Women at the Forefront of Sudan’s Revolution

Sudan is going through a period of transformation, and women are at the forefront of the movement for change. Leading with empowering songs, Alaa Salah represents the strength and energy of the Sudanese women who have been driving the movement forward.
Women at the Forefront of Sudan’s Revolution
Alaa Salah at a rally. Photo credit: Lana Haroun / Via Twitter: @lana_hago

Sudanese demonstrators staged a mass sit-in, protesting the 30-year rule of President Omar al-Bashir on April 6, marking the 34th anniversary of the 1985 military coup that overthrew former President Jaafar Nimeiri.

Days after Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika was forced to step down, the Association of Sudanese Professionals (SPA) called for a march demanding the removal of al-Bashir and his government. The march ended at the heavily guarded defense ministry complex in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, where the sit-in started and has continued for days.

The protests began in December 2018, when the price of bread tripled and cash became unavailable in ATMs. The protesters initially demanded economic reforms to address the spiraling cost of living and deteriorating economic conditions. The protests soon erupted into a nationwide movement calling for al-Bashir to step down.

Protesters called for freedom, justice, and democracy, but were met with violent resistance. Human Rights Watch estimates that state forces have killed over 70 protesters since December, and hundreds more have been tear-gassed and jailed without charge.

Women’s Key Role in the Uprising

Women have been at the forefront of the protests, dominating headlines and making up two-thirds of the protesters.

Women have been at the forefront of the protests, dominating headlines and making up two-thirds of the protesters. Risking their lives for the movement, women protesters have been detained and arrested, and some have been killed, said Sara Abdejalil of SPA. Despite the dangers, women continue to play a prominent role in the protests.

One of the demonstrators, 22-year-old architecture student Alaa Salah, has become an icon symbolizing the revolution. A photograph of Salah, taken by fellow protester Lana Haroun, went viral on social media.

Wearing a flowing white thobe and large golden earrings, Salah stood tall with her finger pointed to the sky, amongst a sea of protesters recording the moment on their phones.

She recited poetry and sang to motivate the crowds, belting out “The bullet doesn’t kill; what kills is the silence of people.” These words echo the chants of demonstrators in January 2018, as well as those who participated in the popular protests of 2013. As Salah sang, protesters passionately shouted: “Revolution!”

Labeled the “Sudanese Statue of Liberty,” Salah’s picture has resonated with many. She is being described on Twitter as “the image of the revolution,” and her photo proclaimed to belong in “the history books.”

Hind Makki, an interfaith educator and blogger, explained the power of the image. The white thobe is a tribute to working Sudanese women of all sectors. The gold earrings, a traditional piece of bridal jewelry, are “gold moons,” emanating feminine beauty. Her outfit is an homage to the Sudanese women who demonstrated in similar protests during the 1960s, ‘70s, and ‘80s.

Salah further explained that “the thobe has a kind of power and it reminds us of the Kandakas.”  “Kandaka” was a title given to ancient Nubian queens who ruled Sudan over 3,000 years ago. “If you see Sudan’s history, all our queens have led the state. It’s part of our heritage.” The thobe serves as a reminder of the power, sacrifice, and leadership that women have shown during demonstrations.

It is not the first time that white thobes have been worn by Sudanese protesters. The white thobe was adopted by students during a sit-in at Ahfad University for Women in March. According to Jena, a member of the Sudanese Students Association, “Women are leading the protests because they are demanding their stolen rights. They went out [into the streets] in order to regain their dignity as human beings, and they went out resisting violence, racism, discrimination and exploitation. They went out to demand social justice and a state based on the rule of law.”

It should be of no surprise that women are pioneering the protests. Women have been directly impacted by al-Bashir’s regime, particularly under Sudan’s criminal code. Under Article 152 of the Criminal Act, if a person commits an “indecent act,” he or she is punished by whipping and a fine. This includes wearing “indecent dress” or “causing an annoyance to public feelings.”

The provision is vague and essentially allows public order police unfettered powers to determine what constitutes an indecent act.

The provision is vague and essentially allows public order police unfettered powers to determine what constitutes an indecent act. As a result, women have been arbitrarily targeted by this law for wearing pants, and 40,000 women are arrested and flogged every year by public order police because of their clothing.

The case of Noura Hussein highlights how few policies are in place to protect Sudanese women and girls. Hussein, a child bride, was sentenced to death after killing her husband in self-defense as he tried to rape her. The case drew international condemnation, resulting in a petition signed by 1.5 million people appealing for clemency. Her sentence was later changed to a five-year jail term.

Salah says she has received death threats since her photograph went viral, but she remains undeterred. She continues to be active on Twitter, encouraging further protests and calling for a “civilian led future.”

After being forced out of power by the military, al-Bashir was placed under house arrest and is reportedly being held in Kobar Maximum Security Prison. Sudan is currently being led by a transitional government, headed by Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, the third leader since al-Bashir’s ousting. Concessions have been made under him, with former government officials arrested, and new heads instated to the army, police and intelligence services. He has also promised the appointment of a prime minister.

Unhappy with the current status quo, Sudanese women remain on the frontline calling for change. The leading role of women was pivotal in overthrowing al-Bashir’s regime. They continue to spearhead the protests in hopes of securing a democratic and stable future for Sudan.