In Sudan, a test not only for democracy but for women’s rights

Women have been at the forefront of the uprising in Sudan, but can they translate that role into a more positive positioning in the country’s next chapter?

By: /
27 May, 2019
Sudanese women stand in a street in Khartoum, Sudan, April 30, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
Kelli María Korducki
By: Kelli María Korducki

Freelance journalist

After months of nationwide protest, longtime Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir was ousted by military force in April. Since then, an image from the uprising has become synonymous with triumph itself: a young woman perched atop the roof of a car, beatific in white as she presides over a sea of protesters against the dimming Khartoum sky. She’s chanting, and the crowd repeats. Together, they call for revolution.

As photos and video clips circulated of the April 8 demonstration, the woman — identified by several news outlets as 22-year-old Alaa Salah — became an instant viral sensation. On Twitter, observers mused that this moment was history in the making, the future of Sudan replacing its past in real time. Salah stood as both an arbiter of resistance and a reminder that women had become the prevailing force of the fight against al-Bashir, whose 30-year regime had been particularly devastating for women’s rights. But even with al-Bashir gone, the fate of women’s rights in Sudan remains uncertain.

“We’re fighting two regimes,” said 18-year-old Banan Salih, a young woman who had been active in Khartoum’s political protests since they began late last year, in an interview with NPR. “We’re fighting male dominance, and we’re fighting the [old political] regime.”

Whether there remains any discernable distinction between male dominance and the law of the land, however, is a point of contention. Understanding where the two fit into the bigger picture of Sudan’s political upheaval, and how this case will be a test for women’s leadership and rights in the region, requires knowledge of these five key points:

1. The al-Bashir regime had become almost synonymous with Sharia law.

Sudan adopted a Sharia (Islamic) penal code in 1983, six years before al-Bashir would seize office. But the application of Islamic law reignited conflict between the country’s Muslim north and largely Christian and Animist south; while it remained officially on the books, Sharia entered a period of abeyance in 1985.

Though efforts to reinstate Islamic law predate al-Bashir’s rule, a younger generation of Sudanese women would come to associate Sharia’s grip with his regime, brought to power by an Islamist-backed coup in 1989. Now, with al-Bashir gone, Sharia remains firmly in place — a system of restrictions on what women can wear, with whom they can gather, what they can do, and from whose violence they are protected.

2. Under Sharia law, women have withstood the worst of Sudan’s government oppression.

Sudan’s “public order” laws regulate women’s day-to-day freedoms. A woman determined to be in violation of these so-called “morality laws” faces potential imprisonment or public flogging; thousands of women have been sentenced to the latter, according to the Sudanese women’s rights group No to Women’s Oppression Initiative.

Per the United Nations, 2014 data reported that 86.6 percent of Sudanese women between the ages of 15 and 49 had been subjected to female genital mutilation or cutting. By some reports, a girl as young as 10 can be married with permission from her guardian and sign-off from a judge. And, under the Sudanese government’s strident interpretation of Islamic law, marital rape is not recognized as a crime.

The case of then-19-year-old Noura Hussein drew international ire when, in May 2018, the Sudanese teen was found guilty of premeditated murder for killing her husband as he tried to rape her. It was only after an online petition for her pardon amassed more than 1.5 million signatures that Hussein’s death sentence was commuted to a five-year jail term.

When journalist and women’s rights activist Wini Omer was arrested in February 2018 while meeting with two men, she was charged with prostitution and a violation of public morals. “It’s an attempt to send a message to the other activists, to say ‘…we are watching you,’” Omer told The Guardian. She was also told that she could face charges for crimes against the state, punishable by death.

3. Women became the movement’s driving force — and the government’s primary target.

Groups of mostly male students and professionals began to demonstrate for al-Bashir’s removal in December 2018, spurred by economic scarcity and the skyrocketing cost of bread. But by the spring of 2019, the movement had become “a women’s revolution.” Women would come to account for an estimated 70 percent of protestors.

“Women would come to account for an estimated 70 percent of protestors.”

As Sudanese women took the reins in steering political dissent, their defiance was met as a double-sided threat: both to government power, and to gender-ordained strictures of conduct and control.

CNN reports that rape became an explicit government tactic to silence dissent: “if you break the girls, you break the men.” The directive, explained one intelligence officer, was clear.

“You have to understand we were told to make it stop,” another former regime officer told CNN. “These girls were out there every day, provoking us, chanting that they weren’t afraid.”

A young female protester, part of the Sudanese Students Association, told The New Arab in March, “Women in particular are arrested by force and harassed while in detention and humiliated verbally and physically."

4. Sudan’s ruling military council wants Sharia to remain the basis of the country’s legal system.

Protest leaders have made clear that their focal priority is the installation of a civilian-led transitional government. What remains to be determined is the role of Sharia law in whatever happens next. The opposition remains conspicuously mum on the matter.

Negotiations between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the coalition of opposition group leaders, dubbed the Alliance for Freedom and Change, resumed on May 19. These re-opened negotiations followed a weeks-long stop-and-go pattern of progress, during which demonstrators kept to the streets of Khartoum in hopes of circumventing Sudan’s backslide into yet another military dictatorship.

Though the alliance has yet to assert a position on the future of Sharia law in Sudan, a spokesman for the TMC has expressed the military’s position: “Our view is that Islamic Sharia and the local norms and traditions in the Republic of Sudan should be the sources of legislation,” said Lt-Gen Shamseddine Kabbashi, according to the BBC.

5. Women’s involvement in neighbouring uprisings has not led to their equal participation in democratic transition processes.

Despite women’s leading role in conciliation efforts in the region, their involvement in the aftermath of conflict remains limited. For example, despite their role in the 2011 uprising in Libya, Libyan women have remained at the margins of the nation’s (albeit bungled) democratic transition process.

Earlier this month, Zahra’ Langhi, CEO of the Libyan Women’s Platform for Peace, wrote in The Guardian that Sudanese women should remember that Libya’s descent into chaos following the Arab Spring was more or less enabled by diplomatic complacency. She criticized the UN Security Council for failing last month to issue a ceasefire, as well as for the 2011 NATO-led military intervention that hastened the flow of weapons into Libya in the first place. Langhi also disparaged the exclusion of Libyan women from 2016 peace and reconciliation talks between Libyan tribes.

One key difference between the Libyan context and today’s democratic transition in Sudan is the visibility and mobilization of feminist activism online. In coverage of the recent uprising, on social and in traditional media, Sudanese women have been more prominently given their due than their political predecessors in the region.

At least some of Sudan’s women protesters remain optimistic that their fearless dissent, borne witness by an international audience, means there can be no going back to pre-revolution repression. While this would seem a logical outcome, it’s not guaranteed. As the Sudan junta continues to stall progress in reaching an agreement with the opposition, the international community must remain steadfast in its support of a peace process that places women at its centre, rather than erases their contributions to revolution.

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