AT THE DAWN OF POST-REVOLUTION SUDAN A Reflection on the dynamics of the women’s movement
A Project by the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA Network)
Cover photography: Ula Osman Design by: Tarek Atrissi Design Published June 2021 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reprinted or reproduced or utilized in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical or other means now known or hereafter invented including copying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, without permission in writing from the publishers.
Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa P.O. Box 2793 Kampala – Uganda www.sihanet.org
©SIHA Network 2021
Acknowledgements This publication has been developed through the generous support of PAX for Peace and a contribution from Sigrid Rausing Trust. SIHA acknowledges Dr. Lyn Ossome, who wrote and compiled this paper. SIHA also acknowledges the significant editing and reviewing efforts of Faith Sundby James, SIHA Programme Development and Advocacy Associate, and Hala AlKarib, SIHA Regional Director. SIHA is deeply grateful to the many interview and focus group participants whose testimony has fueled the analysis and findings presented in this publication. We recognize each of those participants and groups below: • • • • • • • • • • • • •
Members of the Sudanese Women Street Vendors’ Union Mastour Ahmed Adam – Secretary General, Sudanese Congress Party Sumaia Al Sheikh – Legal advocate/ human rights activist, People Legal Aid Center (PLACE) Suleima Isaac – Head of Unit, Prevention of Violence against Women and Children Dalia Digna – Central Committee member, Sudanese National Alliance Party (SNAP) Adeela Al Zaibag – President of Sudan Women Union (SWU) and a political activist Youth activists from Khartoum and the regions Amina Elshain – Member of the Women of Sudan Civic and Political Group (MANSAM) and member of the Freedom for Change Forces (FFC) executive committee Asmaa Mahmoud – Secretary General of the Republican Party, and Head of the Mahmoud Mohamed Taha Research Center Intisar Seghairoon – Minister of Higher Education The Women activists who spoke to the researcher from different regions of Sudan Sara Nugdallah – Women’s rights activist and member of the UMMA Party Dr. Muntaser Ibrahim – Educator, lecturer at the University of Khartoum and political organizer
Preface This paper was developed at a precarious time in Sudan’s history and discusses a critical topic that has always and continues to influence Sudan’s governance system and stability. The paper reflects on the struggle and achievements of the Sudanese women’s movement. The women’s movement in Sudan is considered to be one of the most vibrant and consistent social movements in the country. Since Sudan’s independence, Sudanese women have engaged in undeterred activism that persisted during the most difficult times of the country’s troubled political history. This paper also notes that the subsequent governments in Sudan have played an antagonistic role in the advancement of women’s rights, particularly in achieving an inclusive women’s agenda. The paper recognizes that it is high time that the Sudanese government and the ruling political institutions start creating a shift in their approach toward women’s rights and gender equality in Sudan. They must recognize it as a vital issue that will directly contribute to Sudan’s future. Without extensive legal and policy reform, Sudanese women and girls will continue to face subordination and institutional violence. The extensive participation of women in the Sudanese revolution has demonstrated their bravery and capacity to lead.The injustice of women’s continued marginalization is all the more unjust given their integral contributions to the revolution, which have paved the way for the transition toward a civilian government.
1. Overview Sudan has been gripped by months of political turmoil that climaxed with the army overthrowing long-time dictator Omar al-Bashir on April 11, 2019. The protests began in December 2018 with civilians decrying the shortages and economic hardships that had become increasingly unbearable for the citizens of Sudan. This initial trigger let loose an accumulation of grievances that had been growing in the country for decades and culminated in one of the most remarkable protests in recent times. The protest was historic for a number of reasons, but especially because it was a rare example of a popular, and, critically, peaceful uprising which confronted a brutal dictatorship and succeeded in achieving change without ever resorting to violence; despite violence being unleashed on the protestors themselves. The revolution has been characterized by its diversity of voices and the central role women have played through their participation, their leadership, and their ability to define the narrative and the nature of the sit-in and the protest. The willingness of women to be actively engaged in the planning and participation of the protests, often despite family and community pressure to abstain, and within a political and social environment which has been excessively oppressive and controlling of women’s lives, is a testament to their dedication and desire for change. This dedication was beautifully illustrated during the first Sudan Women Protest March that took place on May 31st and brought together thousands of women protestors, willing to proclaim their solidarity. The signing of the power-sharing agreement, the establishment of the transitional council, and the appointment of the Prime Minister are only the very initial steps in what is sure to be a delicate and precarious three-year transition to an elected civilian government. The continued participation and engagement of the full diversity of Sudanese society will be paramount for maintaining the promising and hard-won momentum gained through the revolution and for ensuring the transition stays on track. The revolution’s success rests in the solidarity and tolerance that was demonstrated on a daily basis at the sit-in site. Sudanese people of all backgrounds came together with a common goal, but the real challenge continues to be translating that goal into a reality that can satisfy diverse interests and priorities.Women’s continued role in Sudan’s transition will be critical to achieving peaceful and successful outcomes. The objective of this research, conducted in Khartoum in February 2020, was to obtain a holistic understanding of the women’s movement in Sudan, taking into consideration the historical, social, cultural and political context of the country. This report includes a brief historical trajectory of the women’s movement in the country, a description of the major issues arising in Sudan and more specifically in the women’s movement post-revolution, the achievements and strengths of the women’s movement as a collective, and the challenges, strengths, and areas of potential intervention. The intended outcome of this paper is to identify the types of responses that are required for long-term peace transitions to generate women’s access to decision-making.
2. Methodology Although focusing particularly on the status and situation of women, the methodology for this study extends critiques of the women’s movement in relation to society as a whole, and applies a gendered focus to the politics of everyday life. As such, the analysis examines the structures, conditions, and institutions that govern the lives of women, focusing on how these structures and conditions affect the ability of women to organize within movements, and in turn, how women’s organizing is affecting the social and political outcomes for women in Sudan.The study was not a micro-study of households, but rather of the individual and collective actions of women within women’s organizations (grassroots and national) in response to key gender-related issues emerging in Sudanese society at the time. Structures here refer to the social and cultural frameworks that govern the lives of women, and include patriarchal structures, harmful traditional practices, funding environments, and broader civil society. Conditions refer to factors that enable and/or constrain women’s work within or outside of their movements. These might include poverty, violence, insecurity, hunger, elitism, and inequality, among others. Institutions refer to the formal and informal platforms through and within which women seek to gain recognition and access to the state and its resources. Formal institutions include the law/justice system, police/administrative system, healthcare, education, and traditional institutions. An evaluation of the women’s movement in relation to these structures, conditions, and institutions that mediate their lives is useful in showing the structural dynamics of the women’s movement, including the opportunities and limitations that might be present in trying to respond to the issues of women in the transitional period. The research design and methods combined primary and secondary sources to obtain a clear understanding of the situation of the women’s movement and relevant CSOs in Sudan. It incorporated a desk review of relevant literature followed by field research. The study was mainly qualitative, with data collection drawing primarily from in-depth semistructured interviews with key individuals and actors in the transition, including grassroots women and leaders of the women’s movement, relevant CSOs, and political party actors.
3. Context: The Sudanese Women’s Movement in Historical Perspective 3.1.Women’s Movements in Colonial and Post-colonial Sudan The existence of feminism as a distinct ideology within the women’s movement has been shown to be a critical factor in shaping whether women’s movements transform society.1 Feminist ideology is pivotal in women’s movements, as its relative strength determines the extent to which collective action is directed to democratic ends.2 Discussing the case of South Africa, Hassim argues that whether or not women’s organizations are able to mediate gender progressive outcomes in the contexts of democratic politics is also shown to be highly dependent on whether women’s organizations act in concert toward collective ends, or whether their objectives are defined separately. What then needs to be understood is why and when women’s organizations act in a coordinated way—that is, defining at what moment disparate groups within the movement coalesce in such a way that they act as a movement, distinct from other political forces. This ‘tipping point’ – the point at which disparate acts of protest cascade into a mass movement – occurs when people come to believe that their participation becomes necessary or even required.This point can sometimes be identified by a particular event or by a distinct period, which then becomes an iconic moment for further acts of movement mobilization.3 The historiography of the women’s movement in Sudan invariably references and acknowledges the role of the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU) as the first women’s organization in Sudan, and also the “largest and most provocative post-independence women’s organisation in Africa.”4 Some scholars claim that the literature on the women’s movements in Sudan is scarce as little has been written on women’s political role in the colonial and postcolonial period.They attribute this to the fact that the major historians of Sudan have ignored the role of Sudanese women and their contributions to all major historical events, and disregarded how historical events have affected women. In so doing, historians have portrayed Sudanese history as a male domain where men are the only actors. Moreover, they argue that the political environment, particularly since the military coup in 1989, has become hostile to research on gender relations, with a crackdown on women scholars and activists that has obscured the study of women’s contributions to political processes.5 There is, however, an elaborate history of women’s social and
1. Shireen Hassim, & S. Razavi. (2006). Gender and Social Policy in a Global Context : Uncovering the Gendered Structure of “The Social.” Palgrave Macmillan. 2. Ibid. 3. Shireen Hassim (2006), Women’s Organisations and Democracy in South Africa: Contesting Authority, Durban: University of KwaZulu-Natal Press. 4. Amira Osman (2014), “Beyond the pan-Africanist Agenda: Sudanese Women’s Movement, Achievements and Challenges, Feminist Africa, 19: 43-57. 5. Ibid. 6. Mawahib Ahmed (2014), “The Women’s Movement in Sudan from Nationalism to Transnationalism: Prospects for a Solidarity Movement,” PhD Thesis: York University, 76.
political activism and movements in Sudan that has been told from the vantage point of women themselves. One of the ways that this history has been examined is through two historical eras of Sudanese women’s struggles, during which women bargained with patriarchal structures and made use of tradition to collectively support each other and to further their interests. These two eras of women’s activism are: 1) the First Phase of women’s activism (19471969) – which is the period of the establishment and consolidation of the activism of the women’s movement in Sudan, and includes; nationalist women and the struggle for independence; and women’s activism after independence; 2) the Second Phase of women’s activism (1969-1990) – which includes Nimeiri’s regime from 1969-1984; and women’s state-sponsored activism that involved the interplay of nationalism and transnationalism, from 1985-1990.6 Women Street Vendors Union, 2017 | SIHA Staff
The first phase of the women’s movement in Sudan began by gaining support and momentum within the nationalist struggle for independence. Men at the time imagined women as carriers of authentic culture, and the nationalists advocated that a developing, modern Sudan needed emancipated women. However, while women’s education was seen as a pathway to their emancipation, the policies promoting women’s education were oriented towards the preservation of patriarchal norms and values and did not address the basic question of women’s subordination within the family and in society.The efforts of educated Sudanese women who graduated from the Teaching and Nursing schools (opened in 1907 and 1924 respectively), marked the beginning of women’s activism in Sudan.7 The first women’s organization in Sudan was the Educated Girls Association, made up of the girls (now women) educated in Omdurman in 1947 with the aim of gathering educated women to work together for the advancement of their society.8 In 1951, these pioneer women,9 who were the first students to graduate from Omdurman High School, wrote a memorandum requesting books, educational materials, and teachers. In response to this, the head of their school expelled them, after which all of the students went on strike until the colonial authorities responded to their request and the expelled students returned to school.This was an important historical event which documents women’s struggle against colonialism in support of their education rights.10 Sudanese women’s struggles also reflected their position in both productive and reproductive labor, and their move towards unionization reflected organic formations through which movements of women were consolidated.Women joined the labor market as nurses, teachers, and clerks, and subsequently formed their own teachers’ and nurses’
7. Balghis Badri (2008), “Feminist Perspectives in Sudan,” in B. Badri (Ed.), Sudanese Women Profile and Pathways to Empowerment, Omdurman: Ahfad University for Women, pp. 42-70. 8. See Abdel Al, M. (1997), “Sudanese Women and Political Work,” Khartoum, Sudan: Gender Center for Research and Studies; Hall, M., & Ismail, B. (1981), Sisters under the Sun: The Story of Sudanese Women, London; New York: Longman. 9. As a result of being together in one school (Omdurman Secondary School) and through family ties, the pioneer women in the movement knew each other well. Khalda Zahir, Fatima Talib, Nafisa, Ahmed El Amin, Nafisa Al Melaik, Saud Abdel Rahman, Thuraiya Al Drdiri, Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, Hajja Kashif, Aziza Mekki, Mahasin Jaylani, Thuraiya Ambabi, and Suad Al Fatih all participated in the first struggle against colonial authorities at the school of Omdurman and accused the head of the school of being unjust to them in 1951 (Abdel-Al, 1997; El-Amin, 1994). 10. Osman, A. (2014). Beyond the PanAfricanist Agenda: Sudanese Women’s Movement, Achievements and Challenges. Feminist Africa (19), 43-57.
trade unions. The Teachers’ Union was established in 1949, followed by the Nurses’ Trade Union in 1951.The Nurses’ Trade Union led the first public women’s protest against colonialism on 26 August 1951 when women nurses walked out in a demonstration with their male colleagues against colonial policy.11 Soon after, in 1952, the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU) was formed, supported from the start by the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP),12 trade unions, and workers. The SWU aimed to encourage women’s participation in the social life of the community, to demand equal rights for women and girls, and to promote women’s lives socially, economically and politically. Branches were established in the larger towns of Sudan such as Wad Medani (Central A young girl in Darfur, 2011 | SIHA Staff Sudan), El Obeid (Western Sudan), Atbara (Northern Sudan), Juba (then Southern Sudan, now South Sudan), and Port Sudan (Eastern Sudan).13 The trajectory and focus of women’s struggles through the SWU and other subsequent women’s groupings highlight an important aspect in relation to the way that women understood the source(s) of their oppression and subjugation – as requiring political responses and social responses. In an interview, one of the pioneers of postindependence women’s activism reflected that: “We [women] needed to surpass two main obstacles; the British Law clause 105, which put on trial anyone who incited hatred of the government, and we [also] had to find a way to deal with our heritage and customs. We fought against the patriarchy under the name of religion. This required a great deal of diplomacy and wisdom from our side.”14 In the post-independence period, religion continued to shape the debate both within and outside the budding women’s movement. The demands of the SWU had included the right to elect and be elected; the right to work; the right to equal pay; and family protection – rights that received support from all political parties except the Umma Party and the Muslim Brotherhood. After the founding of the SWU in 1952, the opposition was divided into two groups: one based on religion (claiming the SWU contravened Islamic requirements, which called for women to stay at home, wear a hijab, and not intermingle with men), and another traditional Islamic group, which at the time included two Islamic sects – Al Mahadia and Al Khatmia – that believed it was against the values of society and good manners for women to go to work. Furthermore, internal to the women’s movement, the visions of women’s emancipation took two forms: that of the upper and middle-class nationalists who viewed gendered social changes along liberal Western lines as the key to women’s equality; and that of the lower-middle class nationalists, who opposed women’s emancipation as being shaped by Western influences, arguing that Sudanese women’s growing independence would weaken the family, which was considered the foundation of the
11. El-Amin, N. A. (1994), “The Democratic Advance and Women’s Movement in the Sudan,” The XVIth World Congress of the International Political Science Association, Berlin: IPSA, 10. 12. This was partly on the basis of Cold War dynamics at the time. 13. Ahmed, M. M. E. (2015), “The Women’s Movement in Sudan from Nationalism to Transnationalism,” 84. 14. Cited in Ahmed, M. M. E. (2015), “The Women’s Movement in Sudan from Nationalism to Transnationalism,” 86.
Islamic nation. Other arguments hold that the nationalist vision of women’s emancipation had more to do with the Islamic, conservative, and patriarchal nature of the society. As the contemporary situation highlighted in this study shows, many of these past debates remain influential in the sphere of women’s political activism and are visible in the lines that divide the objectives and aspirations of the women’s movement, even in post-revolution Sudan. Sudanese women’s revolutionary consciousness was already tested in those early years. On 21 October 1964, under the leadership of the SWU, women participated actively with men in the political street demonstrations against military rule that came to be known as the October Revolution of 1964. Women also participated in a civil strike at the time and were members of the National Front, which was formed to organize activities for the success of the revolution; this put the women’s cause and issues on the front lines.15 This revolutionary era was also witness to a tremendous increase in the activities of the SWU that culminated in women gaining suffrage rights in 1965 and the right to equal pay for equal work in 1968.16 Also in the 1960s, there was competition amongst political parties looking for the female vote, causing them to embrace women’s demands and make space for women. Many other women’s associations and organizations emerged in the wake of the October Revolution, including the first Islamic women’s organization, al-Akhwat al-Muslimat (the Muslim Sisters), which was the women’s branch of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the Organization of Rural Women, and in 1966, the Southern Women’s League was formed by women from Southern Sudan as part of the Political Alliance of the Southern Front.17
3.2.Women under the Nationalist state and the Rise of Political Islam Many local and international changes occurred during the second phase of women’s activism, which coincided with globalization, the imposition of Structural Adjustment Programmes (SAPs), the increased power of political Islamist forces, and the impact of women’s international conferences and UN support for women.This was an era of transition and tremendous change in women’s activism that led to deep polarization between women across religious and regional divides, and was characterized by adverse impacts from SAPs, the imposition of sharia laws in 1983, the second civil war in 1983 between the north and south of Sudan, and women’s active participation in NGOs, civil society organizations, and the state apparatus.18 State-led feminism in this period had significant impacts on the stability of the women’s movement, and on the agenda it placed on the table, which was reflected in its middleclass orientation and bourgeois demands that included equality in salaries with men (equal pay for equal work), improvement of terms of service and pension rights, and the right of divorcees to financial support. Following the failed 1971 coup d‘état against Nimeiri and owing to the affiliation of some of the SWU members with the Communist Party, SWU activities were banned. Nimeiri’s government formed the Women’s Union of Sudan (WUS), which continued women’s activism during the 1970s and 1980s, and was led by some of the pioneer women activists from the 1950s and 1960s. The WUS experienced a split along political and intellectual grounds that included a power struggle within the banned SWU membership.19 Co-optation of women’s movement leadership into the
15. Ahmed, M. M. E. (2015), “The Women’s Movement in Sudan from Nationalism to Transnationalism.” 16. Sondra Hale (1996), Gender Politics in Sudan: Islamism, Socialism, and the State, Boulder; Oxford: Westview Press. 17. Ahmed, M. M. E. (2015), “The Women’s Movement in Sudan from Nationalism to Transnationalism.” 18. Ibid. 19. Ibid.
political class has a long history in Sudan, however, during the second phase of women’s activism, women activists saw their co-optation as strategic because Nimeiri was viewed by some as supportive of women’s rights; and the state at that time, though an undemocratic dictatorship, was not theocratic. Thus, by ‘playing within the state,’ women were able to make some gains, including reform of laws of civil service, which gave women the right to a pension, the right to eight weeks of maternity leave and one hour lactation, the cancellation of executing Bait al Ta’a (House of obedience) with the police forces, and the law that no man has the right to sell his house or any property he has without the wife’s consent.20 Although remarkable, the rights, liberties and concerns of poor, working class, and grassroots women were scarcely reflected in those demands. The SAPs period from the mid-late 1980s had an adverse effect on women as the social services that had previously been born by the state and market were shifted back to the household, resulting in an attendant increase in women’s unpaid and unrecognized care work.21 The then consolidated National Islamic Front (NIF) took advantage of these conditions to entrench its political Islamist ideology by forging relations with oil-rich Arab Gulf countries, mainly Saudi Arabia and the UAE, and leveraging that support to provide social services that included schools, literacy programs, and health clinics for the poor, during a time when IMF austerity measures had caused significant impoverishment across the country.22 The NIF also established organizations through their women’s wing that were concerned with income generation and working women.23 The women’s organizations that emerged from this Islamist ideological and political movement, e.g. the “Jamiyyat Raidat Al Nahda” [Women Renaissance Pioneers (WRP)], ironically had more grassroots appeal and success as they directed their efforts towards social, cultural, and economic issues. The key issues addressed included reading Islamic ideology and promoting awareness; fighting harmful traditions and improving women‘s social and economic conditions; taking care of the religious Islamic upbringing of children and protecting family from disintegration; spreading a culture of volunteer work among young women and students (e.g., helping the poor, disabled, illiterate, displaced, and refugees, especially among women); and supporting the alleviation of the consequences of natural disasters. The WRP was encouraged to use all means to realize its objectives including: lectures, seminars, cultural exhibitions, festival weeks, brochures, media recordings, financial and in-kind assistance, and the establishment of education and rehabilitation institutions. WRP’s work also included training for poor women in handcrafts, women’s sports clubs, support for women prisoners and their families, and support and relief for the displaced.24 The means, however, did not justify the end: the context in which women’s rights organizations and NGOs had to organize from the 1990s onwards was marked by a deeply entrenched conservative, Islamist, and anti-women agenda. Sharia laws (also known as the September Laws) were declared and enacted in September 1983 based on the understanding of the Islamist members of the National Islamic Front (NIF), and applied conservative laws to all women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike. Islamic courts applied harsh hadud (Islamic criminal punishment); income tax was replaced with zakat (alms-giving or the practice of charitable giving that is based on accumulated wealth), all banks were Islamized, and all interest was banned.The Evidence Act made the testimony of women in major crimes inadmissible, and two women witnesses were needed to offset the testimony of one man. Women in the streets were harassed over their conduct or
20. Ahmed, M. M. E. (2015), “The Women’s Movement in Sudan from Nationalism to Transnationalism.” 21. A significant body of feminist scholarship has dealt with the adverse effects of SAPs on households and gendered/reproductive labor or care work. 22. Sondra Hale (1996), Gender Politics in Sudan: Islamism, Socialism, and the State, Boulder; Oxford: Westview Press, 193. 23. Ahmed, M. M. E. (2015), “The Women’s Movement in Sudan from Nationalism to Transnationalism,” 106. 24. Al-Fadl, L. (1996), “Islamic Movement in Sudan: Means of Social and Political Work from 1977-1989,” Unpublished Master Thesis, Department of Political Science, University of Khartoum.
dress by self-appointed male moral guardians, and poor women such as vendors of local brews bore the brunt of moral guardians. The ramifications of the implementation of the Islamic sharia laws were disastrous not only for women and non-Muslims, but for the whole country. Furthermore, a deep split emerged in the Sudanese women’s movement between the women members of the NIF – who supported the political agenda of the Islamist movement in Sudan – and the other women’s groups, who were against the September Laws and included Muslim women who were members of other political parties, Muslim women who were members of civil society organizations, and the non-Muslim women, who were mainly from the South of Sudan.25
3.3. NIF Taking Power over Sudan The 1989 coup that was supported by the NIF and the new government named the Government of National Salvation (GNS) led to the banning of all other political parties and dismissal of a large number of government employees both women and men, especially those in the Communist Party ranks. Priority for working in the public sector shifted from qualifications to loyalty to the political Islamist ideology of the state. Partly because of the political repression they were facing under the prevailing political system, women were pushed to organize outside of the state and joined non-governmental organizations (NGOs) in large numbers.26 The repressive political environment also led to the formation of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in October 1989. The NDA was a coalition of all other parties including Umma, National Union Party, Communist Party, African Sudanese Conference Party, and the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army/Movement (SPLA/M). The alliance had a democratic agenda.The government’s reaction exposed the extent to which it considered women as central to its reactionary agenda. In 1991 it established the Sudanese Women General Union (SWGU) with countrywide branches, the International Muslim Women’s Union, and the International Women’s League headquartered in Khartoum.27 The SWGU became the formal platform for women until the NIF regime fell in 2019. However, women members of the NDA continued organizing outside of that sphere, against Islamist government policies, and formed women’s associations in residential areas to meet outside of the purview of security forces.28 This organizing through residential committees has persisted as a feature of women’s movement organizing and was prominent during the successful revolution in 2019. Women’s co-optation in the nationalist agenda was divisive, but from the 1990s onwards the shift towards NGOs ushered in a new phase of women’s activism and movement building. The signing of the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) and the drafting of the Transitional Constitution in 2005 further provided new, if marginal, opportunities for democratization that enabled women to reorganize themselves around civil society initiatives and movement building. Historically then, the women’s movement in Sudan cannot be understood outside of the political and social contexts and events that shaped and informed their actions and responses, and which gave women coherence at certain points as a cohesive movement, and at other times led to fragmentation along political lines. This study highlights the legacies of these ebbs and flows of the women’s movement, and examines in light of this history, the possibilities that exist in the post-revolution period.
25. El-Bashier, N. (2003), “Islamic Women’s Politics and Gender Activism: A case study from Sudan,” Unpublished PhD thesis, Vienna University, Faculty of Humanity and Social Science, Institute of Political Science; Hale, Gender Politics in Sudan. 26. Ahmed, M. M. E. (2015), “The Women’s Movement in Sudan from Nationalism to Transnationalism.” 27. Balghis Badri, Ed. (2008), Sudanese Women Profile and Pathways to Empowerment, Khartoum: Ahfad University for Women. 28. Ahmed, M. M. E. (2015), “The Women’s Movement in Sudan from Nationalism to Transnationalism.”
4. Current Status and Emerging Issues within the Women’s Movement From 1990 to date the NIF has deeply affected generations of Sudanese women in every aspect of their lives and potentialities and used women to carry out their social and cultural reconstruction of the society to become completely ideologized and Islamized in line with a political Islamist ideology.Violence, repression, fear, persecution, and incarceration of women were largely normalized and institutionalized as guardianship and controlling women’s bodies, dress code, and behavior became integrated into cultural, legal, and policy frameworks. Eruption and escalation of armed conflicts in South Sudan, Darfur, Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile also affected the lives of millions of women in Sudan – the lasting impacts from this violence will continue to affect women for generations to come. The NIF enabled and used violence against women, including the adoption of an attitude of impunity toward the sexual violence unleashed in war-affected areas by soldiers and militia. Millions of women have moved to urban centres and assumed marginal work at the peripheries of the capital city and other big towns. Their presence has largely Sudanese Women Waiting, 2009 | Ayman Hussein changed the dynamics of the Sudan women’s movement – which was so far dictated by formally educated elites – and has presented Sudanese women’s movements with added challenges and agenda beyond basic civil rights to issues of peace and security, sexual and gender-based violence, reproductive health rights, the intersectionality between discrimination based on gender and ethnic and cultural discrimination, and economic rights. These emerging issues are reviewed under various conceptual categories of analysis that emerge from the field interviews conducted in Khartoum less than a year after the 2019 revolution.
4.1.The Revolution and Articulations of Freedom “Women participated with high tempo; they broke so many bars. Women forced their existence within the other groups. Although their share in government is weak, women will not be forgotten.”29 It is clear from the interviews that the revolution and women’s participation in it marked a profound turning point for women’s rights and feminist politics in Sudan. When asked why they joined the revolution and fought, a number of the responses illuminate their motivations and the ways in which women understand their societal obligations. The question of freedom was repeatedly mentioned, showing the complex ways in which women experience the lack of it. Women street vendors for instance spoke of wanting “freedom and the right to live with dignity with their children.” For them, freedom meant “no more police sweeps,” and “having no fear of anything,” which meant “safety and working on anything.”30
Women Protesting, 2021 | Ayman Hussein
One woman said that “women have always been nonviolent but realized that they had to have their rights.” For another, freedom meant that “everything that a woman wants, she should have.”31 Women felt relief that they finally had the opportunity to come out and speak of their struggles. Strong bonds of trust and sisterhood developed among them during the sit-ins. Importantly, working in the sit-in manifested a broader agenda and magnified the women vendors’ union, which now sees itself as working for a bigger cause. The women vendors served protestors for free, did not generate any income, prepared food and hot drinks, and pushed their children to go out and participate in the sit-ins. Women’s participation in the revolution arose organically from their daily struggles: “women’s struggles were a source of their strength. Even against live bullets, their struggles and their fear (of the past regime) was what pushed them.”32 They also related their motivation to their motherhood roles: “our kids were being harassed and taken away during the revolution, which also motivated us to join.”33 Other women also recalled the criminalization of their trades under the past regime, and for them,“the struggles [revolution] were personal.” 34 Women cited their immediate needs as a source of action (transportation, basic services, bread, water in their neighbourhoods), and see that everything is now more expensive and prices are increasing post revolution.They, however, also said that they “have been waiting for 30 years, and it is not possible that a 6-month-old government will change things overnight.”35  Alongside this, women are experiencing a backlash and feel they are being punished for their part in the revolution. They say that the security situation is unbearable and the
29. Interview with Adeela Zaibaq, political activist and member of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) on 2 February 2020. 30. Woman tea seller during a focus group discussion with the Sudanese Vendors Women’s Union held on 1 February 2020 in Khartoum. 31. Focus group discussion with the Sudanese Vendors Women’s Union held on 1 February 2020 in Khartoum. 32. Ibid. 33. Ibid. 34. Focus group discussion with the Sudanese Vendors Women’s Union held on 1 February 2020 in Khartoum. 35. Ibid.
government is not protecting citizens. They claim that before, they could report crimes to the police stations, but now even if they do, no action is taken. Police now say, “you wanted a civilian government, now go to them for help,” or that “you asked for freedom and a civilian government, now take care of yourselves.” This highlights the fact that the post-revolutionary response by women’s organizations needs to account for the cost of political participation, especially for poor and marginalized women whose access to justice may be taken for granted and fall through the cracks if neglected.
Women Protesting, 2019 | Ula Osman
4.2.After all it is Not a Homogeneous Movement Even within informal women laborers, nuanced differences were noted, including class, ethnicity, and race. For instance, even though women alcohol sellers were present during the FGD, we noticed their discomfort and reluctance to speak up, and they spoke of the stigma and social shaming attached to their work, including from other women informal traders.They said that they “chose the trade to educate our children but now do not have money to continue.” The revolution negatively impacted alcohol sellers; it “interrupted women’s trade in alcohol, and this was the cost for women who participated.”36 Some of the alcohol sellers who lost everything after the attack on the city tried to shift to tea selling, but did not receive support and solidarity from other tea sellers.This may be partly explained by the discourses of ‘morality’ and ‘purity’ that tend to prevail in revolutionary contexts, and such fragmentations bear obvious implications for women’s solidarity and movement building. The revolution nonetheless had a positive effect on the women’s movement, especially towards inclusion of women who had hitherto been marginalized or invisibilized. Women
street vendors now say that the women’s movement in Sudan represents them, speaks their language, and knows their struggles during the past regime. Before the revolution, women in the informal sector felt excluded from the movement, but they say that now women’s organizations are calling on them and including them in their activities.While the revolutionary period presented the illusion of disappearing class barriers (e.g. solidarities such as doctors and professionals organizing next to tea sellers), in reality class differences continue to impede poor women’s perceptions of politics and political participation. For instance, women said that education is a barrier for them, given that in politics “you need to know specific things to be able to engage in the dialogue. Without certificates and money, no one looks at you as someone worthy of inclusion in these spaces.”37 Related to the intra-class dimension, women street vendors also spoke of elitism in the movement. They spoke of the “use of women’s bodies in the streets, but elitism and exclusion at the substantive level.”38 A question that should be posed here is what is Protestors Carrying Supplies, 2019 | Khalid Elsir it that popular politics is able to resolve, and what does it not address? How do differences among women become amplified in the course of struggle, and in what ways might it be possible to amplify shared goals and solidarities in such a way as to minimize conflict and resentment? Answering these questions may prove decisive in building on the progress achieved during the sit-ins as we move forward in the postrevolutionary period. Another basis of difference and distrust among women is race and racism. Women say that racism still exists, and that the revolution did not deal with it. This is not a surprising claim, given that revolutions tend to homogenize people and consolidate their efforts towards a specific set of demands that are not divisive. Women claim that in the postrevolutionary period, people are “looking more inwards for solidarity within the tribe and not dealing with racists themselves.” Women report being bullied and criticized for wearing traditional dress especially in the city centre. The issue of racism, however, is contested among women, with some seeing it as an “instrument of the past regime that was used to fragment solidarities,”39 and which ended with the revolution. Women’s perceptions of the state vary between those who are sympathetic to the new government and those who are impatient, and also on the basis of the kinds of demands they feel they can reasonably place on the state. A cross-sectional issue that women raise at the local level is the need for information regarding what the government is doing. Women cited lack of access to government officials and feel that there should be a forum for gathering women’s opinions – for giving substantive voice to ordinary women to communicate the hardships they are facing. For some,“freedom should be manifested economically – bread, fuel, health, equal access to markets, prices for public transport, security and safety, land, and housing,”40 and see it as unfair that poor people should continue to pay high rents
37. Focus group discussion with the Sudanese Vendors Women’s Union held on 1 February 2020 in Khartoum. 38. Ibid. 39. Focus group discussion with women activists from the regions, held in Khartoum on 4 February 2020. 40. Focus group discussion with the Sudanese Vendors Women’s Union held on 1 February 2020 in Khartoum.
and rates to access these basic services. At the core of these demands is the recognition that for women, the revolution remains incomplete as long as their productive and social reproductive needs and capacities remain neglected. Finally, women in the informal sector also spoke of the specific roles women’s rights organizations can play in the post-revolutionary period. These include giving money (cash transfers) to women for business and scholarships for education; building the advocacy capacity of women such that they understand what roles they can play; and micro-financing of small business. There are women who feel ‘stuck’ in the trades they are doing, and according to one, “if someone gave me money, I would not go back to alcohol selling. We were forced to do it.”41 Freedom means different things to different people, and for some women, beyond material demands it means living in dignity.
4.3. Political Revolution versus Social Revolution Many of the women interviewed made a clear distinction between the social and political dimensions of the revolution: while the latter represents the aspirations and successes of the Sudanese masses, women note its incompleteness and place their own aspirations in a social revolution, which they see as the domain of their current struggles. To women, “the revolution was not just against the old regime, but also against the patriarchal gap in the home.”42 However, at the same time, one of the views expressed was that the revolution was “not necessarily a feminist one,”43 illustrating the heterogeneity of forces that lay claim to it, but also highlighting a historical continuation of the ways in which women’s bodies have been required on the frontlines and erased once political objectives are realized. 44 Many of the women we spoke to from the regions had a similar view, that apart from the broad demands for freedom, basic services, health and human rights, most women were also out against the oppression they experience within their own families and communities. As they put it, “when people were chanting ‘freedom, peace, justice,’ women were asking for social equity and protesting against the regime for empowering laws used to oppress women. A lot of girls were protesting against NISS45 oppression, but also against the oppression by their own families.”46 Women were “between the general incentive and the personal incentive.”47 Women were also suffering from the weapons that the regime had used particularly against them, such as rape.Women had a “genuine desire to fold not only the political regime, but also the patriarchal regime.”48 As the women put it, the vision was clear: they had to break the chain regardless of the consequence. The grassroots character of the resistance had a great effect of fostering solidarity among women. They note that compared to April 1985, which was essentially driven by elite women, December 2018 was primarily mobilized from below. There is a materiality and embodied nature to women’s mass grassroots mobilization. For instance, Darfurian women say that there, the biggest bill paid was by women. There were men who were martyred by the war, but the ones who remained were women – in IDP camps many women faced the worst weapon of the past regime: rape. The emergency laws49 imposed by the past regime had made it difficult to convene. But these events were a strong incentive – women were faced “either with death or change.”50 Indeed women report
41. Ibid. 42. Interview with Suleima Isaac, Head of Unit, Prevention of Violence against Women and Children, Ministry of Internal Security, in Khartoum on 2 February 2020. 43. Ibid. 44. Magadla, Siphokazi (2021), “The Lives of Women Ex-combatants in Post-Apartheid South Africa,” in Brewer, John D., Wahidin, Azrini (Eds.), Ex-Combatants’ Voices Transitioning from War to Peace in Northern Ireland, South Africa and Sri Lanka, Palgrave Macmillan. 45. The Sudanese National Intelligence & Security Services. 46. Focus group discussion with women activists from the regions, held in Khartoum on 4 February 2020. 47. Ibid. 48. Ibid. 49. VOA. (2019). Sudan Tightens Emergency Rule as Protests Grow. Voice of America (VOA). https://www. voanews.com/africa/sudan-tightensemergency-rule-protests-grow 50. Focus group discussion with women activists from the regions, held in Khartoum on 4 February 2020.
that the regime was shocked to discover that the majority of the protestors were women, and their assumption that by their structural oppression of women, women would not go out of the homes. But women were “out, loud, and vocal in their demands.”51 A female lawyer from the region stated that women interviewed recognized the instrumentalization of violence against women and girls, and they raised the fact that women detainees would routinely face more torture than men. Adding to this, 70% of Sudanese laws under the ex-regime were discriminatory against women, including the Public Order Laws, Personal Status law, Sudan Penal Code Citizenship/Civil registrar, and labor laws. Many of these laws have yet to be removed or reformed as of the writing of this paper.The economic situation also affected women more than men as the burden placed on women to support families was greater – men could simply exit/seek asylum elsewhere, as many did after the war in 2003, leaving women to continue the social reproduction of children and communities. The scourge of sexual violence that women and girls faced in Thabit village, where between 100-200 women were raped over a 3-day period in December 2014,52 is not an isolated incidence, and it cannot be separated from these social and structural inequalities that constrict women’s mobility more than men’s.
4.4. Women and Party Politics Examining party politics through the lens of women’s participation highlights the complex bargains, compromises, and complexities that women face in organizing through political parties. In Sudan, parties have claimed a particularly big role in mediating the regime change. According to one party leader: “through massive mobilization and talking to people everywhere, it became a very clear plan that change in Sudan would not happen unless all Sudanese unite. We have tried since 2007 to bring all political parties and CSOs together, culminating in the 2011 New Dawn signing in Kampala. The Sudan Coalition brought together political parties, armed movements and CSOs, and although historically armed movements were not working with political parties and CSOs, a coalition became the only possibility of removing Bashir. The FFC document signed on 1 January 2019 included all groups, which was the reason behind the success.”53 The challenge of keeping the coalition together remains, and the main challenge is balancing the interests/struggle between those who want to keep the dominant ideology (of the old state) and those who want real, transformative change.54 At the party level, the language and aspirations espoused by the leadership of some parties are still gender blind. The coalition of Sudanese political parties, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC), has formulated a package of issues that all members agree on as priority, which includes how to bring peace; dismantling & reforming state institutions; solution of the economic problem; and reform of laws.55 There are some divisive issues that are being left to the scheduled constitutional conference that will draft a permanent constitution. Among them is the separation of religion from the laws and policies of the state. Given the extensive knowledge that women’s movements have developed regarding the relationship between Islam and women, there is real opportunity for women’s voices to be accounted for in the constitutional process. Political parties indeed see this as one of the issues that must mobilize popular input to be part of the discussion, and see all other problems as a reflection of this. The Sudan Coalition avoided discussing the
51. Focus group discussion with women activists from the regions, held in Khartoum on 4 February 2020. 52. Ibid. 53. Interview with Mastor Ahmed Adam, Secretary General, Sudanese Congress Party (SCP) in Khartoum on 1 February 2020. 54. Ibid. 55. Ibid.
Protestor Holding up Signal of Peace, 2019 | Khalid Bahar
issue of dismantling the ex-regime’s ideology in state institutions and laws highlighting some of the ways in which party interests can supersede popular interests in ways that ultimately exclude women’s interests in changing reactionary political ideology. Since Sudan’s independence, very few women political elites have been in power, primarily because in practice there have been no serious actions to expand the meaningful access of women and youth parties to decision making. Pursuing policies aligned with ‘gender’ means there is no specific focus on women.56 There is an acknowledgement among party leaders that there is no substantive change on the ground yet, in part due to what they view as the difficulties within the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC). According to them, “the transitional government started the wrong way by working alone. The FFC now has no power, the Sovereign Council and the military have control over everything.”57 There are very specific implications here for women’s ability to intervene in this masculinist and androcentric new dispensation. Furthermore, especially on the issue of peace, the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) claims that the military “is seeking its own interests, is avoiding accountability, and is dealing with peace just to protect themselves. So, they have to control the issue of peace.”58 The Prime Minister himself is seen as lacking power and having no control over the peace process. They see the hope as lying in the formation of the transitional legislative body which will have power over all other structures. The transitional legislature would be able to question the government and impose changes on it and the Sovereign Council. They also argue that it will strengthen the FFC and accountability of the government. At present, the federal ministers and governments are military structures from the old
56. Ibid. 57. Interview with Mastor Ahmed Adam, Secretary General, Sudanese Congress Party (SCP) in Khartoum on 1 February 2020. 58. Interview with Mastor Ahmed Adam, Secretary General, Sudanese Congress Party (SCP) in Khartoum on 1 February 2020. Interview with Mastor Ahmed Adam, Secretary General, Sudanese Congress Party (SCP) in Khartoum on 1 February 2020.
regime. The optimism of the political parties is that the transitional legislature will also facilitate nomination of civilian governors committed to the FFC and the revolution, and will be able to unite armed movements in peace talks. This might be overly optimistic as parties also recognize that some of the armed movements think that if state governance and parliaments are appointed there will be no place for them.59 Politically then, the space and agenda of political parties remains dominated by discussions that are considered to be ‘hard’ politics in the literature, and seem largely to be side-lining women, their leadership, and their issues. Furthermore, women have tended to settle for positions given on the basis of party allegiances and their voices reflect narrow party ideologies that do not include progressive women’s movement agendas.60 Some of the women activists from the regions claim that political parties (e.g. CP, SCP, Umma) are using the women’s movement to mobilize more women to their ranks, with the view that outside of parties, women would not be part of the women’s movement. Some, however, insist that party affiliation does not prevent them from continuing their activism as women in the movement: that “party affiliation is personal, and women’s movement activism is bigger.”61 One of the contentions, however, is the tendency to exclude the voices of women who are not politically affiliated. The suppression of political parties by the past regime made many people leave parties to join NGOs – political activism was substituted by NGO activism – and as such Women Marching, 2019 | Duha Mohammed some of the women see the problems of the women’s movement as connected to the general problem of civil society and NGOs. Women also noted regional and educational inequalities in observing that privileges for women in the centre (Khartoum) affected the number and qualifications of women in the provinces who could join the movement. While at the onset of the revolution the centre appeared to be representative of the provinces, it soon became apparent that the same old methods – that is, communication through social relationships and personal networks – were still in play.62
4.5. Grappling for Women’s Equal Rights
Despite years of activism, the Sudanese women’s movement has remained haunted by traditional forces, religion, and social norms. These are some of the major influencing factors that are blocking any progress on gender relations policies and laws.Thus although the gender dynamics are drastically changing in Sudan, where women are increasing their presence in public spaces, discriminatory policies and laws are acting like a leash that limits how far women can go.
60. Interview with Sumaia Al Sheikh, legal advocate and human rights activist with the Peoples Legal Aid Center (PLACE), in Khartoum on 1 February 2020.
The campaign to strengthen legal rights for women has been ongoing for many years prior to the revolution, led by women’s/human rights organizations, and focused on exposing
62. Focus group discussion with women’s rights activists from the regions, in Khartoum on 4 February 2020.
61. Focus group discussion with women’s rights activists from the regions, in Khartoum on 4 February 2020.
discriminatory aspects in existing laws such as the Personal Status Law, Criminal Act, Nationality Legislative Act, and providing legal aid to migrants, refugees, and IDPs. The Nationality Legislative Act for instance prohibited Sudanese women married to South Sudanese men from passing Sudanese nationality to their children.This law was challenged by working with lawyers at all levels of the courts and was eventually taken to the African Commission for Human Rights (Gambia), where the case was won.The publicity surrounding this case can be attributed in part to the efforts of a campaign dubbed “I am Sudanese” that had successfully mobilized national sentiment.63 During the revolution, legal advocates continued providing legal aid to protestors who had been charged under emergency status courts. Organizations such as PLACE working alongside the Transitional Justice Movement (Insaf) handled nearly 120 cases associated with the sit-in. Alliances between women’s organizations and legal advocates have a long history. Lawyers and advocates have been an essential part of the women’s movement in Sudan, and the women’s movement itself has been the starting point for legal aid – women’s movement advocacy precedes legal responses to the issues raised. One of the key approaches that has emerged from this alliance has been the use of ‘strategic cases’: that is, a case which if successful, can eventually lead to a change in the law and in advocacy around it.64 Priority has previously been given to cases based on discrimination by gender, age, ethnicity, HIV/AIDS and stigmatization, and nationality. There is a good opportunity in the post-revolutionary period to identify more such strategic case entry points to advocacy that link the activism of the women’s movement to the state/judicial system in concrete ways. The legal justice agenda is particularly vulnerable to liberal donor agenda-setting, given the prevailing focus on political rights at the expense of social and economic rights. The interviews, however, revealed the relative independence of the legal rights agenda among Sudanese organizations, who claim to completely rely on the agenda emerging from Sudanese society and not from donors.65 Some issues do not interest donors, e.g. Insaf, the transitional justice group, which has been funded internally by organizations’ existing resources. Other issues include the training of paralegals in child courts in Khartoum and other provinces, which do not fit with donor agendas, and they are as such not interested in funding them. Under the previous regime, social stigma prevented people from turning to legal processes. But post-revolution, more people are coming forward, which invites the question regarding what exactly has changed. First, the prevailing notion and agenda for freedom, peace, and justice has been a major catalytic factor. Second, mindsets are shifting through such actions as the appointment of a woman to head the legislative body and the judiciary, bringing renewed interest in the legislative process and confidence of women to claim their rights. This, nonetheless, has not blinded people to the lack of independence of the legislative body, and many view this as something that must still be struggled for. The greatest opportunity in this regard is seen as being the constitutional declaration itself.
4.6. New Generation New Agenda? There are nuanced differences between an older generation of rights activists, and the younger generation of women advocating for human rights. These differences are
63. Interview with Sumaia Al Sheikh, legal advocate and human rights activist with the Peoples Legal Aid Center (PLACE), in Khartoum on 1 February 2020. 64. Interview with Sumaia Al Sheikh, legal advocate and human rights activist with the Peoples Legal Aid Center (PLACE), in Khartoum on 1 February 2020. 65. Ibid. For instance, planning for the secession began prior to any funding. Open Society, which was among the organizations that eventually supported the legal rights agenda, found that agenda in place, and funded it even though they had their own agenda. Some donors were surprised and refused to fund organizations when their vision did not align. UNHCR also partnered with legal organizations to train 200 paralegals and lawyers on the issue of nationality, and Open Society funded the issue of disability.
pronounced around issues, political approach, and ideology. For instance, on issues such as sexual identity, older women say that “for the older generation, only a few would relate as majority see it as taboo, while the younger generation see it as a human right and are not shy to speak about it in public spaces.”66 Here it is important to note the invisible line drawn between ‘women’s rights’ and ‘human rights,’ a distinction that feminists have extensively critiqued as false. Older women also claim that there are more rights included in the younger generation’s agenda, which the older generation do not consider to be rights.67 Here again we are pointed to a friction over what should be considered socially and politically worthy issues, and what should ‘merely’ be individual concerns, that are therefore marginalized from broader movement issues.These differences in approach have an impact on existing campaigns and not just ‘new’ issues. For instance, on the issue of FGM/C, while the approach of the older generation has been a gradual raising of awareness, the younger generation thinks that FGM/C should be criminalized and the ‘parents doing this to their children’ should be punished.68 The failure of women’s movements in Sudan to acknowledge their differences has weakened them and fuelled an intergenerational rift. There is a sense that the older generation of activists does not respect the viewpoints of younger activists and treats them like “helping hands” with no consideration for their demands.There is also a sense that younger activists were “given more space than they demanded,”69 and the problematic notion that space within the movements ‘belongs’ to some people who then distribute it. Another source of the rift is the dynamic within the older generation resulting from historical conflicts related to political affiliations and fights over funding – issues that the younger generation do not have.70 In fact, most of the young women who joined the revolution were not affiliated to any political party or even the women’s movement. The intergenerational divide is widely acknowledged by actors within the women’s movements, who say they have worked with different generations and “could sense it all the time: the agenda of the younger generation is consistent with the current decade, but not realistic and is out of touch with the grassroots.”71 Another complaint is that the younger generation does not understand why women are still demanding for more women-only and feminist bodies, rather than pushing for integration into existing bodies.72 However, some veterans of the women’s movement, while acknowledging the challenge of responding to different views of women (e.g. on the question of sexual freedom/sexuality), understand that they now have to listen to young people by telling the youth: “give us a model of your life which suits you, we are not going to think for you.”73 The need for intergenerational dialogue is acknowledged by younger and older women activists.The older generation of women’s rights activists are the holders of deep historical memory and a trajectory of activism from a very young age. The history of the Sudanese women’s movement’s emergence out of the nationalists’ agenda and the party and ideological politics of that time, therefore, has led to the older generation’s acceptance of Sudan’s patriarchal institution of political parties as part of the terms of engagement for seeking change from within this institution. This situation contributes to the generational rift, where many of the younger women revolutionaries cite personal reasons for joining the revolution. Some highlighted that their “sheltered, proper middle-class background,” does not mean they did not struggle with oppression.74 They wanted change and felt that they could amplify the voices of those who did not have similar privilege and could not speak.
66. Interview with Sumaia Al Sheikh, legal advocate and human rights activist with the Peoples Legal Aid Center (PLACE), in Khartoum on 1 February 2020. 67. Ibid. 68. Ibid. 69. Interview with Sumaia Al Sheikh, legal advocate and human rights activist with the Peoples Legal Aid Center (PLACE), in Khartoum on 1 February 2020. 70. Ibid. 71. Interview with Dalia Digna, Central Committee Member of the Sudanese National Alliance Party (SNAP) in Khartoum on 2 February 2020. 72. Ibid. 73. Interview with Adeela Zaibaq, political activist and member of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) on 2 February 2020. 74. Focus group discussion with female youth activists on 3 February 2020 in Khartoum.
Others were motivated by their “own wellbeing, and the idea that everyone deserves better.”75 They say they were driven into the revolution out of a basic value for human life, and could see that things were getting worse, as the social contract between the state and citizens had been broken, and the lack of social and economic development was apparent. Others cited legalized discrimination (legalized by state legislation and by society) as the prime reason for joining the revolution.76 MANSAM is an example of the extended and strong influence of political parties over the women’s movement. MANSAM or Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Groups was established as an alliance of women’s groups, with the intention of coordinating the women’s movement within Sudan’s transition. For MANSAM despite ‘accommodating’ younger women and women from different backgrounds, their methodology of attempting to control all the dynamics of the women’s movement within their specific boundaries and force a homogeneous voice and agenda rather than enabling multiple voices from women from different backgrounds across Sudan has undermined their mandate.The idea of limiting women’s participation to one platform is an extension of the patriarchal party politics that tend to undermine and control women’s participation.The other challenge of the FFC is its nature as a coalition, representing a broader front of political parties from the left to the right, including armed groups.The FFC in turn, uses MANSAM as a proxy to vet women for political representation, in an attempt to domesticate women’s representation to the agenda of the FFC. In this way, the FFC became a platform that mirrors the conflicts between the political parties and often obstructs independent feminist movements. For example, the campaign for CEDAW led by SIHA Network and Sudan Women Protest has often been undermined by political parties’ priorities. ‘This is not the right time’ has been repeatedly used as an excuse to side-line campaigns by feminist groups that do not appeal to the political party leadership. The younger generation, for example, views their agenda as a different agenda: “younger women are looking for their rights in a different way and have high expectations.They just want rights despite societal expectations and norms. They think this is their right and they have to push for it. But they need to fix an approach or risk losing their rights.”77
Woman Carries Sudanese Flag during Protest, 2019 | Ibrahim Saehon
The activists from the regions outside of Khartoum observed the weak representation of youth on all platforms and a lack of recognition of their role, despite the fact that notions regarding youth apathy have been proved wrong by their participation in the revolution.While many political groups were using youth
75. Ibid. 76. Focus group discussion with female youth activists on 3 February 2020 in Khartoum. 77. Interview with Amina Elshain, Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Group (MANSAM), in Khartoum on 3 February 2020.
groups for political ends, a lot of youth within the old traditional parties are rebelling. Perceptions prevail regarding young people’s lack of qualifications to work in the current period (of transition). However, youth argue that “if young people could not identify their enemy, they would not have participated in the revolution.”78 Their participation suggests that they have a critique of society.Their opinions, however, are often dismissed and disrespected by the older generation.Youth activists, however, do not see issues of the younger generation as disconnected from the overall agenda of the women’s movement.There were platforms for intergenerational dialogues (e.g. Mombrshat that had over 150,000 members) during the revolution that fostered a uniting front. Finding ways of tapping into the energy and creativity of young people, not only at the grassroots as has been the case, was stated as an objective of the post-revolutionary movements.79 Furthermore, others insist that the youth have the potential to become the major players in the post-revolution period, but that they have to be empowered in order to fulfil that potential.80
4.7. Party Agendas vs.Women’s Post-Revolution (Transition) Agendas There is a marked difference in relation to the presence of women in decision-making in the post-revolutionary/transition period, which can be attributed, in part, to competition between political parties to appear to be ‘progressive.’ For instance, the Sudanese National Alliance Party (SNAP) claims to be leading in this regard, and claims to be the only party pushing for gender quotas.81 However, women’s coalitions like MANSAM have also focused on the quota debate and have now settled on 40% (the initial demand was for 50%) representation in parliament and in popular committees (i.e. neighborhood committees).82 It is very likely that political parties see an opportunity in women and youth in the post-revolution/transition period, especially as women and youth were the major groups pushing for the fall of the past regime. However, they see the fact that the majority of women who supported the revolution were not politically affiliated to any party as a negative.83 Established political parties are thus working to make support for the women’s agenda conditional on allegiance to a political party, which would ensure that the women’s movement must ‘play within’ party politics in order to reap the fruits of their struggles. Moreover, despite support for quotas, none of the political parties have demonstrated a clear plan for how they will engage and attract more women into party platforms. While members of the older generation of women’s movements are often politically affiliated, and few question whether or not the strategy of working primarily from inside political parties might detract from their ability to realize their goals for change, this cannot be said for the younger generation. The late Zainab Badr El Din, a prominent Sudanese activist, woman leader, and schoolteacher, shared her frustrations with Sudanese party politics with SIHA in an interview for the Women in Islam Journal: “Even left wing parties, do not care about women’s issues. We [the Communist Party] do not have the same impact on women that we had in the 60s where we advanced labour rights, as well as their education and political participation. We are no longer an ideal of social progress, and as communists we have become ordinary, backwards like the rest of the society, with nothing to differentiate us. So, we are not that attractive to women anymore.”84
78. Focus group discussion with female youth activists on 3 February 2020 in Khartoum. 79. Focus group discussion with women’s rights activists from the regions, in Khartoum on 4 February 2020. 80. Interview with Dr. Muntaser Ibrahim in Khartoum on 4 February 2020. 81. Interview with Adeela Zaibaq, political activist and member of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) on 2 February 2020. 82. Interview with Amina Elshain, Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Group (MANSAM), in Khartoum on 3 February 2020. 83. Ibid. 84. Habani, A. K. (2017). Feminists Speak Out – Reflections on Feminism and Women’s Rights in Contemporary Sudan. Women in Islam. Issue 3. 68-69. SIHA Network.
In 1990, Samira Mahdi was a leader in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and a pioneer of Sudanese feminism. In the course of her work to mobilize support for the party platform at the time, she “was charged with writing and distributing pamphlets and poems hostile to the Islamic Front.” 85 Despite her loyalty to the party, she remained in jail for three years without receiving any kind of support from the party. In an interview for the Women in Islam Journal, Samira further explained how the party system has been used to undermine women’s meaningful access to decision-making. “Most of them [women] were appointed into parties rather than elected by the grassroots. If women achieved their positions through elections, it would not be easy to remove or exclude them, because the voters that brought them to power would support them. But without that, women who fight for their rights inside the parties get marginalised and excluded because they question the status quo.”86 After the revolution and formal move toward the transitional government’s formation, it soon became clear that women are present at the grassroots but have no way of placing their issues on the agenda – a shift from the bottom-up approach during the revolution, back to the top-down approach to women’s demands that characterized the period before the revolution.Women’s bodies/organizations were also not able to present women leaders that others could accept in their space, namely, women who would be palatable across the board to entrench a women’s agenda. Even the FFC after the signing did not commit to the agreed articles, and rather have manipulated the process by trying to appoint positions to appease different groups.87 While this is not uncharacteristic of broad political coalitions, the power holders have to be able to clearly see the downside of excluding one group or another: the lack of a substantive women’s agenda in the negotiation and transition processes means that a women’s agenda is still likely to be included only in tokenistic ways, without high political stakes. While the space has opened under the current government and transition period for women’s participation, women have expressed dissatisfaction with the pace of progress under this transitional government, seeing it as limited by the heritage of the past regime and facing difficulties in breaking with past networks. There is a sense that women should exploit the current space as there is no knowing how long the space to push for a women’s agenda will last. Women are motivated and incentivized by fellow Sudanese women, and a belief that they can achieve better conditions and deserve better lives. All activists have invested a lot and do not want to stop midway.88 The majority of the young women activists interviewed did not belong to any political party, but some have been politically active through autonomous forums such as Harisat (Female Guardians). Likewise, they cited different reasons for joining the revolution. Some were part of the movement from the beginning, since 2013, while others were inspired by the movement to join. Others only joined after 6th April 2019 (the first day of the sitin).89 Young women, however, argue that those who joined later should not be invalidated as there were a lot of factors against them, including a lack of political awareness. A lot of the young people who joined after 25th December 2018 (the first large scale protest) were younger than 21 and did not have a strong grasp of the political history leading up to that point. Part of the reason for this is that previously it was difficult for political parties to share their ideologies/agenda – one had to get inside them in order to access
85. Habani, A. K. (2017). Feminists Speak Out – Reflections on Feminism and Women’s Rights in Contemporary Sudan. Women in Islam. Issue 3. 68-69. SIHA Network. 86. Ibid. 87. Interview with Adeela Zaibaq, political activist and member of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) on 2 February 2020. 88. Interview with Adeela Zaibaq, political activist and member of the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP) on 2 February 2020. 89. Focus group discussion with female youth activists on 3 February 2020 in Khartoum. 90. Ibid.
this information.90 What shifted and prompted greater youth participation was the way in which those active in the resistance decided to go about it. Prior to 25th December there was no organizing other than through parties, but afterwards, the resistance took a different organizational form that was more grassroots-oriented and included neighborhood committees in prominent roles. Notably too, methods of resistance during the past regime included helping survivors in ways that could increase the legal impact.91 The Sudanese revolution thus highlights differences that emerge between working within the state and outside the state – and addresses questions regarding who can access the law and who cannot. After the revolution, the mode of resistance shifted to questioning the institutions themselves, and legal reforms that could change the institutions. Indeed, the economic situation led more people who were neutral, to join the movement for change. Young women working as salaried professionals declined to collect their pay checks at the end of the month. They viewed their involvement with bodies such as the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) as having emboldened them at a time when they could not relate with political parties.Young people thus saw their participation as both a personal and social revolt against oppression.92 Another important aspect to note with regards to women who have ascended to the top leadership positions of political parties, is that this ascension has often occurred on the basis of some form of male patronage.93 What does this mean for ordinary women who do not enjoy similar class privilege and patronage? Indeed, in response to our question regarding whether she thought it was easy for other women inside the Republican Party to take over her position someday, the response of the party leader was as follows: “at the moment, no. They cannot fight the battles I do; they cannot tolerate criticism. Our response is through building [women’s] capacity.”94 The revolution is said to have created more room and respect for women within political parties.95 For instance, when the gender quota was raised to 40% in 2019 as per the August constitutional declaration, it received an easy approval within the (Umma) party. Furthermore, the language of the men inside the party has now changed – they watch their tone and language and are more sensitive to the gendered-implications of their comments.96 However, the distrust between political parties has often translated as distrust among women affiliated with various parties, and women recognize this a part of the work that needs to be done, to build trust between different parties and between women especially. One way of doing this is to raise consciousness and mobilize women on the basis of what they do (e.g. occupations: farmers, teachers, nurses etc), rather than their political affiliations. In other words, deepen women’s social basis of self-identification, which can have a positive effect on feminist movement building. Overall, however, many women political activists remain insistent that “democracy cannot be achieved without political parties.”97 How women’s movements can effectively organize around parties remains a key challenge in this regard.
91. Ibid. 92. Focus group discussion with female youth activists on 3 February 2020 in Khartoum. 93. The two most prominent examples in Sudan are the current head of the Republican Party, Asmaa Mahmoud, and the former head of the Umma Party, Sara Nugdallah. 94. Interview with Asmaa Mahmoud, Secretary General of the Republican Party and Head of the Ustaz Mahmoud Mohammed Taha Research Center, in Omdurman, Khartoum on 3 February 2020. 95. This is according to Dr. Sara Nugdallah, who has recently stepped down from her leadership role in the Umma party, a move that raises the question regarding how accommodating political parties in reality, are to women’s leadership and women’s agenda.
4.8. Women’s Movement Strategies in the Revolution
96. Interview with Dr. Sara Nugdallah, former SG of the Umma Party, in Omdurman Khartoum on 4 February 2020.
The majority of the women activists interviewed said that the extent and nature of the contribution they made to the revolution – indeed their participation in it – was not
97. Interview with Dr. Sara Nugdallah, former SG of the Umma Party, in Omdurman Khartoum on 4 February 2020.
accidental but rather was grounded in their existing approaches to activism. Although it is difficult to speak of a coherent women’s movement, historically women have often come together around issues that are not solely based on their shared gender identity as women (that is, class struggle was sometimes a bigger motive for women’s unity than gender solidarity). The revolution needs to be understood in both of these modes. For instance, prior to the revolution, the SWU had created a group agitating against the high cost of living. Whereas some women would not respond to campaigns around rights such as freedom of thought, the issue of cost of living was one all women could identify with and could thus be mobilized on this basis. When the revolution began, women went out spontaneously.98 It is also notable that women drew on indigenous resources to organize and see the revolution as purely homegrown, especially in light of the ways in which women have historically been forced to organize autonomously without state and donor support. The SWU, for instance, was denied registration by the previous regime and banned, and therefore could not access donor funding. To what then, does it owe its visibility given the ways in which it has been forced to operate on the margins? According to one of its leaders,“we [continued] holding activities despite the repression.We feel ourselves as being legal; the government itself is illegal, it came into power by coup. We depend on our history, and when we address the government, we bring this up. They cannot deny it, but they also cannot accept us.”99 In response to the observation that the SWU, MANSAM, and ‘No to Women’s Oppression’ are more of a women’s agenda than a feminist agenda, the conservative and closed atmosphere in which women organized will take time to shift from, and there is also the question of balancing conservative and progressive agendas within women’s movements.100 Women Protesters Rest by a Road Block, 2019 | Saad The nature of women’s demands in the transition period still reflect a concern with political over social and economic rights. They have emphasized women’s political participation, laws (such as family laws), and women’s participation in the Resolution 1325 ratification process, among others. These issues have ostensibly been decided by broad women’s coalitions such as MANSAM, which is trying to find a common agenda for all women and discuss issues on which women disagree. For example, disagreement about implementing a more solid separation between church and state, particularly Islamic Laws (Sharia), has been so contentious that discussion of policy change in this regard has largely been side-lined for the sake of unity. The Umma Party has made it clear that they oppose any changes that would increase the separation of church and state.Within the women’s coalition, women members of Umma have sided with the party on this issue.101 Women leaders of civil society acknowledge the dire economic situation and the need for a swift solution for low-income earners. The economic situation and the peace agreement are the major priorities of the parties and transitional government now. Part of the challenge therefore is how to place the women’s agenda in economic situations
98. Focus group discussion with female youth activists on 3 February 2020 in Khartoum. 99. Ibid. 100. Focus group discussion with female youth activists on 3 February 2020 in Khartoum. 101. Interview with Amina Elshain, Women of Sudanese Civic and Political Group (MANSAM), in Khartoum on 3 February 2020.
(e.g. gendering the budget). There is, however, an acknowledgement from women leaders that there is a disconnect from the grassroots and that not enough information is being shared with ordinary people. Within the Transitional Council there are seven sub-groups whose leaders are tasked with delivering information to the people. CSOs also have weekly meetings with TC members, and currently there are 3 at the top level.102 In defining a broad vision, one of the questions that the women’s movement is dealing with is how to force the women’s agenda, have good political participation for women, and build a strong movement for women. They say that “everything revolves around reforming laws,” and in this sense the women’s movement is Young Protester Holding a Sign, 2019 | Mazin Alrasheed closer to a liberal women’s rights agenda than a more radical/structural approach.103 Among the strategies for enhancing women’s political participation is to collect data on women who can be nominated, and those with possible profiles for joining parliament. There is discussion of party lists, which will select women on the basis of their experience in standing for a women’s agenda.104 The broad aim is to include all women in this process of selection, although it is not clear how this will surmount its elitist approach in order to substantively include a cross-section of women including the grassroots. There are also women leaders who give no credit to the actors within the women’s movement who hold political positions and view their positions in power as the outcome of “age, hard work and experience, and nothing to do with them being a woman.”105 This is, however, a minority view seemingly held by the educated elite, but highlights some of the blind spots which women, relying on the presence of other women in positions of power, have to contend with when those women do not espouse a feminist, let alone a woman-focused agenda. These elite women speak the technocratic and ‘scientific’ language associated with male power. For instance, the problem of higher education in Sudan is articulated as a matter of changing governance and institutional structures, and not societal norms and cultures that hinder access for some women and girls to higher education.106 102. Ibid.
4.9. The Patriarchal Basis of a Social Revolution
Many of the women interviewed spoke of and understood the notion of a social revolution as being the next frontier of their struggles in the post-revolutionary period. The young women shared that as women who had been silenced throughout their lives and told they could not speak (because of their gender), the mere idea that they could demand anything
106. Interview with Dr. Intisar Seghairoon, Minister of Higher Education in Khartoum on 4 February 2020.
was ‘shocking’, ‘refreshing’ and ‘scary’ at the same time. There were dangers in protesting, including family and societal rejection.They were motivated to keep going since “once one gets a sliver of freedom it is really hard to let it go. This drove us from one protest/sit-in to another.”107 They saw their participation in the resistance as a ‘personal win’ for them. Women’s large-scale participation in the protests and resistance also culminated in a shift in societal attitudes toward the women who participated – it shifted from women being viewed as ‘loose women,’ to being viewed with respect, as agents of change and Kandakas (Nubian Queens). Young women, however, have a critique of this kind of valorization: to them, “it is not enough to just be a woman – either one is glorified as ‘Kandaka’ or other endearing terms such as ‘husband of the woman,’ or ‘Cheeky Widad’ and so on. Because discrimination used in the word woman is still there, they thought they were rewarding us with the word Kandaka.” To these young women, there is need to question the actual words and empty them of their patriarchal inflections.108 In that revolutionary moment, women were also seen as legitimate occupiers of political space. However, some of the women interviewed did not believe that gender norms changed much and argue that the broad acceptance of their presence in the protests was because the numbers were necessary. Women understood that they were successfully getting rid of the political limitations, but social limitations still remained. There is thus a need for women to continue their revolution, for example many feminist organizations are now pushing for the appointment of female governors in some states. According to the women, ordinary people on the streets would not have a problem with women governing – it is the political parties that are shaping people’s negative perceptions of women leaders. Also notable is the visible opening of the space for social discourse in the postrevolutionary period. For instance, reflecting on the topic of religion, a young woman from North Kordofan observed that people are now able to present different kinds of religiousness and there is now more space in social media to speak about it through renewed interpretations of Islamic guidance and also about sexuality.109 However, others insist that these demands should be contextualized because it not possible “to speak to people who are starving about sexuality.”110 Women also spoke of the ways in which the economic situation affects people’s perceptions of specific issues and gave an example of a woman sex worker in an IDP camp who said that she had a certain sexual orientation because of her economic situation. She had been married, found a customer who was female who was paying her and supporting her, and she became homosexual. She claims that she ‘discovered’ her sexual orientation in this way. People are reaching for different ways of approaching topics such as religion and sexuality. So for instance, while a law against atheism was cancelled in February 2020, homosexuality remains illegal, although it has increasingly been the subject of public discussion such as when a psychiatrist (Ali Baldo) recently went on radio and demanded sexual rights. His call triggered an intense debate and conversation on radio, highlighting how allies can mediate discursive spaces (counter-publics)111 around rights issues that are considered contentious. In general, women observe that during the past regime, women had a general consensus of what they did not want (through the resistance), but now cannot agree on what they want, due to differing priorities, aspirations, and ideologies.112
107. Focus group discussion with female youth activists on 3 February 2020 in Khartoum. 108. Focus group discussion with female youth activists on 3 February 2020 in Khartoum. 109. Ibid. 110. Ibid. 111. Fenton, Natalie/Downey, John (2003), “Counter Public Spheres and Global Modernity,” The Public 10(1): 15–32. 112. Focus group discussion with female youth activists on 3 February 2020 in Khartoum.
4.10. Perceptions of Feminism The majority of the women, especially younger women, interviewed do not self-identify as feminist. A number of them shared their perceptions of feminism: “I think I am not a feminist. I think that feminism is a deep commitment [and] if someone claims it, they should invest time and energy.” “I believe feminism is more of a lifestyle, not a 9 to 5 – it is the way you act, talk, and behave.” “I think that I identify as a radical feminist, but I am not very strict with it.” “I self-identify as a feminist. I realized that my speech, actions, and dressing make me manifest my feminism.” “My form of feminism is governed by where I am in the world.There are things that could be theoretically correct, but society wouldn’t accept so I have to go about them in a softer manner. For example, rights to my own body, dressing, abortion are things I cannot even begin to get into in this society. Other things like ownership, inheritance, and nationality are more acceptable.”113
4.11. Regional Dynamics of Organizing amidst Political Instability To the women in the regions, “the revolutionary movement did not begin in December; it has been there for decades.”114 As people from conflict areas, their inspiration stemmed from the struggles and difficulties they have been facing in these areas. For instance, in the Nuba Mountains, women formed a group ‘Women of Nuba Mountains’ (WNM) whose major objective was to empower women for participation in politics. Because decades of war had split up families, the revolution was also a chance for all Sudanese people to collectively raise their voices again. For some of the women activists who had suffered long periods of detention for their political activism, the revolution held special significance: “the days of the revolution were critical: the most beautiful day was when they announced the fall of the regime on April 11 . All Sudanese people felt a sense of justice. The demands remain the famous chant driving the revolution – freedom, peace, and justice!”115 Furthermore, prior to the revolution, there had been consistent oppression by the NISS and military, which always followed women inside public sector bodies. Women had no choice but to be a part of the revolution when it began. In contrast to their personal and political suffering over a long period of time, women from the regions viewed the revolution as a “historical event.”116 Women’s participation in the revolution was gradual, built on years of activism and experience with the regime. Women in the regions were “very sure about the success of the revolution, were certain that these gradual events had reached a point where women could make a change.”117 The economic situation was dire – Eastern Sudan for instance had the highest rate of poverty and endemic diseases, and there has still been no balance in the development between the centre and the regions.The past regime was not
113. Focus group discussion with female youth activists on 3 February 2020 in Khartoum. 114. Focus group discussion with women’s rights activists from the regions, in Khartoum on 4 February 2020. 115. Ibid. 116. Ibid. 117. Ibid.
only oppressing people, it was also using propaganda of security to intimidate and silence resistance.The initial event that sparked the revolution occurred in the Red Sea state, where students took to the streets to protest the economic situation and the price of bread.118 Women also reflected on the relationship between women’s organizations and rights activists in the regions and those in the centre. According to women from the regions, in the past there was no relationship at all with Khartoum as many in the centre were not aware of what was going on in the regions. For example, when the rape in Thabit village (Darfur) took place in 2014, many were questioning whether it was real or not.The entry of NGOs and INGOs brought greater attention to Darfur; for instance, with recent events in Geneina, many of the visitors were feminists/women’s rights activists from Khartoum.Women observed that the lack of interest had a basis in the past regime. However, while many of the women in the regions are part of groups such as MANSAM, FFC, and No to Women’s Oppression, they say that there have not been any activities of these coalitions in affected regions such as Nuba. Women also say that a further reason for this centre-regional divide is because most of the areas were being ruled by emergency laws, as a result of which, the media could not accurately report on the situation that was being reflected to Khartoum.The sit-ins provided an opportunity and platforms for people to talk in numbers about what was happening in the regions. Some of the women view the disconnect between the centre and the regions as part of the general struggle in Sudan: that is, the struggle between governing elites in the centre and in the provinces.119 Women are calling for more coordination and a more coherent movement to reach the grassroots. They say Women Protesting in Sudan, 2019 | Ula Osman that unfortunately, women’s movements in the provinces were exclusive to elite women and did not include grassroots and uneducated women. They say the power of existing women’s groups in the provinces has been underestimated. However, these groups lack skills – e.g. in North Kordofan (Obeid), women formed a new feminist group but cannot connect with the older movement because they are struggling to find someone to speak with them about the history of the women’s movement in Sudan. Here they seem to be pointing to the need for feminist consciousness raising in the regions. Among the perceptions women at the centre hold, is the idea that they are more skilled and equipped, and enjoy greater access to opportunities, as compared to grassroots women and women in the regions.There were fewer women in decision-making positions in the provinces, which created an absence of a women’s agenda that would be reflective of different situations.This gap was filled by INGOs, who were eventually expelled in 2011, 118. Focus group discussion with women’s rights activists from the causing a visible gap. Before being expelled, INGO’s primarily focused on basic needs and regions, in Khartoum on 4 February 2020. capacity building, and did not address feminist concerns such as movement building, which 119. Ibid. might have narrowed the centre/regional gap.120 The relationship of the regions with the women’s movement was based on personal allegiance and lobbies as the means for access to opportunities:
120. Focus group discussion with women’s rights activists from the regions, in Khartoum on 4 February 2020.
“instead of a relationship between movements in the centre and those in the provinces, it was a relationship between movements in the centre and some individuals in the periphery.”121 This kind of relationship created an aggressive polarity between the movements. For instance, there was a selective response to violence when it affected women from the elite vs. when it affected the masses of women (e.g.Thabit, Geneina). Despite all of this, women see a “real opportunity” for the women’s movement to build genuine and strong partnerships in the post-revolutionary period. Women’s activists from the regions acknowledge that they also played a part in this alienation as they were “always waiting for the centre to come and speak for [them].”122 This centre-regional divide also marks an elite Women and Girls Holding Protest Pamphlets, 2019 | Ula Osman chasm between the aspirations of women.Women recognize that beyond the revolution, the role they need to play now is even greater. Women are united over a number of issues which they consider to be priorities in the transition period. At the centre, these include: the need to reform discriminatory laws; push the government to ratify CEDAW; demand transitional justice; ratify Resolution 1325 as a basis for involving all Sudanese people in the peace process; and implement of a constitutional declaration for a 40% quota for women in all constitutional bodies. While women in the regions also articulate this agenda, there does not seem to be a clear understanding about how addressing the existing regional dynamics, including intermittent conflicts, will be prioritized in the women’s agenda.123
4.12. Women’s Rights under the Current Power Struggle The current major players in the transition period are the FFC, political parties, and civil society (the latter is not well defined), as well as the military, through their seats in the Sovereign Council. Five seats on the Sovereign Council were reserved for the military, another five were reserved for civilians, and the remaining seat was appointed based on agreement from both sides.With this representation in the Sovereign Council, the military is well positioned to assert its ideological position and obstruct policy reform that would advance the rights of women. There is the view that the Constitutional Document for the Transitional Period - 2019, which outlines the relationship between the military and civilian government was not genuine and was produced out of force. Part of this pessimism stems from the fact that “the army does not bend easily to civilian will.”124 According to Dr. Muntaser Ibrahim, a Professor at Khartoum University who was jailed multiple times in 2019 for his role in advocating for political change, “the military have sustained a major blow (their defeat) and a successful transition means that their welfare also has to be facilitated.The military has been reduced to an information vehicle and is very disgruntled in a way that is not good for the country. It is also a very old institution in Sudan, around
121. Ibid. 122. Ibid. 123. Focus group discussion with women’s rights activists from the regions, in Khartoum on 4 February 2020. 124. Interview with Dr. Muntaser Ibrahim in Khartoum on 4 February 2020.
which nationalism has been built. These factors need to be taken into consideration for anyone considering the possibilities of lasting peace.”125 This ‘defeat,’ has been primarily superficial, as the military’s influence over key policy-influencing bodies like the Sovereign Council and the Cabinet of Ministers remains strong.Yet, however superficial the defeat, it still comes with an element of humiliation for the military, and this, as Dr. Ibrahim points out, might lead to the military interfering in progress toward peace as an expression of their discontentment. The issue of a common vision was also raised, first around the economy, and second around peace, with the perspective that now is not the time to express (ideological) differences on the economy. This view that, “politicians have no place in the transition; political views will come with the elections, not now,” likely explains the recruitment of technocrats within the transitional government.126 However, technocrats are not yet empowered to inform policy and process because decision-making within the transitional government is not adequately decentralized to allow meaningful input from technocrats, and decisions continue to be fuelled by political agendas and often involve negotiations internal to the FCC. In a similar vein with the women’s movement, political commentators highlight a gap between the political class and the grassroots. An attempt was, for instance, made to convene a conference in Eastern Sudan, which failed completely.Workshops have also been organized on local governance which brought people from all the regions. It has become clear that the unification process around a common agenda has to come from below.127 From the perspective of Dr. Ibrahim, who was involved in the protests and advocacy for change, but is an ‘outsider’ with respect to the women’s movement, “women in Sudan do not need empowerment; they have always been empowered.”128 This view takes issue with the calibre of women being appointed into leadership positions,“the worst thing is to bring in mediocre women in the excuse of empowering women.”129 The manifestation of this perceived power of women includes women’s associations, economic roles, decisions to stay in camps, matriarchal traditions and unique social-cultural organizations of women (e.g. the Beja). In this regard, there is a need to study Sudan, and the history of women within it.There has also been a reductionist approach to gender issues such as the focus on FGM/C (e.g. as espoused by Ahfad), and the dogmatic fixation on the 40% quota as opposed to the perspective that revolution is about a mindset, not dogma. Following these views, a truly grassroots empowerment should be characterized by freeing women from their reproductive roles, and by a more practical and action-oriented approach (on the part of the women’s movement) to solutions regarding the situation of women.130 125. Ibid. 126. Interview with Dr. Muntaser Ibrahim in Khartoum on 4 February 2020. 127. Ibid. 128. Ibid. 129. Interview with Dr. Muntaser Ibrahim in Khartoum on 4 February 2020. 130. Ibid.
5. Challenges and Gaps in Movement Building and Organizing One of the major challenges that this study reveals is that the nature of the demands being put forth by the women’s movement in the transition period reflect a concern with political engagements over social and economic rights. Women leaders lay emphasis on women’s political participation. Positioning political representation as the major issue of concern for the women’s movement, undermines the priorities of women from the grassroots and the peripheries. The choices regarding areas of focus within this transition period are bound to define the ways and extent to which the state accommodates a women’s agenda. For instance, it is easy for the state to ratify laws and policies without changing the structural conditions that give rise to the demands for these laws in the first place. Such an approach requires an equal emphasis on the demands being made by grassroots women and women from all other socio-economic levels. There are also fundamental alienating issues that may impact the prospects of formulating a minimal common agenda. For instance, Islamic laws (Sharia) are the subject of contentious challenge, both within party coalitions and civil society coalitions, most prominently in the Umma Party’s disagreement with others over the proposal to separate the state from religion.’ At the moment, the issue of religion is considered highly contentious, and is not being directly addressed by coalition members for the sake of unity. While there is awareness of this issue and some reflection on the ways in which it has been instrumentalized for political expediency in the past, the current re-manifestation reveals this to be an underlying and unresolved historical question for the women’s movement. Another problem highlighted by the study is the elitism prevalent in the women’s movement. As elaborated in the preceding section, grassroots women view the relationship between themselves and the leadership of the women’s movement as an exploitative one, whereby the bodies of the masses of women are commanded and used to achieve certain political aims, and discarded when no longer needed, with their voices silenced. A question that women’s movement organizers should reflect on in this regard is what it is that popular politics is able to resolve, and what does it not address? How do (class) differences among women become ideological differences in the course of struggle? What is the relationship between gender and class identities, and in what ways
might it be possible to amplify shared goals and solidarities in such a way as to minimize exclusion, conflict, and resentment among women? The reality in Sudan is that class differences continue to impede poor women’s perceptions of politics and political participation. The tensions between classes have been further exacerbated by competition over limited resources for women’s rights activism and movement building. For example, SIHA’s prioritization of poor and marginalized women in its work, has at times caused frustrations among middle-class women activists, whose agendas differ from the elite class as well as from the poor and marginalized groups that SIHA primarily serves. As previously highlighted, the majority of women who supported the revolution were not affiliated to any political party, which seems to have negative Woman Braids Young Girl’s Hair, 2011 | SIHA Staff ramifications for women’s agenda-setting.The outcome of this is that the political parties’ support for the women’s agenda has become conditional on women’s allegiance to a political party. In other words, the women’s movements are being positioned to ‘play within’ party politics in order for them to reap the fruits of their own struggles.This has resulted in a narrow agenda that does not represent the full diversity of needs and priorities from within the women’s movement. Some women observe that the current interest of the women’s movement is to put certain personalities in the front, and it is not focused on a broad agenda of women in Sudan. There are nuanced but significant differences between women building the movements from within the party and those not affiliated to parties.This is an important and necessary debate for women’s rights activists to have on an ongoing basis: that is, what does it mean for women to organize outside of party politics: is it ideal, what are the pros and cons, and what are the implications for a women’s agenda and consequences of organizing within parties? The notion of the NGOization of women’s rights has also been prominent in this study. The history of this has already been elaborated above in the historical overview of the Sudanese women’s movement, whereby the suppression of political parties by the past regime made many people leave parties to join NGOs, or form broad coalitions between parties and civil society, through which political activism gradually became substituted by NGO activism. This study highlighted the fact that as a result of this, some of the women see the problems of the women’s movement as connected to the general problem of civil society and NGOs. This general problem is characterized by working in silos that prevent the development of a broad-based movement agenda, while engendering competition, distrust, difficulty in identifying and responding to organic and context-specific questions, and the depoliticization of rights, which facilitates the co-optation of women’s movements in ways that silence them and disarticulate their agenda from broader societal struggles.131 Classism and social and cultural backgrounds impact the types of work to which women will have access, thereby influencing the prospects of solidarity among them and complicating any systemic analysis of the questions of poverty, violence, and inequality that affect women the most. For instance, during the FGD held with women working in the informal sector, it was evident that some jobs are considered more ‘legitimate’ than others, and that the issue
131. SIHA Network. (2013). Reinforcing Community Activism and Intergenerational Bridges for Women’s Rights and Equality: A Guide on Community Activism. https://issuu.com/ halayassin/docs/community-activismguide-sudan-2013.
of morality affects which women feel entitled to speak up and represent other women. An example of a trade that is considered ‘illicit’ or ‘immoral’ is alcohol selling. The degree of shaming felt by women who work as alcohol sellers, was evident in the reluctance of alcohol vendors to speak during focus group discussions, and in their own accounts of being shamed and called ‘loose women’ even by other women vendors. This finding alerts us to the danger of romanticizing grassroots movements, because doing so conceals contradictions and prejudices internal to the movement, which ought to be addressed as part of movement building strategies. Women cited lack of access to government officials and the failure to give substantive voice to ordinary women to communicate the hardships they are facing. Partly this is due to the emerging power structure in the transition period and lack of democratic mechanisms that enable women to amplify their voices There is an acknowledgement among party leaders that there is no substantive change on the ground yet, in part due to what they view as the difficulties within the FFC.This situation often leads to women being caught up in ‘the blame game,’ where each component of government is blaming the other, and no one is ultimately accountable. According to the FCC for example, the transitional government started the wrong way by working alone.The FFC now has no power and the Sovereign Council and the military have control over everything. There are very specific implications here for women’s ability to intervene and be heard by this masculinist new dispensation. Politically the transitional agenda is dominated by ‘hard’ politics and seems to be side-lining or co-opting women, their leadership, and their issues. Another major issue highlighted by the study is the intergenerational gap, which is characterized by an invisible line drawn between ‘women’s rights’ and ‘human rights’ – with the older generation making reference to women’s rights, and the younger generation more likely to see themselves as fighting more broadly (and inclusively) for human rights. While this is an artificial distinction, it manifests in reality as an ideological difference and this misconception ought therefore to be the focus of advocacy work. The intergenerational gap is also visible in varying approaches to activism. These differences in approach have an impact on existing campaigns and not just ‘new’ issues. For instance, on the issue of FGM/C, while the approach of the older generation has been the gradual raising of awareness and allied campaigns, the younger generation hold the view that FGM/C should be criminalized and that the ‘parents doing this to their children’ punished.132 Women leaders of civil society acknowledge the dire economic situation and the need for a swift solution for low-income earners.The economic situation, whose resolution is being tied to the implementation of the peace agreement, are the major priorities of the parties and transitional government now. Part of the accompanying challenge therefore is how to place the women’s agenda within the economic situation (e.g. gendering the budget).The question of feminism as a basis for women’s rights activism and movement building also emerged prominently as a contemporary challenge. Interestingly, even the younger generation of women appear reluctant to self-identify as feminist. A number of them shared their perceptions of feminism, which point to a number of concerns that can be conceptually grouped as follows: i) the ‘imposter syndrome’ – whereby women lack the confidence to claim their power to contribute substantively to change, or hold the belief that they are not ‘qualified’ to do so; ii) lack of/inadequate knowledge of what feminism is, leading to misconceptions and the preponderance of negative stereotypes
132. Interview with Sumaia Al Sheikh, legal advocate and human rights activist with the Peoples Legal Aid Center (PLACE), in Khartoum on 1 February 2020.
associated with feminists; iii) fear regarding the idea of what one has to ‘sacrifice’ in order to become a feminist, especially among younger women who feel are not yet equipped to make such sacrifices; iv) a culture of individualism, which results in the disarticulation of feminist questions from broader social and political questions.The focus on the self, while also a feminist principle (e.g. through self-care), sometimes took on a conservative tone about individual liberation.These are some of the conceptual topics upon which advocacy around feminist movement building could focus. There were also deep and critical reflections by women from the regions on the relationship between women’s organizations and rights activists in the peripheral regions, in particular, and those in the centre. According to women from the regions, in the past there was no relationship at all with Khartoum as many in the centre were not aware of what was going on in the regions. The relationship of the regions with the women’s movement was based on personal allegiance and lobbies as the means for access to opportunities, and were built upon personal(ized) networks, instead of a relationship between movements in the centre and those in the provinces. It was a relationship between movements in the centre and some individuals in the periphery – which created an aggressive polarity between the women’s leadership and a failure to consolidate women’s movements around a common and uniting agenda.While the revolution opened up new spaces for solidarity between all Sudanese women, the ongoing political and peace negotiations need to be a focus as they are likely to enforce settlements on some issues that might again fragment regional alliances. Such fragmentation reflects existing class, racial, and ethnic tensions that have divided the movement. Finally, women spoke of backlash: women are experiencing a backlash from the state, especially from the security forces and law enforcement, and feel they are being punished for their part in the revolution. They say that the security situation is unbearable, and that the government is not protecting its citizens during this transition period. Women claim that prior to the revolution, they could report crimes to the police stations, but now even if they do, no action is being taken.Women’s demands for protection are met with sarcasm, harassment, and overall negligence from the police. In the long run this relationship with state security may resuscitate the old acrimonious relationship that women had with state security’s enforcement of the Public Order Laws. These laws have since been banned, but many women testify that the memories of these injustices remain fresh in their minds.The hope of building a new Sudan is dependent on a complete reform of the police forces, and as such some advocacy initiatives should be directed towards sensitization of the security forces. The daily circumstances women face have been worsened by the unfolding socioeconomic and political events over the past year. These include the COVID-19 pandemic, which has had a catastrophic impact on women in Sudan post-revolution. In a country where women lack any form of social or legal protection, the prevalence of domestic violence, rape, and gendered killings have increased during this time. In armed conflict regions like Darfur, systematic extrajudicial killings by armed militia and the absence of rule of law have persisted. Women’s poverty has worsened, especially among urban poor women who are particularly exposed to police violence due to their presence on the streets despite lockdown regulations. COVID-19 has also contributed to further polarization of the women’s movement, partially due to the lack of access to resources, which has been exacerbated by the quickly deteriorating economic situation.
6. Opportunities for the Women’s Movement and Opportunities for Sudan Fewer opportunities than challenges exist for Sudanese women, but the few that exist offer a good starting point for movement building. The most significant opportunity that emerged in the course of this study relates to the distinction that women made between political revolution and social revolution.The fact that women were able to draw this distinction is quite unique to Sudanese women and the nature of their involvement in the revolution.Their critique highlights their specific social and cultural context – i.e. the fact that women had to ‘break free’ from certain patriarchal bonds in order to participate in the revolution, and what these courageous actions enabled them to learn about themselves and the possibilities of their struggles. For women, the revolution was just the first step, and they recognized very clearly that their struggle now is to overcome the cultural and traditional bonds that still expose them to violence and discrimination and interfere with their selfrealization as full citizens.This is the social revolution for which women are now preparing. Second, strong bonds of trust and sisterhood were formed during the revolution. The economic situation may have acted as a polarizing factor, but it also influenced more people who were neutral in the beginning, to join the movement for change. Solidarity took many forms, for instance, some young women declined to collect their pay checks at the end of the month. Women also viewed their involvement with bodies such as the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) as having emboldened them to join in pushing for political change at a time when they could not relate with political parties. Young people thus saw their participation as both a personal and social revolt against oppression. Different sentiments brought people together and should serve as springboards for deepening support for women’s issues in the transition period and beyond. Third, women articulated varied but clear ideas of freedom. For some, freedom should be manifested economically and means women’s ability to secure daily needs such as bread, fuel, health, equal access to markets, prices for public transport, security and safety, land, and housing. For others, it means having access to money and other resources, business, and scholarships for education. Others related freedom to the ability to transition from stigmatized jobs (e.g. alcohol selling) to respected jobs, and beyond material demands, it means living with dignity. The fact that women related their political involvement and
movements for peace and change with the idea of freedom is a powerful catalyst as it is one of the signs of agency. Fourth is the significance that people attach afresh to legal, legislative, and due processes, which is a sign that civil liberties are at the forefront of people’s demands under the new dispensation. The law has always been an important avenue through which women’s rights have historically been won, but this has been significantly stifled. Under the previous regime, social stigma prevented people from turning to legal processes. But post-revolution, more people are coming forward, which invites the question regarding what exactly changed. First, the prevailing notion and agenda for freedom, peace, and justice has been a major catalytic factor. Second, mindsets are gradually shifting despite the frustrations of tokenistic politics of representation. For example, the appointment of a woman to head the legislative body and the judiciary may be fuelling renewed interest in the legislative process and confidence in women’s ability to claim their rights. This opportunity comes with challenges, as the appointment of a few women to important positions was a strategy of the past regime, whereby the appointed women would not be empowered to participate meaningfully in decision-making, but the regime would benefit from an improved international image. Fifth is what became apparent as a wealth of information and memory of the struggles of women – of older women activists – as repositories of knowledge and history of the women’s movement. This is an important resource for the women’s movement that should be utilized, especially because the history of the women’s movement is not linear, thus affecting institutional memory, continuity, and intergenerational dialogue. Older women in the movement are therefore a necessary bridge in conveying the significance of such women’s organizations whose continuity was deeply stunted by the previous regime.These pioneers of the women’s movement are ideal mentors especially in bridging the generational gap and for the institutional memory they possess in the struggle for women’s rights. Sixth is the opportunity that addresses the relationship between women’s movements and political parties. The political organizing that took place prior to 25 December 2018 was mainly through political parties. Afterwards, however, the resistance took a different organizational form that was more grassroots-oriented and led, and highlighted the prominent role of neighborhood committees in the direct organizing of revolutionary forces and responses to state repression. In representative democracies, political parties play a vanguard role in mobilizing masses of voters as a means of political control. However, as the revolution grew to include a cross-section of society including the young (plus unregistered voters), the old, and the marginalized, the power of parties to mobilize the masses was diminished as autonomous groups and neighborhood committees utilized their power and resources to mobilize the masses. The situation in the transition period – whereby negotiation between the state and the people is again being mediated through political parties and affiliated coalitions such as the FFC – highlights the need for women’s organizations and movements to give serious consideration to their relationship to party politics. Seventh is the sphere of the law and a legislative agenda for women’s organizations. It is notable that the methods of resistance during the past regime included assistance to
survivors of violence, including state violence, in ways that could increase the legal impact.The Sudanese revolution highlighted the difference that emerges between working within the state and exceeding the state – and also raised questions regarding who can access the law and who cannot. While previously, women’s rights activists were confined by existing laws of the state, an opportunity exists now to tear down old repressive laws and create or campaign for the ratification of new laws, protocols, and conventions. An example of such action has already been practiced with the Public Order Laws, and the ongoing campaign for the ratification of CEDAW. In other words, after the revolution, the mode of resistance has shifted to questioning the very basis of laws and institutions themselves and should also focus on law reforms that could change the anti-woman, Islamist orientation of the governing institutions themselves.
Women in Nayala, South Darfur, 2007 | SIHA Staff
Women now also hold significant moral authority/moral claim to political space due to their role in deposing the previous regime. Women’s large participation in the protests and resistance also culminated in a shift in societal attitudes towards women. There is an important space and opportunity that should be exploited towards furthering a progressive agenda for women.Women should in other words ride on the ‘revolutionary wave’ to increase their numbers as political actors, to push for changes in laws and policies, and campaign at the grassroots for a more permanent change in cultural attitudes toward women and girls. This window period is important especially in light of experiences and nationalist literature (albeit a different historical context) from other counties, which show that women’s bodies and resources have often been instrumentalized to achieve liberation and later cast aside in the post-liberation period. Ninth is the opportunity provided by the common struggle to narrow the divide between women’s movements in the centre and in the regions. The sitins provided an opportunity and platforms for people to talk in numbers about what was happening in the regions. Some of the women view the disconnect between the centre and the regions as part of the general struggle in Sudan: that is, the struggle between governing elites in the centre and those in the provinces. Unity over the political transition brought Sudanese women together around a common agenda for the first time in a long time and demonstrated that where there is political will and intention, existing barriers can be overcome. The dialogues between the centre and the regions should also now focus on dealing with questions internal to the women’s movement that caused the rift in the first place.The centre-regional divide also marks an elite chasm between the aspirations of women. Women recognize that beyond the revolution, the role they need to play now is even greater. Women are united over a number of issues which they consider to be priorities in the transition period.At the centre, these include: the need to reform discriminatory laws; push the government to ratify CEDAW and Resolution 1325 – as a basis for involving all Sudanese in the peace process; demand transitional justice and a constitutional declaration of a 40% quota for women in all constitutional bodies, and implement broad inclusion of women in governance. Grassroots women are better accounted for when the regions are included.
The Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA Network) is an indigenous, African women’s rights organization with a soul. As a platform created by women activists from Somaliland, Ethiopia, and Sudan in the mid-1990s, SIHA brings together over 100 women’s rights member organization and gender equality-focused civil society groups in the Greater Horn of Africa.Today SIHA continues to work as an inclusive and diverse feminist women’s rights network that holds a unique position working as a regional civil society organization in a variety of cultural, political, and geographical environments in Uganda, Ethiopia, Djibouti, Eritrea, Somalia, Somaliland, Sudan and South Sudan.