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“Women aren’t just a part of the movement, they are leading it” – Alaa Salah
Yesterday was a historic day for the people of Sudan. After a three-decade long dictatorship, Sudanese president Omar al-Bashir, was pushed out of power, forced to step down, and was placed on house arrest by the Sudanese military. Protests leading to this moment began in December as a response to the increase in bread and gas prices and overall economic hardships, anger over corruption, and oppression of women in Sudanese society. Peaceful protests were met by excessive force by Bashir’s regime, and over 50 people lost their lives.
Noticeably, Women played an active role in what has been taking place in Sudan for the last few months. After an iconic photo of 22-year old engineering student, Alaa Salah standing on a car leading chants in the protest went viral, many started to pay more attention to women in the uprising. Excited by an image of a brave young woman coming to represent an entire movement, people were quick to claim a feminist victory as if it is so difficult to believe that women are at the forefront of a movement. But what we as people peering into the Sudanese context fail to recognize is the fact that women have been leading movements in Sudan for decades, and it comes with its own set of difficulties.
For starters, while some are shocked by the level of women’s engagements in the revolution, it is important to recognize that Sudan has a rich history of women’s involvement in movements. The women in the thick of the movement in Sudan are well aware of their own history of leading revolutions, and it is symbolically represented through Alaa’s photo. As pointed out by Twitter user Hind Makki, there is a lot of symbolism in Alaa’s outfit. The earrings, the hair, the and clothes all have symbolic meaning. Most notably, the outfit mimics the clothes that have been worn by working-class women during previous demonstrations against oppressive regimes, prompting many to view this as a conscious ode to women in Sudanese history.
It is also important to note the gendered difficulties and dangers women faced in the uprising. Throughout the revolution, women from different backgrounds were out in the streets organizing, leading marches and chants since the start of the protests in December, where the dangers faced by protesters included tear gas, live bullets, and arrest. Some reports have said that upwards of two-thirds of protesters were women and that they were being disproportionately targeted by security forces as hundreds were detained and faced vicious beatings while in custody. In addition to the usual backlash experienced by protesters, the treatment that women faced were gender specific. These tactics included pulling off head scarfs, shaving women’s heads and cutting off hair, and threats of rape and sexual harassment.
One activist, Mervat Hamad El Nil, said in an interview with the BBC that the government would try to scare the opposition through “bodies of women”. Meaning women are used to make an example and to show that the militant government would go to any length in order to exert power over the opposition. Organized activism among women in Sudan is prevalent as they fight for women’s rights regularly. Thus in this particular movement, they seem to irritate the regime as their activism goes further than just marching and chanting on the streets. Ultimately, Women are effective organizers as they have the ability to reach people and prompt them to join the movements in ways men are not able to, subjecting them to being targeted. But despite the reality for women in the movement, activists respond with “there is no amount of beating or detention that could make us stop”.
What this shows is that women are not only participating in political activism, they are leading it and there is nothing shocking about it. Let us never underestimate or overlook the agency and the power of Sudanese women because, as proven on April 11th, they are capable of achieving the unthinkable.
By Areni Der Grigorian