Sudan’s President Omar Al-Bashir declared a one-year state of emergency on Friday and replaced all state governors with military officials to counter the most sustained protests since he came to power 30 years ago. For the last two months, the people of Sudan have been expressing their desperation on the streets, and women are on the frontlines of the nationwide uprising. NADJA talked with several Sudanese women who are actively fighting the regime, some risking their lives for the hope of a better future.
Muna and Amina*, both students in their early twenties, live in the capital Khartoum. They have been demonstrating since the outbreak of the unrest in the railway town of Atbara, on December 19. President Al-Bashir has remained defiant in the face of the protests, and government forces have responded with ruthless violence.
“It’s very scary. Extremely scary,” says Muna about taking part in the protests. “[Security forces] beat people aggressively, they detain people, sexually harass girls and emotionally abuse them.”
In her fifth year of medical studies, she explains how the university cancelled all hospital rounds for safety reasons. After the rallies, she says, security forces attack hospitals, firing bullets and teargas as they look for injured protesters.
Her cousin was caught during a demonstration, and was beaten in their car. They released her further away, Muna tells us, after threatening to detain her if she was ever found protesting again.
Amina too was caught. She was protesting on New Year’s eve in Al-Souq Al-Arabi, an old part of town, when security forces took her and her two friends. They were beaten in the authorities’ pickups, then transferred to a van filled with protesters.
“We were also beaten there,” she tells us. “They found vinegar in my bag, made me drink it, and poured it all over me.”
Then, she says, they separated men from women, and were taken to the security forces centre. She was detained for about five hours, enduring verbal sexual harassment and threats, waiting to be interrogated. Amina was lucky as she got released before the interrogation.
“[Women] are very scared of being detained but they keep going, they do whatever they can,” Muna says. And they will not stop until President Omar Al-Bashir steps down.
It was never about the bread
In Western media, bread emerged as a symbol of Sudan uprising. The protests, dubbed “bread riots,” were portrayed as a spontaneous revolt against the soaring inflation and scarcity of life necessities like fuel, cash and…bread. Although people do have to queue for hours to get such commodities, no amount of flour donations can make up for decades of dictatorship.
“People have been suffering in Sudan for the past 30 years,” Amina tells us. “We cannot get proper education, proper healthcare, not even security, despite the fact that actually 80% of the country’s budget goes to security. But there is no security in Sudan, specially for people in Darfur, South Kordofan and the Nuba Mountains.”
It is particularly difficult for women. When a military coup brought Al-Bashir to power in 1989, he imposed the Public Order Act, a set of “morality laws” that have been oppressing women.
“It literally violates every single right any woman have,” Amina explains. “Starting from wearing trousers, sitting in public places, all the way to smoking. They just grab you and push you in police cars, and they take you to the station, where you get either beaten or have to pay money to get out. It happens everyday in Sudan, especially these days.”
“Women suffer a lot,” Muna tells us. “They suffer from injustice, from poverty. They can’t stand it anymore. We will fight for women’s rights, and a series of issues like FGM, early marriage and equal payment.”
Since the independence of South Sudan in 2011, protests have sporadically erupted in Sudan, most notably in September 2013. After 22 years of bloody civil war ended in 2005, the independence of South Sudan six years later plunged Sudan into a severe economic crisis. By then Sudan had become reliant on South Sudan’s oil, and following its withdrawal and U.S. sanctions, the government imposed austerity measures. Each time, the protests were brutally repressed. But this time things are different.
“People literally have nothing to lose. They either die of hunger and starvation, or they go out and get shot,” Reem Gaafar, a Sudanese doctor and activist based in the UAE, tells us.
The excessive use of violence by security forces towards the population have caused Sudanese people from all backgrounds to join the anti-government protests.
“The detaining is very random, you could be walking on the streets and they could just pull you out,” Amina says.
Reem gives us an example of a time when security forces tried to stop a funeral, asking the mourners to leave. When people resisted, they bombed the house with tear gas, drove trucks inside the funeral tent and ran over some of the attendees.
“Now everyone is so much more united in their hatred,” she says. “That’s why everybody is on the streets.”
A revolution in the making
In the past, Reem explains, people calling for the protests were either political parties or activist groups, which most Sudanese people don’t relate to. The difference now, is that demonstrations are led and coordinated by the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), a body that people fully trust.
The SPA has brought together professionals, including doctors, journalists, lawyers and university lecturers, and political opposition parties around their “Declaration for Freedom and Change.” The Declaration calls for the resignation of Al-Bashir and the formation of a transitional government. It also serves as a roadmap that specifies areas of change to establish a democratic transition. It includes fighting the oppression of, and discrimination against women.
The SPA uses social media to grow the movement, and is very well organised. “They try to choose strategic places [to protest]. It’s always in the centre, so everyone can go, and it will disturb the capital,” Muna tells us. Protests, she says, will usually take place in downtown Khartoum or in major transportation stations, zones that security forces can’t close.
Despite the risks, women are in the forward ranks of the revolution. Those who do not march participate in sit-ins across the capital, or use social media to spread the word. Others, like Amina, write and print posters to remember the martyrs, encourage protesters, or invite people to upcoming demonstrations.
Their actions on the ground are amplified by Sudanese women abroad, who have joined the online mobilisation around the hashtag #SudanUprising. They have been blogging, podcasting, and taking on social media from all around the world to broadcast constant reports, updates, photos and videos of the situation in the country.
Reem, who is also a writer and filmmaker, has been collecting and verifying information from family and friends in Sudan, publishing regular updates on her blog and writing articles about the revolution.
“It makes my blood boil to see all of this happening,” she tells us. “I want my country to be what it can be. And I plan on being a part of that. I don’t want to be someone watching from the sides.”
Artist Enas Satir, who recently moved to Canada, works as a graphic designer by day, and draws about Sudan’s revolution by night – her way to support the protests.
For both Reem and Enas, traditional news have failed to accurately report on the revolution.
“I find how the media labels the Sudanese Revolution as “The Bread Revolution” or “The Revolution of the Hungry” quite distasteful due to the racist connotations and the double standards it carries,” Enas writes as a disclaimer for her series. “We need to acknowledge that when the economy takes a plunge and people demonstrate in a First World country, the media reports they are demonstrating for their rights, however when the same happens in a Third World country, people are demonstrating for bread, they must be hungry.”
She tells us their is role to step up and draw attention to the situation.
“We have to be the media,” Enas says. “We live in the era of social media. We can be the media, spread the news, tell the people what is actually happening.”
For the first time in a very long time, Sudanese have been united in their demands: the fall of the regime, and equality, freedom and justice for all.
Their efforts, on the ground and abroad, are working. “The fact that Al-Bashir is always making one speech after another shows that he is really scared,” Enas says. “The fact that he decided to announce that he is not going to run again shows that this is working.”
“It will all be worth it,” Amina tells us. “When we are all free, it’s going to be worth it.”
*Names have been changed to protect their identities.