Mothers of the Revolution
On 8 April 2019 Alaa Salah, 22, is standing on top of a car in Khartoum, the Sudanese capital. She wears a white tobe – a traditional Sudanese dress – and gold moon-shaped earrings. With one hand in the air, she addresses the crowd:
‘These military men disfigured Islam. They imprisoned us in the name of religion, burned us in the name of religion… killed us in the name of religion. But Islam tells us to speak up and fight against tyrants… The bullet doesn’t kill. What kills is the silence of the people.’ Alaa demands the fall of Sudan’s dictator, Omar al-Bashir. The crowd cries back: ‘Revolution!’
Bashir had been in power since 1989, when he took control of the country in a bloodless military coup. Fundamental to the philosophy of his Islamic state was the idea that women are biologically programmed to care for the family, while men are built to provide and protect. Under Bashir, women’s treatment became a marker of Islamic legitimacy: their behaviours at home, work and in outdoor space were dictated by intrusive, highly discriminatory laws that were heavily policed.
Three days after Alaa’s speech, Bashir’s resignation was announced. It was the culmination of five months of country-wide demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of protesters – 70 per cent of whom were reported to be women – demanding civilian rule, ‘freedom, peace, and justice’.
The image of Alaa on top of the car went viral. International press celebrated it as the defining image of Sudan’s ‘women’s revolution’. Like North America’s Lady Liberty and the Marianne of the French Republic before her, Alaa’s image had become the symbol of a nation.
But, as Alaa herself stated afterwards, one Muslim Arab woman from Khartoum could not represent the breathtaking diversity of Sudan. Looking in at Alaa from the crowd were hundreds of silhouettes, their faces indistinguishable, pointing their smartphones at her. They were female politicians, students, housewives, union leaders, labourers, war refugees, communists and preachers of all religions and ages. These were the women who together helped to bring down Sudan’s strongman.
But while Bashir has gone, the damage and division wrought by his 30-year dictatorship is profound and enduring. We went to meet seven women who, in their unique ways, are working to bring a new Sudan into being. And discovered that for each of them, the revolution has only just begun.
January 2020. As the sun sets, Malaz Jaffar Abdelkarim, 18, walks down the streets of Burri, near central Khartoum. Her hair is shockingly short. A passing woman stops: ‘What did they do to your hair?’ she asks, her eyes filling with tears.
A warren of unpaved lanes and mudbrick walls surrounds them. Malaz remembers being chased through these streets by government soldiers last year, mounted on pick-up trucks, which were known as ‘Thatchers’ after the former British Prime Minister’s toughness. Young protesters would run and duck into local homes; neighbourhood grandmothers disguised the fugitives, or helped them escape through windows.
Malaz had helped lead her local ‘resistance committee’ in Burri, a historically middle-class neighbourhood, where many had lost their livelihoods under Bashir. It was one of many youth-led groups that emerged across the country to co-ordinate the street protests that had first arisen from longstanding protests over bread prices.
Women like Malaz were key to the success of the revolution and lauded for their bravery. One teenage girl, dubbed ‘Teargas Hunter’, went viral for throwing hot teargas canisters back at army tanks. Others built barricades and guarded checkpoints. Such was the ubiquity of their presence that anonymous security officials confirmed to US broadcaster CNN that their orders were to ‘break the girls, because if you break the girls, you break the men.’
Malaz was cornered by a security officer who grabbed her and cut off her long braids. The memory still feels raw and she starts crying as she recalls it. But she continued to protest and would go on to be detained 16 times, held in illicit detention centres, known as ghost houses. ‘It was freezing cold,’ she recalls. ‘They beat me with electrical cables. It’s the kind of thing you can’t forget or forgive.’ Malaz has vowed to keep her hair short until justice is served.
Heading to her local resistance committee meeting, Malaz passes the dusty square where her braids were violently cut. Young boys are playing football. The ball lands in front of Malaz. With an infectious smile, she gathers up her long loose yellow dress and kicks it back.
Despite women’s visible leadership, they have been sidelined in the formal political process since the revolution. After Bashir’s removal from office, the Forces for Freedom and Change (FFC) – an umbrella for revolutionary groups, civil society, unions, rebels and opposition political parties – agreed a plan with the military for the gradual transfer of power to civilian rule over the next three years. As part of this plan, an 11-strong Transitional Sovereign Council, made up of soldiers and civilians, was set up to rule Sudan until elections planned for 2022. Only two women sit on the Council.
Malaz’s resistance committee is following a similar trajectory: sitting outdoors in a circle of red plastic chairs, the meeting attendees are all male. It was organized at a time when most women are at home with their children. The committee is intent on holding the military to account, gathering testimonies of those attacked during the revolution. As Malaz enters, they are discussing their frustration with the slow transfer to civilian rule. She waits patiently to give her testimony. The mosque lights up, the muezzin calls for prayer. She only speaks for a couple of minutes before the men rush off.
A mother of five, Jalila Khamis Kuku is making madida, a fenugreek porridge often given to pregnant mothers, for her daughter, who sits nursing in the corner.
Jalila grew up in Kaneefa, a village in the Nuba Mountains on the border with South Sudan. The Nuba people are comprised of 50 or more diverse ethnic groups, a mix of Muslim, Christian and animist faiths, each with a distinct language. Growing up, Jalila remembers bringing in harvests and composing hunting songs with other young women. Now living in Khartoum, she teaches literacy to women who, like her, fled violence in their hometowns.
Present-day divisions in Sudan owe much to the legacy of colonialism. Over 57 years, the British colonial administration exploited existing animosities to ‘divide and rule’. The British invested in the predominantly Muslim-Arab North, while sidelining the predominantly Christian and animist African South. After independence in 1956, the British-built elite in northern Sudan held on to political and economic power, trying to assimilate the rest of the country by force. This triggered a southern rebellion and two civil wars. The Nuba peoples sided with the rebel forces of the South fighting against Khartoum, and suffered tremendously as a consequence.
In the 1990s Bashir subjected the Nuba Mountains to almost daily aerial bombings. Rebel areas were sealed off from media and humanitarian relief. In 1992, Bashir declared a ‘jihad’ or Holy War against the rebels, a politicization of religion that was deeply resented by the women of the region. Paramilitary groups like the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) carried out systematic mass killings and raped with impunity. They were encouraged to attack civilians whose residents were suspected – often solely on the basis of their non-Arab ethnicity – of supporting rebels.
Though many in the Nuba Mountains identify with the South over the North, in 2011, the region was excluded from the referendum which would lead to the creation of South Sudan. Their area – home to most of the country’s oil – was forced to remain part of Sudan. By then, an estimated 1.4 million Nuba had been killed or injured by the military in an almost invisible war. The fighting continued.
Jalila fled to Khartoum and operated a secret cell of the southern rebel group, the SPLM-N. She also passed evidence of war crimes to Amnesty International and the International Criminal Court. In 2012, Jalila was put on death row, charged with ‘spreading false information’. In prison, she organized strikes against the forced labour of female prisoners and children. Eventually, the police threatened to harm her son, a threat that shook her to the core.
Online youth groups successfully campaigned for Jalila’s release in January 2013. She continued her activism despite government intimidation, under constant censorship and surveillance.
When Bashir stepped down in April 2019, Jalila was excited to finally speak freely about the war in the Nuba Mountatins. When the military took control in Khartoum in the immediate aftermath of Bashir’s fall, Jalila stayed on with other protesters at a sit-in, to demand civilian rule.
Two months later, on 3 June, the RSF attacked the sit-in, replicating tactics used in the Nuba Mountains. Hundreds were injured and 120 killed. Mental health workers reported handling dozens of cases of rape after June 3. The Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors reported 70 rape cases occured on that day. Some women, who chose to remain anonymous, have described being raped and whipped with electric cables by men in RSF uniform. ‘For one week I was unable to move,’ one recalls.
But the protesters prevailed. In August, a joint military-civilian Sovereign Council was formed to rule alongside a civilian prime minister. In September, the government appointed a national committee to investigate the assault on 3 June. Sudan’s attorney general is also investigating other historic abuses under Bashir. Jalila hopes their findings could push the Constitutional Court to lift the military’s immunity from prosecution.
Jalila is now gathering testimonies to submit to the 3 June Committee. For her, military accountability will be the test of whether this new government can be trusted.
‘This revolution was the revolution of the women. They were damaged by the high cost of living, the wars and the abuses of the state,’ she says. ‘I want to restore the right of all victims of violations in all of Sudan.’
But the odds are not in Jalila’s favour. Remnants of the defunct regime and the security authorities are still present. The seven-member investigations committee includes representatives of the Ministry of Defence and of the RSF, whose head, Mohamed Hamdan ‘Hemeti’ Dagolo, is vice-president of the ruling Sovereign Council. ‘The deep state still exists,’ she observes.
Later that day, Jalila walks down Nile Street in a blue tobe, which wraps around her head and body. Trees, covered in dust, sweep down towards the ground as a sand storm, known locally as a haboob, smothers the city and local farmland.
Jalila sees a student sobbing at a mural, which depicts a portrait of a young man. She walks over and holds him firmly. Around them, hundreds of other murals commemorate those who died in the revolution. ‘His best friend was killed during the sit-in, along with so many others,’ she explains. ‘It’s a sad thing. There has been no justice.’
In the shallows of the River Nile, young people drink tea, take selfies and cool their feet in the water. Among them is 21-year-old Lina Yassin, a chemical engineering graduate, who lives in the nearby upmarket neighbourhood of al-Taif, central Khartoum.
Lina has been politically active since she was 14, after climate-change-related floods wrought destruction across 14 of Sudan’s 18 states, affecting over 300,000 people and washing away 25,000 homes. The Bashir regime’s failure to act prompted Lina to join Nafeer, a youth-led initiative – named after a Sudanese social tradition translated as ‘collective voluntary work’ – to support those left destitute.
‘I grew up in a supportive and quite open-minded family,’ says Lina, ‘but there were limitations to this freedom. Once I stepped outside my home, I could get arrested for this type of thinking.’
Lina remembers being scared to meet with male classmates and being sent home from her first day at university for wearing jeans. Under Bashir’s public order laws police could punish perceived ‘offences to public morality’, arresting women on the street and at home. Women never knew when or how they could be targeted. Blackmail, beatings and sexual assault by police were common.
Since the laws were largely repealed in November 2019, five months after Bashir’s fall, Lina can now wear jeans wherever she likes. She also welcomes the transitional government’s move to outlaw female genital mutilation (FGM), a prevalent practice in Sudan where the United Nations (UN) estimates that nearly 9 out of 10 women have been subjected to the most extreme and invasive form of the procedure.
Lina points to a small green island in the middle of the Nile in Khartoum with a smile. ‘Tutti island is one of the only places in Sudan that is 100 per cent FGM free.’ She explains how mothers and grandmothers on the island went house to house educating families about the dangers of FGM. Lina knows it will take time before the rest of Sudan follows suit but looking across at Tutti island she feels hopeful.
Today, Lina is still a climate activist. She engages her Muslim-majority audience using Islamic arguments: ‘The Qur’an tells us to protect the environment.’ She’s worried about the growing number of sand storms and is working to expose the mishandling of climate funds by the former regime – still in disbelief that she can now do this safely.
Amina, 29, is sitting on a bus from Ombada 15, where she lives. ‘Arabi, Arabi, Arabi,’ the driver calls. Here at Souq al-Arabi, Amina changes buses for Bahri University, Khartoum, where she is studying for a Masters in Peace and Development Studies.
Amina is from the Darfur region in western Sudan. As a young girl, she pleaded relentlessly, and successfully, to go to school with her brothers. But at 16 years old, she was married to her cousin, later giving birth to a son. According to the Sudanese Family Law of 1991, a wife must ‘amicably obey’ her husband and seek his permission to work. Wife-beating is permitted, if accepted by the local community. ‘I had to cook and clean,’ Amina remembers. ‘There was violence inside the home.’
At 19, she decided to brave the shame of divorce and secretly applied to study in Khartoum. ‘I knew it was a big decision. It would cause a fight inside my family.’ Life was a struggle for a woman alone in Khartoum. She was harassed and quizzed on her Darfuri ethnicity at job interviews. She also lost custody of her son. Looking at his photograph she worried she had made a mistake, but decided to ‘face my challenge and continue’.
Barring improved freedom of speech, Amina has noticed little change since she protested in the revolution. The Family Laws that governed her marriage remain. And, unlike Lina, Amina cannot get away with wearing jeans. ‘I get harassed even wearing suitable clothing… imagine if I decided to wear what I liked?’ she laughs, rolling her eyes. It doesn’t matter to her if the laws change when the mentality stays the same. She carries a wheel of pins in her handbag to dig into men who harass her on the bus.
For Amina, women will never see real change until there is peace. She was 12 when war began in Darfur and remembers vast refugee camps appearing on the outskirts of her city. According to the UN approximately two million people remain displaced by violence in Darfur.
‘With peace we can get social peace. With peace [women] can, step by step, get a good education and then participate in political life,’ she says.
Peace talks with armed groups across Sudan, including in Darfur and the Nuba Mountains are a priority for the transitional government. Any settlement would need to rebalance distribution of power and resources and increase religious tolerance. Female civil-society leaders have been heavily involved, relaying community priorities to negotiators, but remain underrepresented in leadership. All three African Union mediators are men and only 15 percent of the negotiation delegation are women.
Sara Abdalla Nugdallah sits at a literary award ceremony in the imposing Friendship Hall, a gift from China to the Sudanese government.
A former mathematics professor, she is the first female Secretary General of the political party Umma, one of the most widely supported in the country. Umma grew out of a Sufi nationalist movement led by a religious leader called the ‘Mahdi’, who established Sudan’s first independent Islamic state in the 19th century. His elderly great-grandson, Sadiq al-Mahdi, leads the party today.
Sara spent her childhood in Oum Durman, Khartoum, where during Sufi prayers – dhikr – sheikhs lead meditative repetitions of the names of God. Sufism is generally regarded as more peaceful and tolerant than Bashir’s brand of conservative Islam. ‘Luckily my father was one of the founders of the [Umma] party. I grew up among sisters and girls.’ She remembers discussing social issues and politics with family and neighbours.
Sara is looking forward to her first chance to run for office. All parties are keeping a watchful eye on the military, who still dominate the Sovereign Council. On March 2021, they are due to cede control to a civilian chair who will rule until democratic elections take place in 2022.
This will be the first opportunity for Sudan to democratically choose its leaders since al-Mahdi, leader of the Umma party, won elections in 1986. This was during Sudan’s second civil war, when his government was at war with Jalila’s SPLM-N rebels (then known as SPLM). Al-Mahdi was twice prime minister and attended an elite British school like many of Sudan’s other former leaders.
While Jalila and Lina want a secular state, Sara wants a religious, but tolerant, state that respects diversity. Against polygamy and child marriage, she rejects the former regime’s use of Islam to control women.
‘We finally felt really respected in this new society. The young people came to me and said, “Thank you, you are the mother of the revolution”’
Ongoing debates over religion’s role in the state reflect a dilemma over national identity in a country of over 500 ethnic groups still dealing with the legacy of brutal civil wars. Democratic coalition governments in pre-Bashir Sudan have been weak, divided and unstable, often overturned by military coups.
In the last elections before Bashir took power in 1986, the Umma party had no female members of parliament. But over the last 30 years powerful women have risen to the top of Umma party politics – often women from quite powerful families, like Sara. Her priority is to bring more women into politics, especially those from marginalized areas.
Umma aims for 40 per cent of women in party leadership positions. But for Sara, representation and quotas need to be substantive, not symbolic. Bashir’s parliament had a 25-per-cent quota of Islamist female MPs, but they often couldn’t stop legislation that curtailed the rights of women, she explains.
‘Women have to have their voices heard.’
It’s evening in the sprawling open-air market of Souq al-Shabi where a sandy pavement is covered in motorcycles, tools, wheels and car parts.
Dressed in a loose shirt, fake-leather jacket, trousers and sandals, with a bandana tied around her shaved head, Hikma Gaidom Kodi, 42, answers to the name Abdul Hakam when at work.
Hikma is one of the few female motorcycle mechanics in Khartoum. Under the 1997 Labour Code, work considered ‘hazardous, arduous or harmful to their health […] exceeding the normal limits borne by women’ was discouraged. But Hikma has always found a way around the country’s laws.
At 16, she started dressing as a man, while training to repair motorbikes. ‘The person who taught me told me, “Don’t tell anyone here that you are a lady”. I changed my name. People didn’t recognize me. I lived among people with that identity.’ Hikma is tenacious. Determined to help support her family, she completed the training in half the usual time.
‘I’ve seen many girls in South Sudan and Uganda riding motorbikes. What I’m doing is not a big deal but around here it is.’ Unlike Amina, Hikma doesn’t have to deal with ‘the pinching, touching, grabbing’ on public transport. Dressing as a man opened her eyes to the freedom that men experience. ‘If you wear trousers, you are left alone.’
At the market, her colleagues now know she is a woman and accept her male name and men’s clothes. ‘I’m really happy here. I feel I can be me.’
The air smells smoky and full of gas. Hikma is the only woman here, apart from a tea lady, her customers’ chairs haphazardly placed among broken motorbikes. Hikma recently broke her leg – but cannot afford to go to hospital. She stands soldering without gloves or protective equipment.
Hikma wants her own workshop but for now has to focus on survival. She earns no more than 2,000 Sudanese pounds ($37) per week. Playfully, she talks about trying to arrange a meeting with the prime minister and even ‘tried asking that warlord in charge if he could give me a small amount of gold’, referring to RSF head ‘Hemeti,’ the vice-president of the Sovereign Council. She has not heard back.
Hikma took part in the revolution with others from the market. ‘We wanted them to look at our issues but we were neglected. So, we got disappointed and just came back,’ she says.
The repeal of public order laws makes no difference to her, as she has always broken the law in some way or other. She fixes bikes without a permit and if the police come, she picks up her stuff and runs. She jokes that she runs fastest, but then backtracks quickly. She often gets caught, arrested and fined.
In a nearby part of the market, Awadia Mahmoud Kuku adds a spoonful of sugar to a glass of tea. Women in colourful dress are busy around her taking phone calls and helping visitors. Attached to the corrugated roof, a rusted sign reads, ‘Women Food and Tea Sellers’ Co-operative’. Awadia’s union is always abuzz with activity, she explains.
Sudanese women consider labour unions to be the most important platform for increasing visibility and access to decision-making, according to a survey of 10,000 women.1 Political parties ranked low in comparison, after civil society and resistance committees.
Awadia came from the Nuba Mountains to Khartoum when she was young. In 1985 she took part in a mass uprising to overthrow dictator Gaafar Nimeiry. Illiterate – like 56 per cent of Sudanese women – Awadia found herself excluded from many work opportunities. So she started working as a ‘tea lady’, selling tea and coffee on the street.
The transitional government has continued to make reforms. Religious laws on apostasy, male guardianship and flogging as punishment for homosexuality have been repealed.
Under Bashir, tea ladies were relentlessly fined, arrested, blackmailed, and sexually assaulted by public-order police. According to advocacy network the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA), public-order police used violence against women considered ‘security threats’, including war refugees such as the tea ladies, women’s rights campaigners or student activists. SIHA recorded one case in 2017 where police pelted tea ladies with stones as they fled across the Nile. One woman’s six-month-old baby was thrown into the water and drowned, along with four women. ‘You couldn’t see any respect from the people in government… The ladies were not seen as humans,’ Awadia says.
In 1990, Awadia established the first Women’s Food and Tea Sellers’ Co-operative in Khartoum. The group offered legal aid and confronted police authorities, often successfully, to help return confiscated equipment. Awadia, like Jalila, spent years behind bars for her activism.
When protests against Bashir began, Awadia was joyous. She proudly took charge of feeding protesters. ‘We finally felt really respected in this new society. The young people came to me and said, “Thank you, you are the mother of the revolution”.’
COVID-19 POSTSCRIPT: MASKS AND HAND SANITIZERS
It’s June 2020 and Awadia does not have much time to talk. She is on her way to court to bail out tea ladies arrested for violating lockdown rules.
Sudan is experiencing one of the worst outbreaks of Covid-19 in East Africa. The economy was already suffering and inflation now stands at over 100 per cent. In July, record-breaking climate change-related flooding affected 17 out of Sudan’s 18 states and some 650,000 people.
Despite the pandemic, the transitional government has continued to make reforms. In September, a peace agreement was signed between the transitional government and a coalition of rebel forces. It promises to end the wars in Darfur, the Blue Nile and the South Kordofan Nuba Mountains region. Thousands of rebels are to be incorporated into the army. Hundreds to be given executive and legislative positions until elections.In a radical departure from Bashir’s Islamic state, the peace agreement committed to a “constitution…based on the principle of ‘separation of religion and state’.”
Religious laws on apostasy, male guardianship and flogging as punishment for homosexuality have been repealed. The death penalty has been lifted. An anti-corruption body has confiscated almost $4 billion of assets from Bashir, his family and associates. Bashir himself is currently facing trial in Khartoum over his role in the 1989 coup that brought him to power. He is also wanted by the International Criminal Court, to face charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for atrocities committed by pro-government forces in Darfur.
While people wait anxiously for the 2022 elections, they are pushing to constrain the power of the military in other areas. In July 2020, protests resulted in all military regional governors being replaced by 18 civilian governors, including – for the first time in Sudanese history – two women. However, reformers are frustrated. A promised 300-strong civilian Legislative Transitional Council that would have balanced the power of the military-dominated Sovereign Council has yet to materialize. The plan for a transfer to democracy must now be adapted to integrate power-sharing promises made in the peace talks.
Islamists from the former regime ‘are resisting the democratic situation’ explains Samia al-Nagar from the women’s civil-society coalition MANSAM. ‘They are creating problems every day. They are still in control of the economic situation and that is why now we have a very high inflation.’
Thousands have protested the repeal of Islamic legal restrictions, including many women. ‘We don’t like these new laws that seek to convert us into a Western community,’ a female protester told journalists in June. ‘We’re Sudanese and Muslim and we want to remain as we believe.’
For al-Nagar, deep-rooted patriarchal structures pose the biggest challenge to women’s rights. ‘Democratic governments won’t necessarily give women their rights; we have to be there to struggle.’ MANSAM has presented a list of women candidates for consideration to be nominated to the legislative transitional council.
Awadia’s union has been dissolved to clear out elements of the old regime placed in unions by Bashir’s party, leaving her suddenly without a platform.
Aisha Musa el-Said, one of the two female members of the Sovereign Council, recently summoned Awadia to tell her to stop giving press conferences and speaking out on behalf of the tea ladies, now she is no longer a union leader.
Awadia feels discouraged. She had thought of Musa el-Said as an ally. ‘At first I wanted to be in the parliament or the legislative council, but when I saw how [Musa el-Said] treated me, I thought that I don’t want to be like her. I want to be in the street,’ she says. ‘I won’t stop fighting for the rights of women and I won’t stop believing in the revolution.’
Back in Burri, Malaz is struggling. The resistance committee in her neighbourhood is now in charge of helping distribute food, money and hand sanitizer to families struggling to get by due to Covid-19 – but women have been told to stay at home. The men will text meeting updates. Malaz complains about the brevity of these texts and believes the committee has started lying about meeting times: when she turns up as scheduled, the meeting is already over.
Malaz turns up regardless. ‘I insist on going. They underestimate what we say, but we are still going to push for our opinions and our voices to be heard. They matter.’
This reporting was supported by the International Women’s Media Foundation’s Women Deliver Reporting Grants.