expected) femininity to the best of their abilities. In fact, hundreds of Facebook groups were especially dedicated to the exchange of beauty tips and marital advice. Primarily, these groups became information-sharing platforms through which Sudanese women asked others about the familial background, the socio-economic belonging and social behavior of their male crushes. However, since the beginning of the revolution, these groups have been transformed into platforms of resistance, through which members posted photos explicitly showcasing the regime’s brutality, and through which the perpetrators were actively named and shamed. By exposing the faces of those who inflict violence on peaceful protesters, these women have succeeded at ridiculing and ostracizing those in question. Moreover, their digital activism has even bypassed the government’s Internet cuts. Indeed, by setting up Virtual Private Networks (VPN), activists have prevented any hiatus in their digital mobilization tactics. It has also been evident that women’s voices predominate Instagram, as they are the owners of most handles that disseminate information on the situation in Sudan for the rest of the world to consume.
Networking with Diasporic Sudan: Sudanese women in the diaspora have been active in their support of their comrades on the ground. At a recent protest in London against the contribution of foreign powers to the violence in Sudan, women were at the forefront, chanting slogans at the top of their lungs, leading the march (while, at the same time, keeping a watchful eye on their little ones), ensuring local protest protocol was being respected, and working hand-in-hand with their male counterparts.
More importantly, the Instagram accounts mentioned above are managed by Sudanese women in the diaspora who carry the privileges of a substantial and impactful followers base, and who receive their content from those on the ground in Sudan. They have set up this system of consistent information dissemination, in a climate of Internet cuts, and government crackdowns on freedom of speech and press. Youssra Al-Bagir is one such example, among many.
Non-Verbal Resistance: Before the sit-in was raided by the TMC, it was a space where images and narratives of a better Sudan circulated in the form of art and poetry. Marwa Babiker, Sudanese poet, activist and PhD candidate, proudly found herself on stage at the sit-in, reciting her poems, raising awareness about the current political situation, and hosting fruitful discussions about the Sudan of the future. She was also the first woman to ever appear on national TV, openly criticizing the regime…without her hijab.
Alaa Satir has turned the blank walls of the sit-in, and the city, into canvases that empower Sudanese women in their resistance. Messages, such as “hey ladies, stand your ground, this is a woman’s revolution”; “we are the revolution and the revolution continues” or “a woman’s place is in the resistance”, as well as imagery depicting women with crowns over their heads, and their fists held high and tight, animate the landscape, giving credit to the fearless women of the Sudan revolution.
Unconditional Determination: These revolutionary women have let nothing come in the way of their right to freedom. Although they have directly experienced brutal force used against them and their bodies, and witnessed the death of their people, they remain resolute in their endeavor. The strongest testament to their endurance is their continuous frontline presence in the violence that characterizes public life in Sudan today.
Their bodies continue to be a site of oppressive political practice. It is no coincidence that, just as these women were publicly resisting Bashir’s new laws of modesty, the government’s preferred weapon of revenge was rape. In other words, just as the political patriarchy felt threatened by the increasing influence of women, their masculinist instinct resorted to the response that would dishonor and disrespect women the most.
The joke is on them, though. On Sunday June 30th, despite the evident risk on their lives, millions flooded the streets of Sudan in protest. That number included men, women, children, of all ages, of all socio-economic backgrounds and from all regions of the country; all united against a common enemy. They were not broken; quite the opposite, they emerged stronger, angrier and now, more than ever, determined and ready to give up their lives in the name of democracy, justice and freedom.
Following the Millions March, an agreement was reached whereby power will be shared between the military and the civilians, until a full democratic transition is achieved three and a thorough investigation is held against those accountable for the casualties and violence of this Revolution. While this deal was met with cautious optimism, one thing is certain: the Sudanese people will no longer sit idly by as their livelihood is threatened by authoritarianism. More importantly, as this article has shown, Sudanese women, through their networks, their online and offline activism, and their relentless determination, will continue to sacrifice their bodies in the name of equality and democracy.