Since the 2019 Sudanese Revolution that ousted the dictator Omar al-Bashir, the momentous role that women played to shape the historic event has attracted considerable international attention. These women, who came to be known as “Kandakat” after powerful Nubian queens, have achieved critical acclaim. Their protests in front of the Army Central Command were extraordinary in the face of the systematic 30 years of suppression of their human rights. The Public Order Law that al-Bashir passed in 1996 was not only detrimental to ethnic minorities, but also to women who became ultimate targets of gender-based violence, public flogging, imprisonment, harassment, and confiscation of the property of those who toiled to eke out a living in the market. Although what the world has found to be an astonishing feat—Sudanese women’s role in the revolution—it is by no means new in the world of women’s rights activism, their revolutionary zeal has, indeed, a long gestation period deeply steeped in history.
When the first Sudanese woman to be admitted in Kitchener Medical School, the formidable Khalda Zahir Soror Al-Sadat, and her schoolteacher friend, Fatima Talib, got together one afternoon in Omdurman, they felt it important to reach out to others in their neighborhood to establish a Sudanese woman’s union to agitate for the rights of women under British colonialism (1898-1956). Their idea gathered momentum as evidenced in an impressive gathering at the home of their compatriot Aziza Makki Osman Azraq. The effort came to fruition in 1952 with the founding of the Sudanese Women’s Union. Far from being an elitist, urban-based effort, the Union succeeded in including women of all regional, religious, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds throughout the country. Along with significant milestones achieved since then, such as the adoption of equal pay for equal work in 1953, the Union focused on a plethora of discriminatory practices often rationalized as revered traditions. They ended “Obedience Laws,” which forced a woman to return to her abusive partner and relinquish every right or entitlement due to her as a human being. These monumental struggles, however, were not without adversaries who mounted unjustified criticisms of the Union as foreign innovations that had no roots in Sudanese customs and traditions.
Despite the extraordinary struggle of Sudanese women and their unyielding search for justice, the challenges endure, the most prominent being the climate of impunity in the country.
Notwithstanding, the women of the Union ventured forth with prodigious efforts that mitigated some of the most inequitable acts meted at women in their flagship magazine Sawt Al-Marr’a (the Woman’s Voice). These women soon recognized that they were on the cusp of challenging oppression by locating allies and opinion leaders who could shatter the myths about their effort’s foreign roots. Indeed, one of the most critical accomplishments of the Union was its success in forging powerful alliances and solidarities across local, national, and international frontiers. At home, they organized workshops and community gatherings to further women’s agency in changing their own lives. Such a task warranted a conscious confrontation of prevailing gender ideologies that women accepted as dogma and deployed to their own detriment. Through extensive discussions with men and women, they took up cultural practices head-on and uncovered the political and legal contexts within which they operated. Despite the insurmountable obstacles imposed on the organization by military dictatorships, it managed to leave its mark on the Sudanese political landscape as it continues to do today to localize human rights principles in the Sudanese context underground. In this important historical context of gender activism in the country, it is not surprising to witness the extraordinary courage and fortitude of Sudanese women in protesting military rule. They resisted the systemic racism, classism, and sexism that engulfed the country from North to South, West to East. Nowhere has the impact of the prevailing political ideologies been so damaging than the tearing apart of the country and its entrapment in civil war and communal strife. Since independence, the political violence in South Sudan since 1955, culminated in the region’s secession in 2011. In 2003, Darfur has witnessed atrocities that many observers described as genocide. These killing fields left the communities displaced, disseminated, and dead. In 2004, the International Commission of Inquiry confirmed the massive violations of International Human Rights and Humanitarian Law in Darfur. Although these conflicts have been devastating to the country at large, they have been particularly shattering for women and girls’ lives. Gender-based violence and crimes against humanity, as evidenced in rape as well as destruction of property and life, continued with impunity.
The Sudanese women’s revolutionary fervor has, therefore, a long history. Gender-based violence and curtailment of women’s mobility have inflamed women’s desire for resistance and change. The most recent example is when General Abdel-Fatah Al-Burhan, the commander-in-chief and president of the Sovereign Council of the transitional government of Sudan, decided to oust the civilian government in October 25, 2021. Sudanese women from all socioeconomic backgrounds rose again. They joined rallies and civil disobedience organized by their local resistance committees and the Union of Sudanese Professionals. Time was of the essence when they jumped into action once more, propelled by the insidious military oppression that loomed threateningly over their lives. They rejected the coup d’état that represented a dangerous setback and would have exacerbated their suffering.
Despite these challenges to women’s struggle for gender equality and justice, their determination to bring about a measure of fairness remains unshakeable.
Despite the extraordinary struggle of Sudanese women and their unyielding search for justice, the challenges endure, the most prominent being the climate of impunity in the country. None of the perpetrators of political violence in the South or in Darfur have been held accountable. Not only were these perpetrators not held to account for waging war crimes and crimes against humanity, but they continue to do so as authority figures in the current regime. In the North, the families of the disappeared and summarily executed implored Prime Minister Abdulla Hamdok to intercede in the effort to locate the graves of their sons, fathers, and brothers. So far, these demands were met with silence.
Despite these challenges to women’s struggle for gender equality and justice, their determination to bring about a measure of fairness remains unshakeable. The continued participation of Sudanese women in the unfinished revolution is a major resource for hope. Today, their protests in the country are accompanied by others. Sudanese migrants and refugees all over the world joined in solidarity, and in so doing, kept the plight of Sudanese people on the radar as a complex emergency that warrants immediate attention. The strong civil society associations in the country will benefit from systematic media coverage exposing the scale of violence in the country and supporting their plea for democracy and respect for human rights. International women’s organizations also have an important role to play in strengthening the role of their local counterparts in Sudan. The quest for gender justice in the country will only succeed if women see justice being served.