Sudan Protest Icon Says Revolution Cannot Forget Women

Alaa Salah shot to online fame earlier this year when clips of her dressed in flowing white robes went viral on social media and made her an immediate icon of the revolution against strongman President Omar al-Bashir.

This week, the 22-year-old took her message to the world. Al-Bashir is now in jail, but the transitional government that replaced him is not delivering for the women who drove the revolution against his decades-long rule, she said.

Addressing the United Nations Security Council in New York, Salah said that women made up 70 per cent of the protestors in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, earlier this year, but they have since been denied real power under the new system.

“Women-led resistance committees and sit-ins, planned protest routes, and disobeyed curfews,” Salah said in New York on Tuesday.

“Despite their courage and their leadership, women have been side-lined in the formal political process in the months following the revolution.”

Al-Bashir came to power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989, adopting strict interpretations of religious law that reduced the ability of women to participate meaningfully in public life, according to Human Rights Watch, a campaign group.

Women had to cover their hair and follow austere Islamic dress codes, could not freely post their thoughts on social media and were restricted from travelling and, if unmarried, from dining out with male friends, Salah told diplomats.

Al-Bashir was toppled in a coup in April after months of protests and is being held in a Khartoum prison cell on corruption charges. Opposition groups struck a power-sharing deal with the military in September for a three-year transition to democracy.

Women rallied against al-Bashir in huge numbers despite being “teargassed, threatened, assaulted, and thrown in jail,” said Salah. Rape was widespread amid the revolutionary chaos, and, back in their homes, women protestors “faced retaliation from their own families,” she said.

Salah, then an engineering student, was “chanting, singing and walking with my fellow citizens through the streets”, she said. She was dubbed the “woman in white” after standing on a car, swaddled in white cloth, pointing a finger upwards in a gesture of hope and defiance that was captured by a sea of mobile phone cameras.

Campaigners note gains under the post-revolution government. For the first time, women head Sudan’s judiciary and its foreign office. Two women sit on the country’s 11-member sovereign council. In recent weeks, a women’s soccer league kicked off in Khartoum.

According to Salah, these gains are fragile and cannot be taken for granted. In 2018, women made up 31 per cent of Sudan’s parliamentarians, but they were “often without real influence and left out of decision-making circles”.

“Now, unsurprisingly, women’s representation in the current governance structure falls far below our demand of 50 per cent parity and we are sceptical that the 40 per cent quota of the still-to-be formed legislative council will be met,” she added.

Salah and other Sudanese women campaigners say there is much work to be done. Safaa Ayoub, secretary-general of the Community Development Association for Sudan, said many hinterlands of Sudan remain perilous for women.

Ayoub, based in the Western province of Daruf, said security forces in the turbulent Jebel Marrah region have repeatedly used mass rape to terrorize women and girls amid a conflict between Khartoum and non-Arab tribal groups.

Women also struggle in the Blue Nile and Nuba Mountains regions along the border with breakaway South Sudan, where a simmering conflict, security restrictions, and bureaucratic red tape stalls progress, UN diplomats heard.

“We want to make sure that women in conflict zones are protected, that women can move freely, and reach their farms without fear of rape or violence, that they can watch their children go to school safely,” Ayoub said in a statement.

“We want more space and participation and the chance to be dignified as human beings.”

Salah, Ayoub and other campaigners met decision-makers in the United States this week, hoping to pressure Khartoum for speedier progress. Still, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has many pressing financial and security threats that likely rank higher on his agenda.

The activists’ claim that women made up some two-thirds of the protestors appears to be exaggerated, and they can appear unclear on how they want to get women in half of Sudan’s government jobs. Still, Salah said, that is the target.

“If we are not represented at the peace table, and if we don’t have a meaningful voice in parliament, our rights will not be guaranteed, and discriminatory and restrictive laws will remain unchanged, continuing the cycle of instability and violence,” said Salah.