Amid coup, Sudan’s women fight to keep hard-won rights

Mohamed Nureldin Abdallah/Reuters
Women sit in a car as they watch a screening of the Sudanese European Film Festival at an outdoor, drive-thru cinema for visitors, adhering to coronavirus restrictions, in Khartoum, Sudan, on Feb. 28, 2021. Women have made significant gains since the fall of a dictatorship in 2019, but a military coup this week threatens to undo progress.

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When Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictator of 30 years, was ousted in 2019, women played a key role in taking the dictatorship down. 

Sudan’s women had many good reasons to want Mr. Bashir gone. His fundamentalist Islamic regime made them second-class citizens. And 2 1/2 years after a transitional government took power, Sudan is in many ways a different country. Women can go out with their heads uncovered. They can wear pants. Female genital mutilation is outlawed, and, for the first time, the country has a national women’s soccer team.

Why We Wrote This

Sudan’s women have had the most to gain since the fall of a dictatorship in 2019. After this week’s military coup, they have the most to lose – so they’re taking up their historic place on the front lines to fight back.

Now, after the country’s military seized power in a coup early Monday morning, women are mobilizing once again. 

“Women have so much to lose – we can’t afford to go back,” one activist in Khartoum told the Monitor. 

On Tuesday, Sudanese journalist Reem Abbas tweeted a photo of herself and two other women near their home in the Sudanese capital holding a handwritten sign. “Total civil disobedience,” it read in Arabic. “The decision of the people.”

When protests in 2018 and 2019 ousted Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s dictator of 30 years, the charge was led by the country’s women.

“This revolution is a women’s revolution,” they chanted, marching through the streets of Khartoum and other cities with hijabs wrapped around their noses and mouths to protect them from dust and tear gas.

Now, after the country’s military seized power in a coup early Monday morning, they are once again mobilizing.

Why We Wrote This

Sudan’s women have had the most to gain since the fall of a dictatorship in 2019. After this week’s military coup, they have the most to lose – so they’re taking up their historic place on the front lines to fight back.

Sudan’s women had many good reasons to want Mr. Bashir gone in 2019. His fundamentalist Islamic regime made them second-class citizens, forcing them to dress according to strict “moral” standards and seek male permission to travel or work.

Two and a half years later, Sudan is in many ways a different country. Women can go out with their heads uncovered. They can wear pants. Female genital mutilation (FGM) is outlawed, and, for the first time, the country has a national women’s soccer team.

“What’s remarkable is the space that women have managed to own and occupy in such a short period of time,” says Hala Alkarib, a Sudanese women’s rights activist and regional director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa.

But many fear the military takeover means that progress could all be rolled back. And so this week, women have once again poured into the streets – as they have at every uprising in the country’s history – determined to secure their newly gained rights.

“What is happening at the moment, if it continues it will present a serious threat to women’s human rights, our well-being, and our basic security,” says Ms. Alkarib. “The military has a long history of violence against women in this country.”

Like in 2019, as protests have built against the coup over the past three days, women have been on the front lines, walking with linked arms toward police barricades and enduring beatings from soldiers dispersing demonstrations.

Hussein Malla/AP/File
A Sudanese protester chants slogans against the military council, in Khartoum on June 19, 2019. Sudan’s uprising ushered in a new era both for the nation and for Sudanese women after three decades of autocratic rule by Omar al-Bashir. This week's military coup threatens those gains.

Give up ... Burhan,” chanted a group of women in Khartoum Monday, referring to Lt. Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, the head of the country’s military and now its head of state. “We have a country we need to rebuild.” 

Indeed, the coup came in the midst of a moment of massive transition after Mr. Bashir’s ouster, much of which directly affected women. A civilian transitional government took power in Sudan in 2019 led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. One of its first acts was to repeal the country’s notorious Public Order Law, which had been used largely to control women’s presence in public spaces. For more than two decades, women had been terrorized by a “public order court” that punished them – often by whipping – for crimes such as dressing indecently, speaking to the wrong man, or begging on city streets.

The transitional government also ratified international conventions protecting women’s rights, including the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women.

The repeal of the Public Order Law and other policies benefiting women were widely accepted, says Ms. Alkarib, aside from scattered opposition from the religious right wing.

“These were huge steps forward,” says Amel Gorani, an international development and inclusion specialist and human rights activist from Sudan who is based in Virginia. They kick-started an important process of legal reform that began to do away with some of the most discriminatory laws allowing for the systematic oppression of women, she says.

And as policies began to change, women began to become more visible in public spaces in Sudan from which they had previously been barred, performing mundane but radical acts like forming sports teams and singing at concerts.

Then, in April 2020, the government outlawed FGM, a practice to which around 90% of Sudanese women had been subjected, making it punishable by up to three years in prison.

Other change has been slower to come. The FGM law, for instance, only criminalized the women who performed the procedure, not the parents – often the fathers – who ordered it. Much of the criminal code, which had been used to harass women for acting out in public spaces, has remained unchanged.

AP/File
Sudan's women's soccer league plays a match in Omdurman, Khartoum's twin city, on Dec. 11, 2019. The league was established after the fall of Omar al-Bashir's dictatorship in 2019.

On a political level, the Sovereign Council, an 11-member group that served as the collective head of state from August 2019 until this week, had only two female members. Women who had been on the front lines of the protests in 2018 and 2019 found themselves suddenly sidelined when it came to running their new country.

But many activists had remained hopeful. “Yes, the speed at which our demands have been responded to has been slow,” Ms. Alkarib says. “But at least we have had the space to keep pushing for those changes.”

That changed abruptly Monday morning, when the country’s information ministry announced on Facebook that Prime Minister Hamdok and his wife had been arrested by the military and pressured to accept a coup. Around midday, Mr. Burhan – a crony of the former dictator, Mr. Bashir – appeared on state television to announce that the military had taken control of government and declared a state of emergency.

In Khartoum, protests began immediately, with demonstrators – many of them women – pouring into the streets demanding an immediate return to civilian rule.

“The biggest threat now is to freedoms and human rights in general under a military regime,” says Ms. Gorani. “And within that, repression tends to come down harder on women in very specific and gendered ways.”

Sudanese women, she notes, have been at the forefront of protest since the colonial period. And the country’s women’s movements have been equally ferocious, winning women the right to vote, the right to equal pay, and the right to maternity leave – often decades before other countries in the region.

And so far this time around, Sudanese women seem once again unwilling to accept an end to their revolution.

“Women have so much to lose – we can’t afford to go back,” wrote Mayada Hassanain, a researcher and activist in Khartoum, in a text message to the Monitor Thursday. (The government has cut internet and cell service frequently throughout the week.)

On Tuesday, Sudanese journalist Reem Abbas tweeted a photo of herself and two other women near their home in Khartoum holding a handwritten sign.

“Total civil disobedience,” it read in Arabic. “The decision of the people.”

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