From White Teyab to Pink Kandakat: Gender and the 2018-2019 Sudanese Revolution

Friday, May 1, 2020
by Miriam Engeler, Elena Braghieri, and Samira Manzur

By Miriam Engeler , Elena Braghieri, and Samira Manzur

Abstract

This paper provides a gender analysis of the 2018-2019 Sudanese Revolution, its goals and outcomes, and the strategies employed by protestors and state security forces. To do so, it sheds a light on how protesters drew on, emphasized, and mobilized along gendered identities. It pays particular attention to the part women played in mobilization efforts in the revolution and historic (dis)continuities of their role in mass mobilization. An analysis of protest spaces brings to light the way gender roles were practiced and negotiated within the movement. Examining the state’s response to the demonstrations, the paper highlights state forces’ gender-specific strategies to intimidate protesters and their practice of sexual violence. Lastly, the analysis turns to the first months of political transition. Women’s important roles in the revolution and their challenging of traditional gender roles have not yet translated into equal political representation in the transition, although some of their human rights demands have been met. The paper concludes by urging the Sudanese interim government to include the grievances and perspectives of women and marginalized groups in the negotiation of the country’s future both at the negotiation  table and in the transitional legislative body. 


1. Background

1.1 Atbara to Khartoum: Riots to Revolution 

Although protests have sporadically erupted in Sudan since 2011, it was only in late 2018 that President Omar al-Bashir’s regime was met with a sustained movement (Mohammed 2019). Demonstrations against price hikes began in ad-Damazine, the capital of the historically marginalized Blue Nile state, and Al-Fashir, the capital of North Darfur state, in December 2018. When they spilled over into Atbara, a historic center of the Sudanese labor movement in central Sudan, they gained nationwide attention (Elsheikh 2019). Grievances over inflation morphed into anti-regime protests, and over the course of three weeks, the protests spread across the country and reached Khartoum, as well as more of the country’s marginalized areas (Abbaro 2019). The demonstrations led to the Khartoum sit-in, as well as country-wide strikes and civil disobedience, and after four months of protests, the military announced that al-Bashir was removed from office on April 11, 2019.

What started in a decentralized manner became better coordinated with time. Often  deemed “leaderless,” the protest movement can also be described as “shifting in leadership” depending on the day, town or even the neighborhood (Mohammed 2019). The protestors, while mostly young, were largely representative of different socio-political backgrounds, although  the exact make-up varied based on urban and rural settings. (Young et al. 2019). From their early days, the protests claimed to adopt an anti-racist stance, which helped obstruct the regime’s attempt to blame Darfuris for the unrest (Mohammed 2019). Chants such as “you arrogant racist [al-Bashir], the whole country is Darfur” were seen as a hopeful sign of the uprising (Mohamed 2019), as they declared widespread public solidarity with a region that had long been the target of economic and political marginalization, discrimination and campaigns of ethnic cleansing from the central government. The chants were also seen as the Sudanese youth’s explicit rejection of the strategy of ethnic polarization that the regime had relied upon–with varying degrees of success–in the previous decades (Muhammad and Bearak 2019).

The extent to which the protests’ overall demands and the ensuing transitions were truly representative of all social and economic groups, especially the population of the country’s periphery, is still debatable. As the populations of the periphery, particularly ethnic minorities, have historically been excluded not only from economic development and wealth, but also from participation in political institutions, fulfilling their demands will necessitate far-reaching structural change. Whether this can be achieved will depend to a large degree on the attitude that the transitional government adopts and the sincerity and resolve with which it addresses historical grievances and delivers equal rights and participation (Cochrane et al. 2019).

 

2. Women in the Revolution

Women are said to have comprised up to 70 percent of the protesters across the country, although the precise source of this number is unclear (Salih 2019). Women did not merely join the protests, but also led and organized various demonstrations throughout the 2018-2019 Sudanese Revolution. This should not be a surprise, given the long history of women’s active role in Sudanese revolutionary movements. 

2.1 Passing the Baton: Women in Sudanese Revolutions

A brief review of Sudanese history illustrates that women have been active leaders and participants in the country’s revolutions and movements for generations. As Mayada Hassanain, a Sudanese activist and researcher notes: “There’s a stereotype that Sudanese women are docile...That has never been true. For as long as women have been on the receiving end of these really horrible laws, they have been fighting back. It isn’t something new” (Brown 2019).

Documentation of Sudanese women’s protest activity in modern history dates back to at least the late 19th century, when women supported the “Mahdi revolt”, an armed uprising against Anglo-Egyptian colonial rule  (Kabalo 2012). In more recent history, women often led anti-colonial uprisings against British rule, and the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU) fought for women’s education, right to vote, equal pay, and played an important role in toppling dictatorships in 1964 and 1985 (Salih and Wilson 2019; Tønnessen 2017). The group was later partially co-opted into the political apparatus of the al-Bashir government, which was one of the many instances of the regime’s attempts to stifle women’s activism. [1] Despite this continuous repression, women’s organizations persevered in the decades of al-Bashir’s rule, building effective networks across the region and internationally (Tønnessen 2017).

2.2 What Drove Women to Protest?

After Omar al-Bashir came to power in 1989, he implemented several measures that curtailed women’s rights. During their 30-year rule, al-Bashir and his alliance of military leaders and Islamic clerics advanced a fundamentalist version of Islam as a tool for repression and control (Salih and Wilson 2019). This included vaguely defined moral and penal codes, particularly a set of regulations issued in 1991 known as the Public Order Laws, that dictated how women should dress in public, regulated their movement, controlled their role in public life, and permitted corporal punishments such as lashing and stoning (Human Rights Watch 2016; Abbaro 2019). 

By 2019, almost half of Sudanese women did not have formal education as a result of restrictive government policies and violence, such as female genital mutilation, which were legitimized under the veil of local and religious customs.

By 2019, almost half of Sudanese women did not have formal education as a result of restrictive government policies and violence, such as female genital mutilation (FGM), which were legitimized under the veil of local and religious customs (Gaafar and Shawkat 2019). Al-Bashir’s regime was also noted for dismantling millions of people’s livelihoods outside of Khartoum through conflict, land privatization, and continued underinvestment in agriculture (Mohammed 2019). 

A summary of interviews with 64 women protestors in June 2019 noted that many, in addition to a change in government, demanded more equitable legal and political standing, including an end to the public order laws (Al-Nagar and Tønnessen 2019). There were, however, differences in how women from different socio-economic backgrounds found their voices portrayed. Demands and voices of women from weaker socio-economic backgrounds and other marginalized groups, especially those from disenfranchised regions such as Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile state received much less attention in the media than their affluent counterparts in the country’s central regions (Abdulbari 2019; Abbaro 2019). Further, women from poor or displaced communities were particularly vulnerable to the consequences of arrest and violence as they could rarely afford bail (Abdulbari 2019). 

A combination of political and economic woes provided sufficient incentives for women to mobilize and lead protests against al-Bashir’s rule. Yet, it is also important to note there were women who supported the al-Bashir regime and helped maintain the power structures it relied on to rule. Observers have noted that female al-Bashir sympathizers spread a “venomous web of fear of change” (Gaafar and Shawkat 2019). Their strategies included using familial and social relations to promote pro-regime views, and grooming children as future supporters of al-Bashir’s National Congress Party (Gaafar and Shawkat 2019).

Mural of a woman in a white toub with the words "Sudanese Revolution"

This mural depicts Alaa Salah, whose image became a widespread symbol of the revolution outside of Sudan. Image "street art, Shoreditch" by duncan is licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0 

2.3 From Chants to Tweets: Mobilizing in Public and Private Spaces 

Despite the threat of assault and arrest, women often led the organization and mobilization of protestors, both on the streets and on the internet. This included joining and leading efforts to mobilize men and women as well as women-only groups and protests. While women participated in protests across the country, the following discussion is focused on Khartoum, given the availability of information and reporting (Khazen 2019).

Women played a key role in mobilizing protesters for action. Their use of chants and ululations to encourage protesters and  call for solidarity became a widespread feature of street protests. For instance, women often used zagrouda (the women’s chant) to call on protestors to join them (Al Ali and Awad 2019). While reportedly highly effective, a look at the traditional origin of zagrouda reveals that it was often used by women to cheer on men to take action, including in wartime (Al Ali and Awad 2019). [2] Hence, women’s use of these calls employed traditional tools to fuel political action, but also exerted, or reinterpreted, an action that had historically limited women to a sidelined, supporting role. 

Another recurring theme in calls for participation was women’s activism in encouraging men to protest. One protester describes this rhetorical strategy – used by women themselves – in the following way: “People were so encouraged by women…So usually women at the procession encourage men to continue. If we women are outside, what are you doing inside?” (Zain 2019, emphasis added). This example showed that the mobilization strategies were not free from gender stereotypes – in this case, the mention of women’s political activity is connected to an implicit emasculation of men who would not participate by placing them below women. This invokes a gender hierarchy whereby women are inferior to men. 

Aside from their chants, women and youth informal networks were particularly effective in grassroots organizing due to their ability to reach people (Abbas 2019). Such strategies, key to the movement, were largely developed and led by “neighborhood resistance committees.” The resistance committees were networks, both in Khartoum and in the rest of the country, that organized residents for civil disobedience campaigns throughout the revolution. 

Women, both in Sudan and the diaspora, used their online presence to communicate, document and share information (Ali 2019). Some of the most effective coordination arose from unexpected sources: private women-only Facebook groups, initially created to discuss romantic lives and expose cheating husbands, were transformed into platforms to share the faces and names of abusive security forces (Mwanza 2019; Vall 2019). Social media helped to not only document the different ways in which women participated in everyday forms of resistance, but also allowed women who couldn’t join the streets to take part (Wilson Center 2019). This was especially relevant as young women often faced concern from their families about joining demonstrations outside (Abdelaziz 2019).

One of the most remarkable features of the revolution was its strict adherence to the principle of nonviolence and the absence of looting or destruction of private property.

One of the most remarkable features of the revolution was its strict adherence to the principle of nonviolence and the absence of looting or destruction of private property. This stands in contrast with earlier revolts in Sudan, such as one in 2013, when protests turned to riots and the burning of gas stations (BBC 2013). Nonviolent protests, however, are far less likely to lose popular support and the support of those whose property might otherwise be at risk, which was the case in 2018 to 2019, when Sudanese business people supported the revolution and contributed significant financial resources to its logistics (De Waal 2019). 

The degree to which women protesters were promoting and upholding the standards of nonviolence is difficult to ascertain. However, the stereotype that  women  are less violent than men, coupled with the visible presence of women among protesters, might have contributed to the recognition of the revolution as nonviolent in the eyes of Sudanese society and government. [3] Moreover, this stereotype might even have been one of the reasons why the state’s violent crackdown took place far later than in 2013, when over a hundred protesters were killed within a few days of the beginning of protests.

As the demonstrations grew in Khartoum, the protesters’ demographics, on average, became more affluent and elite. Once the protests arrived in Khartoum, the Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), formed in 2013 as an alliance between different professional networks and associations, led the strategy of calling for marches, strikes, and organized civil disobedience (Abbas 2019). While the SPA was not adequately representative of Sudan’s array of grievances, especially those of ethnic minorities, it was the best organized body among the different groups, and coordinated the protests from January 2019 onward. In many places, the SPA's mobilization efforts were supported by neighborhood resistance committees, who would translate the SPA's directives into action in their areas (Abbas 2019).

On a national scale, the efforts to achieve political transformation became increasingly institutionalized. In January 2019, the SPA and twenty-one other organizations – varying from a coalition of opposition parties to civil society organizations to rebel groups fighting in the country’s periphery – signed a so-called “Declaration of Freedom and Change,” forming the Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC). The FFC later went on to represent the opposition in the transition negotiations. Though several women’s rights organizations and youth-led groups signed the FFC’s declaration, women and youth remained largely excluded from its decision-making bodies, and the FFC was further criticized as elitist (Marsden 2019), as its leadership excluded activists from the country’s periphery. 

Women holding signs at a protest

Women holding signs at a protest. Image "Sudan Revolution" by Hind Mekki is licensed under CC BY 2.0

2.4 Women’s Diverse Roles in Protest Spaces

On the streets, women, especially young women, developed a reputation for resolve and fierceness in the face of state forces’ attempts to quell the protests. The story of a young woman celebrated widely on social media for throwing teargas canisters back at security forces is just one of many examples (BBC 2019a). Women participated in and led many efforts that contradicted traditional gender roles, such as building roadblocks and barricades (Al Ali and Awad 2019). 

Other women contributed to protest activities through more traditional roles, but with no less resolve. This included caring for revolutionaries by supplying food or taking care of the wounded. Elderly women in particular were noted for deceiving security forces when sheltering revolutionaries in their homes, perhaps using common assumptions about older women being apolitical or conservative to their advantage (Ahmed Abdel Aziz 2019, 5).

Women’s diverse roles in the revolution were also visible in a sit-in in front of the army’s headquarters in Khartoum in early April 2019,  which arose out of an effort to pressure the army to support protestors. The sit-in quickly developed into the center of protest activity that was maintained as a communal space for gathering, art, and activism until its demolition in the June 3rd attack by security forces. Visited by tens of thousands daily and seen by many as “a microcosm of the future Sudan that the protesters envision,” the sit-in was maintained by hundreds of volunteers who erected makeshift health stations, classrooms, pharmacies, food distribution stations, and security checkpoints on the territory (Osman 2019). 

At the sit-in as in the revolution overall, women’s willingness to contribute to the protests along traditionally gendered divisions of labor differed vastly among groups of women. One example of women willingly taking up traditionally female tasks was the decision by a collective of tea vendors – a profession that was often a particular target of security forces’ harassment under al-Bashir – to organize free food at the sit-in for several thousand people a day. The distribution arose of their own initiative after they  saw a need (Lavrilleux 2019). Only shortly before this, however, the SPA had called on women protestors to cover cleaning duties in protest spaces – “because you [women] care more about it [than men]”– angering groups of women  protesters (Salih 2019).

Simultaneously, gender norms were not only challenged but also at times openly renegotiated in the revolution’s new makeshift headquarters. In response to sexual harassment by some male protestors in protest spaces, women organized marches at the sit-in to raise awareness and demand male peers actively challenge sexist behavior (Ismail and Elamin 2019). To many women protesters, the sit-in represented a liberation from the previously strict public order laws and social norms, as walking without headscarves and staying on the streets until late in the evening became possible (Elbagir 2019a). Women also took active roles in speeches, music, and art activities at the sit-in, using their performances to call for gender equality (Mohamed 2019). 

In addition to gender roles, the revolution, and particularly the sit-in, sparked new ways of thinking about relationships.

In addition to gender roles, the revolution, and particularly the sit-in, sparked new ways of thinking about relationships. Sudanese anthropologist Azza Ahmed Abdel Aziz observed the emergence of chants in which women and men took turns declaring their desires for future partners once the revolution was over. In their chants, the women abandoned previously common notions of professional, middle-class men as ideal husbands and instead used slang describing young, street-smart men – the archetype of the male revolutionary. Ahmed Abdel Aziz finds that “a veritable shift was taking place whereby young women were divested of the coy demeanour of the modest doe eyed female since they were loudly proclaiming their desires, and furthermore electing the profiles of men who would not have been serious contenders in the past” (Ahmed Abdel Aziz 2019, 12).

 

3. Gendered Symbolism in the Revolution 

Throughout the revolution, protestors used art, fashion, poetry, chants, and cultural rituals as ways to express their frustrations, grief, and resolve (Elhassan 2019a). Their expression relied heavily on imagery and symbolism, much of which was used or understood in a gendered way. The following section explores the gendered nature of symbolism through the specific imagery and signifiers used by women and men, and by looking at how men and women became icons of the revolution in different ways. It is largely focused on the urban upper- and middle-class, as their self-expression is best documented and most accessible through online and social media. 

3.1 White Teyab

Wearing the color white, and specifically a white toub, emerged as a key symbol for Sudanese women  during protests in Khartoum and the diaspora. Teyab (the plural form of toub), long pieces of fabric wrapped around the body and covering the hair, are the traditional garment of women in central Sudan (500WordsMag 2019). The use of white teyab by young Sudanese protesters has several layers of historic and cultural symbolism. As it was traditionally worn by women of all classes at the workplace, it is a “democratic garment, worn by secretaries and lawyers alike” (Friedman 2019) – one that, while traditional, does not abide by strict piety rules that Islamists aligned with the al-Bashir government promoted. The use of the toub by urban upper- and middle-class women could signify an effort to build bridges to the country’s margins–a mentality of “we-are-one” and a rejection of ethnic and social differences formed a recurring theme among urban protesters (Osman and Bearak 2019). In spite of this, the toub is a garment that originated in the country’s central, economically and politically privileged regions. It is presently unclear whether the wearing of the white toub was received as a bridging signal by ethnic minorities and the populations of peripheral regions. 

Another interpretation of the white toub is to see it as a sign of solidarity with the women protestors of previous generations, who wore white teyab when demonstrating against previous Sudanese regimes and colonial rule.

Another interpretation of the white toub is to see it as a sign of solidarity with the women protestors of previous generations, who wore white teyab when demonstrating against previous Sudanese regimes and colonial rule (Makki 2019). Some women paired the garment with traditional gold jewelry or with blue, yellow, and green accessories. These colors represent the Sudanese flag of independence designed by a female school teacher in the 1950s, which was abolished by a military ruler in 1970 in favor of the pan-Arab colors (500WordsMag 2019; Diab 2018). Young men also wore traditional white clothing – the jellabiya – while protesting, but jellabiyas were far more widespread before the revolution. Hence, the wearing of the jellabiya was not recognized as symbolically charged like the white toub. 

3.2 Sudanese Women as Kandakat

Women’s political activism was given additional symbolic layers with the widespread identification of women protestors as Kandaka, the term used for queens and queen mothers of the ancient kingdom of Kush in Nubia, which encompassed parts of modern-day Sudan. Today, the term is commonly translated as “strong woman” or “queen” (500WordsMag 2019). The kandakat (the plural of kandaka in modern Arabic) of Nubia are commonly remembered for their resolve as rulers (Abdelrahman 2012). 

Widely used by Sudanese men and women in the revolution, the kandaka title recognizes Sudanese women’s political agency and activism, and the historic legacies therein (Makki 2019). However, the glorification of women protesters as kandakat, fulfilling a symbolically charged role that was historically distinct from men, was not uncontroversial. Some Sudanese women’s rights activists criticized it as unjustly presenting women as “above” other protestors, and as ironic given the lack of gender equality in Sudanese society (Salih 2019). 

3.3 The Viral Image of Alaa Salah

Three days before President Omar al-Bashir was ousted, an image of a young woman protesting in a white toub and traditional jewelry was shared on Twitter and WhatsApp in Sudan. The image (and videos of the same scene that later emerged) shows engineering student Alaa Salah standing on top of a car, chanting revolutionary poetry to a crowd: “They imprisoned us in the name of religion, burned us in the name of religion … killed us in the name of religion,” with the crowd responding “revolution” (Ismail and Elamin 2019). The image went viral in Sudan almost immediately, and inspired countless pieces of Sudanese art, varying from political caricatures to paintings to graffiti on the streets of Khartoum. 

Within a few days, Salah’s photograph was picked up by major international news outlets and seen as a defining image of the revolution to international audiences. However, the common depiction of Salah as a singular iconic example, often described as having a leading role in the protests, was quickly rejected by Sudanese women activists. They took particular critical note of the depiction of her activism as exceptional for a woman of Muslim and presumably Arab origin. As Sudanese activist and writer Sara Elhassan comments, “the world, faced with the image of — as they perceived her — an ‘Arab,’ ‘Muslim’ woman so fiercely expressing herself, all but lost its mind. They dubbed her ‘icon,’ ‘Lady Liberty,’ and ‘the leader of the Sudanese revolution’ — in the process whittling an entire people's revolt down to a singular character and issue” (Elhassan 2019b). 

Others, such as Sudanese academic Iman Abarro, were concerned that the focus on Salah drew attention from women’s activism at the margins of society: “Salah deserves to be an icon of such an important time in Sudan’s history, but let’s not forget who this revolution is really for. Sudanese women all across the nation and throughout our complex history deserve to be acknowledged and applauded for their efforts” (Abbaro 2019). Activists Nisrin Elamin and Tahani Ismail highlighted that “Alaa's recitation was by no means an exceptional act. Her public performance echoes a long tradition of Sudanese women performing praise and lament poems to honour the dead, boost the morale of warriors and defy ruthless leaders” (Elamin and Ismail 2019). Social anthropologist Azza Ahmed Abdel Aziz finds the image of Salah to contribute to a “depoliticized and romantic vision of emancipation […] that does not address the harsh realities of Realpolitik” (Ahmed Abdel Aziz 2019, 7). 

Sudanese reactions to the glorification of Alaa Salah abroad ought to demonstrate to sympathetic international observers that instead of focusing on an isolated incident and an individual act, women’s roles and demands in the revolution have to be understood in context, accounting for the spectrum of perspectives of women from all parts of society. Rather than zeroing in on one woman from a privileged background in the nation’s capital, observers should work to understand and amplify the voices of women and members of marginalized groups in Sudanese society and support their efforts to meaningfully participate in shaping the country’s political transition – a demand that Salah made herself, when speaking in front of the United Nations Security Council (Salah 2019).

3.4 Mothers and Martyrs 

A central way of commemorating those killed during the protests – commonly referred to as martyrs – and transforming the grief for the dead into mobilization for sustained protests relied on mothers. The family homes of those killed would be visited by up to several thousand people, with special tribute paid to the deceased’s mother (Zain 2019). “Mothers of the martyrs,” as they were called, also took prominent roles at demonstrations, by wearing honorary decorations given to them by protestors,  leading demonstrations, and calling for sustained activism as a way to honor their – usually male, since the majority of deceased were men – children (SudaNow 2019). An Arabic chant translating to “the blood of the martyr is my blood, the mother of the martyr is my mother” was prominently used during marches (Francis 2019). 

Several male martyrs’ deaths sparked widespread revolutionary symbolism, including the use of a specific shade of blue – the favorite color of Mohamed Mattar, who was killed at the sit-in massacre on June 3, 2019 – in revolutionary art and on social media (Bendimerad and Fairsal 2019). The common conception of martyrs as young men, and the explicit honoring of their mothers (the honoring of fathers being much rarer), illustrates how grief and commemoration were expressed along gendered lines, with maternal sacrifice playing a symbolic role that has occurred similarly in other transitional justice processes (Simic 2009, 220-236).

 

4. The Use of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence by the State

The state’s methods to quell the protests were highly gendered, and sexual and gender-based violence was deliberately used in planned attacks against activists. In the early months of the revolution, sexual and gender-based violence was perpetrated by state actors both in the streets and in Sudan’s infamous torture prisons. The brutal crackdown on the protest sit-in camp in Khartoum on June 3 2019, involved  unprecedented levels of sexual violence against both men and women.

4.1 “Break the Girls”

The early strategies of the Sudanese state to quell protests employed a clearly visible gendered strategy of violence and torture. Reports abound of women being arrested at protests and taken to detention sites, where they were threatened with rape, forced to strip naked, and photographed, with security forces threatening to distribute the photos in the protestor’s community. By mid-May, 15 cases of women raped in detention were reported, although real numbers are likely much higher (Elbagir et al. 2019). Some former detainees reported that the treatment led to familial tensions, with husbands and fathers attempting to prevent women from returning to the streets. Intimidation of women protesters in public included brutal beatings and shaving their hair. Anonymous security officials confirmed to reporters that their specific instructions were to “[b]reak the girls, because if you break the girls, you break the men” (Elbagir et al. 2019). 

It is important to note that while women were the primary targets of rape by security forces, men were also raped. Reports emerged on the rape of men in detention in cities in the country’s periphery, with at least one man dying as a result (Middle East Eye 2019). However, the degree to which this strategy was used against men detained in Khartoum is unclear.

Whereas the majority of witnesses speak of male perpetrators, there are also accounts of female security officials participating in the torture of detainees, although it is unclear whether this included sexual torture (SudanUprising 2019). 

Crowd of people at night

Sudanese protestors filled the streets. Image "HME_9566" by Hind Mekki is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

4.2 The Ramadan Massacre

The most widespread sexual violence occurred during the June 3rd attack on the large sit-in camp that protestors had built as a space for art, activism, and peaceful political dialogue in the center of Khartoum. Taking place on the last day of Ramadan, it became infamously known as the Ramadan Massacre. The attack occurred in the middle of the night and was unprecedented in its brutality, with a death toll of at least 127, the majority of whom were men, and more than 700 injured. The number of rapes, including gang rapes, against both men and women are unclear, but are estimated to be several hundred (Al-Karib 2019). Some accounts describe abductions that resulted in repeated rapes over several days (Jacinto 2019). The group widely believed to be responsible for the attack, a state-sponsored militia group known as the Rapid Support Forces (RSF), is known to have employed similar tactics of sexual violence in campaigns of ethnic cleansing in Darfur (Jacinto 2019).

4.3 “A Raped Woman is Never a Hero”

The use of sexual violence was signaled openly in the streets after the massacre. The targeting of a space where protestors felt safe, and on a religious holiday, is significant in understanding the message that the perpetrators intended to send: that protestors were not safe from the state, not anywhere, not at any time. In a country where sexual violence is highly stigmatized, rape is not only a strategy to intimidate women from participating in public life, but also as a signal to their community (Bektas 2019). As activist Dalia El Roubi describes: “It also breaks the men. A mass rape is basically telling them you can’t protect your own. In a way, it has more of an impact than death: a killing can make icons or heroes. A raped woman is never a hero” (Jacinto 2019). To men who were raped, social stigmatization is likely to be even higher, as harmful notions of men’s emasculation, homosexualization, and feminization through rape persist across cultures (Sivakumaran 2007, 253-76). 

4.4 The Response to Sexual Violence on June 3rd and Beyond

While not focused specifically on sexual violence, a march commemorating the massacre and renewing demands for civilian rule drew millions to the streets less than a month after the massacre, demonstrating the population’s solidarity with those attacked at the sit-in. The public discourse on the Ramadan attack indicated solidarity among protesters and a level of recognition of the state’s use of rape and sexual violence as a weapon to kill the revolution (Byaruhanga 2019).  Public awareness rose further when the media reported the suicide of a woman raped in the Ramadan Massacre (RadioDabanga 2019a). However, the rapes of men were treated with more silence. 

Among the most prominent responses to sexual violence was a campaign called Pink for Kandaka, which started as an effort to raise solidarity for rape survivors and those who experienced the protest crackdown. As part of the campaign, a magenta ribbon was used as a symbol of solidarity in an initiative to break social stigma (Jamous 2019).

Among the most prominent responses to sexual violence was a campaign called Pink for Kandaka, which started as an effort to raise solidarity for rape survivors and those who experienced the protest crackdown. As part of the campaign, a magenta ribbon was used as a symbol of solidarity in an initiative to break social stigma (Jamous 2019). Activists on social media have also emphasized the psycho-social impact of rape and sexual violence and have called for men and women to share their experiences of sexual abuse in an effort to not only discuss the specific instances of rape against protesters, but also foster a larger conversation on sexual harassment and violence in Sudanese society (Elfadul 2019). They have highlighted the urgent need to define and criminalize sexual harassment, abuse, and rape more clearly in the country’s legal frameworks, and to make marital rape a criminal offense. Furthermore, activists lamented the lack of training of police forces and the judiciary to adequately address the needs and rights of survivors, who in turn often refrain from reporting for fear of stigmatization (Elfadul 2019). 

 

5. Outcomes of the Revolution

While talks between civilian leaders and military representatives--which had started in mid-April shortly after al-Bashir’s ousting–collapsed in May 2019, the Sudanese society’s strong response to the massacre–including civil disobedience campaigns and new waves of protests bringing millions to the streets – placed sustained pressure on the country’s transitional military council. Following mediation efforts by the African Union and Ethiopia, talks resumed in early July. A preliminary power-sharing agreement between the civilian opposition and military leaders was reached within a few days, followed by a political agreement formally signed on August 17, 2019 that contained a Constitutional Declaration detailing the political transition for a period of 36 months. Key components of the agreement were the nomination of a civilian Prime Minister by the FFC and the establishment of an interim civilian cabinet overseen by a shared military-civilian Sovereign Council. The Sovereign Council was agreed to be headed by military leaders for 21 months, followed by civilian leadership for 17 months. 

Although the agreement represents a remarkable achievement of the revolutionaries, it leaves significant room for the influence of military leaders who represent the upper echelons of the former regime. This most notably includes Mohammed Hamdan Daglo, known as “Hemeti,” the leader of the RSF militia that  is widely assumed to have perpetrated campaigns of ethnic cleansing in Darfur and the June 3rd attack. Hemeti, both a signatory to the transitional agreement and a member of the Sovereign Council, is one of the most powerful men in Sudan’s current political marketplace, controls the majority of the country’s gold mines, and is unlikely to cede control over his forces (De Waal 2019; Berridge 2019, 10). The RSF have expanded their reach across the country in recent years, and are well-paid and well-equipped compared to other Sudanese security forces (De Waal 2019). While officially integrated into the country’s regular military in December 2019, they apparently remain largely operationally independent from the rest of the country’s armed forces (RadioDabanga 2019c, Michaelson 2020).  

5.1 Lost in Transition 

Aside from being unable to resolve the military-civilian power struggle, the negotiation over the transitional period also left significant gaps in representing and meeting the demands of women protestors. Women were starkly underrepresented in the negotiation of the transition, only filling two of the FFC’s ten-person negotiating team in the early weeks of negotiation (Georgy 2019). After the renewal of talks in July 2019, the lead negotiator for the FFC was a woman, but civil society organizations strongly criticized a stark underrepresentation of women and their demands among various negotiating committees. At the signing of the transitional agreement, women were notably absent among the signatories and speakers (AFP 2019). 

Activists have been voicing their concerns with representation in the transitional government since al-Bashir’s fall (Kirby 2019). After an initial list of nominees for the  Sovereign Council containing only one woman was met with resistance from civil society groups, subsequently two out of the six civilian members nominated to the 11-member Sovereign Council were women (National Editorial 2019). The 20-member civilian cabinet currently contains four women, including Sudan’s first female chief of justice and minister of foreign affairs (El-Sheikh 2019). For the creation of a transitional legislature, the Constitutional Declaration of August 19th mandated a minimum 40 percent female quota. Some civil society groups, however, had demanded 50 percent representation in all levels of the interim government (Shawkat 2019). 

Although envisioned to occur in November 2019, the formation of the legislature has not taken place as of April 2020. The reason for the delay in implementation lies with the peace negotiations with rebel groups from the country’s periphery that the transitional government began September 2019 and that are yet to yield a much-anticipated final agreement. Until recently, the transitional government followed rebel groups’ demand to delay the formation of a parliament until an agreement containing provisions on political participation had been reached. In mid-April 2020, however, the government changed course by announcing its intention to nominate civilian governors and form the interim parliament in the following four weeks (Sudan Tribune 2020). 

This is a promising development, especially given the uncertain status of the peace negotiations.

This is a promising development, especially given the uncertain status of the peace negotiations. Observers point out that a reason for the prolonged negotiations is that they have transformed into a central platform for power brokering, which the military-led part of the transitional institutions has used to expand its power at the expense of the civilian-led cabinet (Gallopin 2020). Waiting further for the negotiations to play out before taking the urgently needed next steps in implementing the transitional agreement would be a risky endeavor. Importantly, it would ignore the potential for the parliament to become a forum for democratic deliberation, where diverse viewpoints are represented and visions for the country’s political transformation are developed.

5.2 Mixed Results on Legislation and Participation

Meanwhile, women’s organizations and activists have been sidelined from the peace negotiations between the government and rebel groups, despite their repeated calls for inclusion. In their attempts to lobby negotiators to include their demands, women’s organizations have specifically pointed out the need to consider the situation of displaced women, war victims, and single mothers working in precarious conditions (Radio Dabanga 2019d, 2020b). 

With regard to legislative changes, some progress has been made towards achieving the goals emphasized by women’s organizations. Since the transitional government was put in place, it has repealed the majority of regulations comprising the public order laws, criminalized FGM, and dissolved the former ruling party, the NCP (Bearak 2019). While the removal of the public order laws was welcomed and seen as a positive step, activists have made it clear that more work needs to be done to eradicate gender discrimination from Sudanese law, especially concerning provisions on marriage, inheritance, and legal guardianship (Human Rights Watch 2020). Women’s rights activists also urged the government to ratify key international agreements on women’s rights, such as the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) and the Protocol to the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights on the Rights of Women in Africa, also known as Maputo Protocol (Radio Dabanga 2019d, 2020b).

5.3 Reckoning with State Violence

The transitional institutions have so far shown little awareness of the psychological and social consequences of the sexual violence perpetrated by state forces. Although the new civilian government’s Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has formed a committee to investigate the June 3rd massacre, which had been a key condition of the FFC during the transitional negotiations, significant worries remain. Several groups have raised concerns about the lack of women and experts on sexual violence on the committee, the independence of the committee, as well as the scope of the investigation (Human Rights Watch 2019). Despite demonstrations calling for the release of the committee’s findings in March 2020, investigations were ongoing as of April 2020 (Radio Dabanga 2020a). To this day, the questions of the legal prosecution of perpetrators and financial compensation for survivors remain unanswered. The Constitutional Declaration of August 19th did not include any provisions counteracting the de facto immunity that state security forces enjoyed for human rights abuses in the years prior to the revolution, and there have yet to be significant legal changes in this regard. Several high-ranking members of the transitional judiciary, however, including the Attorney General, have made public statements declaring that perpetrators of human rights violations will be held to account, giving cautious hope that survivors and victims’ families will have access to justice (Radio Dabanga 2019b).

Crowd with billboard in the background

Image "HME_9521" by Hind Mekki is licensed under CC BY 2.0 

 

6. The Road Ahead

Experts have long pointed out that when it comes to conflict resolution and political transition, “issues regarding women, gender and human rights are [seen by decision makers as] ‘soft’ or ‘marginal issues’” (Mazurana 2005, 40), and put aside while power brokers focus on ‘hard’ security issues. As the Sudanese political transition appears to follow a similar trajectory so far, it is of critical importance that the transitional government understand the far-reaching consequences of ignoring and excluding the voices and interests of those who have too long been silenced. The government must not turn its back on its commitments to the ideals of the revolution – a revolution that was driven by women and the youth, and that must deliver justice to those who suffered most under al-Bashir’s regime, including the populations of peripheral areas and the survivors of sexual and gender-based violence. 

6.1 Assuring that Women’s Demands are Represented and Met

The participation of women, especially those outside the capital’s affluent elite, in negotiated transitions is not simply a question of justice, but also one of legitimacy and representation.

The participation of women, especially those outside the capital’s affluent elite, in negotiated transitions is not simply a question of justice, but also one of legitimacy and representation. As the Sudanese people define their future political system, a process that excludes the perspectives and grievances of large parts of the population cannot lead to a result that carries the broad support of society. This is especially relevant given that in the power struggle between the civilian cabinet and the military elite, the civilian government cannot afford to lose the support of the people. A failed assassination attempt on civilian-nominated Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok in early March 2020 served as a reminder of the fragility of the current transitional arrangement, although it remains unclear who was responsible for the attack.

In accounting for the meaningful participation of women in any political transition, it is important to look beyond the question of quotas or “token” women who fill seats at a table with decision-makers who are unwilling to listen (Paffenholz et al. 2016). It would also be erroneous to assume that a woman in a decision-making forum would automatically go on to represent “women’s issues” or “women’s interests” – categories that do not exist in the first place, as women are not a homogenous group with universal interests (Cohn 2017). Not all Sudanese women shared the same interests or shared all demands, and more needs to be done to understand the differences in grievances between women from different age groups, urban and rural areas, the center and the periphery, those affected by conflict and those who are not, and different ethnic groups.  Women from different backgrounds and parts of society must be given the opportunity to meaningfully contribute to the peace negotiations, institutions, and deliberations about Sudan’s future. 

There are several steps towards this goal that the government can take in the short term. One key measure would be to establish a clear mechanism for civil society initiatives, especially those representing women’s rights activists and populations outside the country’s center, to participate in and inform the ongoing peace negotiations. The recently announced establishment of a transitional parliament before mid-May must be implemented as far as health and safety considerations allow in light of the COVID-19 pandemic. Lastly, fulfilling the demands of women’s rights groups on the dismantlement of discriminatory legal provisions and the ratification of international treaties protecting the rights of women would send important signals to the population that their grievances have not been forgotten, and that the ideals of the revolution will be carried through into the political transition.

6.2 Meaningfully Addressing the State’s Crimes

As open questions about the country’s future abound, the transitional government should avoid losing sight of the past when navigating the road ahead. Before and during the revolution, protesters, both women and men, were the target of brutal repression tactics, including sexual and gender-based violence. Finding ways to address the aftermath of this widespread violence, through prosecution and beyond, is another central challenge for the interim government in handling the transition in a gender-sensitive manner. 

Strengthening the June 3rd attack investigative committee by including experts on sexual violence, and ensuring that objective and comprehensive results can be released as soon as possible, is a crucial first step. A comprehensive response by the transitional government cannot, however, focus on violence during the revolution alone. Sexual and gender-based violence has been used by state forces and state-sponsored militias for decades, and constituted an integral part of the methods of ethnic cleansing employed in Darfur. The RSF’s central role in these atrocities cannot be denied, and the mere identification and prosecution of individuals involved in the June 3rd attack, even if it were to be achieved, would do little to change the fact that a significant portion of the country’s military and security apparatus is implicated in the use of sexual and gender-based violence on a much larger scale. 

Any reckoning with the regime’s past of sexual violence thus has to go beyond the prosecution of individual perpetrators. Ideally, measures would include the systematic training and re-education of troops or the disarmament of fighters belonging to parts of state-sponsored paramilitary groups, based on a systematic assessment of the pattern of sexual violence exerted by the groups’ members (Wood 2014, 475-77). Given the importance of the RSF’s  role in the military-civilian power struggle, and the power held by its commander, these measures might seem lofty and unattainable at present, and their implementation might even endanger the hard-won successes that have been made so far. Here as in other regards, the civilian government must avoid ignoring or indefinitely postponing ‘gender issues’ for pragmatic reasons. Where measures cannot be attained now, a willingness to address them later must nevertheless be signaled. Developing and implementing codes of conduct for security forces that are compliant with international humanitarian and human rights law would be a step in the right direction, although it must not remain the only one.

Looking beyond  judicial proceedings and the security sector, the government should embrace advances made by civil society on addressing the stigmatization faced by survivors. The government must support civil society initiatives leading conversations on sexual violence and harassment who aim to foster change in societal attitudes towards survivors of sexual violence and  condemn all forms of sexual and gender-based violence occurring in Sudan. In this regard, it is important not to limit the understanding of sexual and gender-based violence to a “women’s issue,” or to conceptualize it as “violence against women” (Sivakumaran 2007). As reports from male victims of rape and sexual torture in Sudan emerge, measures must be taken to prevent a stigmatization of survivors of any gender, and care must be taken to ensure that psychosocial and medical support is not tailored to women exclusively. 

6.3 Supporting the Sudanese Transition From the Outside

Nonetheless, where opportunities for action exist, international partners should encourage the government to deliver the demands of the Sudanese people.

Given the continuing influence of militia commanders and members of the former regime in the highest ranks of the government, and the ongoing tensions between the civilian and military factions of the interim institutions, the international community should proceed with understanding and patience vis-à-vis the civilian cabinet’s institutional and political constraints. Nonetheless, where opportunities for action exist, international partners should encourage the government to deliver the demands of the Sudanese people. Support to and partnership with the civilian government also entails understanding the importance of economic factors in the power struggle over the transition, and heeding the calls both by leaders of the civilian government and countless of experts to lift economic sanctions on Sudan and remove it from the U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism (Gallopin 2020, Wane et al. 2019). Removing Sudan from the list would support the civilian government in seeking debt relief, promoting trade and investment, and stimulating an economy that has been plagued by corruption under al-Bashir’s rule (Al-Karib and Hassan 2019).

The women and youth-led 2018 to 2019 Sudanese revolution, through non-violence and persistence, brought down a regime headed by Omar al-Bashir that was responsible for decades of repression, gross violations of human rights, and discriminatory and regressive policies. Women’s roles in leading the protests and their high participation rates are a testimony to Sudanese women’s historically strong role in popular movements and political activism. Women’s rights were particularly targeted and repressed under al-Bashir’s rule, which played an important role in bringing women from different backgrounds to the streets and to online activism. The outcomes, at least in the context of the transitional government, have so far been mixed. It is likely to be a long process to acknowledge and remedy the human rights violations and undo the restrictions on women’s and men’s civil and political rights over the past thirty years. Although there have been some positive developments, there remains a need for sustained momentum for not only legal and institutional change, but also to guarantee access to justice over the next three years of the agreed transitional period. 


About the Authors 

Miriam Engeler is a Master in Development Studies candidate at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies and was a visiting student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy. She focuses on conflict resolution and gender in conflict and humanitarian crisis. Her experience includes working on women’s rights and political participation in Europe and East Africa. Miriam can be reached at miriam.engeler@graduateinstitute.ch or on LinkedIn.  

Elena Braghieri is a Master of Arts in Humanitarian Assistance candidate at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University, and is dual enrolled in the Child Protection Certificate Program at Harvard University. Before attending graduate school, Elena worked for multiple non-profit organizations responding to the Syrian humanitarian crisis.  She spent eight years working on Child Protection and Gender Based Violence programs in Lebanon and Turkey. She can be reached at elena.braghieri@tufts.edu and and at elena.braghieri.lebanon@gmail.com.

Samira Manzur is pursuing a Master of Arts in Law and Diplomacy at The Fletcher School at Tufts University, with a focus on Development Economics, Humanitarian Affairs and Business for Social Impact. She holds a Bachelor Degree in Economics and International Relations from Tufts University and has extensive experience working on gender and labor rights. She can be reached at samira.manzur@tufts.edu


Acknowledgements 

The authors would like to express their sincere gratitude to Alex de Waal and Raga Makawi for their extensive and very helpful comments, and to Dyan Mazurana for her guidance and continuous support. Any omissions or inaccuracies remain the sole responsibility of the authors.


Notes 

1. The authors are grateful to Raga Makawi for pointing this out.

2. The authors are grateful to Raga Makawi for pointing this out.

3. The authors would like to thank Alex de Waal for drawing their attention to this point.


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