As October’s military coup in Sudan threatens to roll back the gains made in the 2019 revolution, women are fighting once again the authoritarian regime, remaining one of the core revolutionary forces on the ground.
Back in early 2011, long-standing Sudanese activist Jihan el-Tahir was among the protesters participating in small anti-regime protests that took place in the capital Khartoum and were quickly suppressed by police forces.
While the Arab uprisings spread across the region, Sudan was largely left out of the Arab Spring at the time. That did not put off the female militant who soon joined an underground political youth group named “Sudan Change Now”, which was calling for the fall of long-time ruler Omar al Bashir.
Since then, she has been engaged in the civil resistance movement through small-scale but sustained efforts, culminating in the 2018-2019 demonstrations that led to the overthrow of Bashir's brutal regime, and she continues to resist military rule now.
“Resistance has never stopped, and today the movement is growing because General Abdel Fattah al Burhan is just an extension of al Bashir. It’s another face of the same system,” the woman activist told TRT World, referring to the coup leader who is seemingly seeking to consolidate the military's takeover.
A leading member of her neighbourhood’s resistance committee in Karari locality, in Khartoum's twin city Omdurman, she has been constantly involved in the anti-coup actions since Sudan’s military seized power and detained top civilian politicians including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok on October 25.
The same protest movement that drove the popular uprising against Bashir mobilised again in the build-up to the army’s power grab, and has been calling for the military to exit politics completely.
“This is the first time in Sudan we saw masses of people flooding the streets since the very day of a coup,” said Tahrir before coughing repeatedly in what seemed to be symptoms of a chest infection.
'No deal with the military'
In her committee, she co-organises regular activities and holds meetings along with fellow members where decisions are made collectively as a horizontal, leaderless movement that relies on a network for coordination. Information about dates, time, meeting points and protest routes are shared, and the distribution of roles and responsibilities is carried out via in-person meetings and WhatsApp groups.
Revolutionary activities go from staging big demonstrations, usually on a biweekly basis, to holding small nightly rallies and silent marches at a neighbourhood level while giving public addresses to raise political awareness, and visiting families of the martyrs of the revolution and of the June 3 2019 massacre in which more than 100 people died at the hands of security forces.
Neighbourhood committees are locally autonomous and critical in coordinating ongoing resistance activities and providing a relatively safe space for participation since members live in the local areas they operate in and know their neighbours.
With the internet blackout hindering the protest movement, the committees have been instrumental in printing and handing out information to local residents, and giving VPN addresses to people so they could bypass the restrictions and get back online.
To focus public attention on the anti-coup resistance, committee members have diversified their use of social media by changing profile pictures on Facebook accounts for example, or commenting on posts from government-related pages with laughing emojis.
Through a system of sub-committees, which are largely led by women, members are assigned different tasks, such as being in charge of the logistics (i.e. monitoring repression and warning of approaching security forces during protests), engaging with the media and handling equipment to document protests, preparing protest materials and speeches, serving as medics for the injured.
Tasks are assigned and changed among members flexibly on a regular basis, according to their availability and changing circumstances. Tahrir, for her part, is mainly contributing in a media and communications capacity.
Azhar Karrar, co-founder of the Karari resistance committee, has long been dedicated to her local network from the early days in 2019 when she started meeting and networking with a small circle of neighbours. She is currently involved with the strategy and planning as well as debriefing from meetings.
Karrar has observed an increased presence of women in the resistance committees since Sudan’s 2019 revolution, however specified that they are still comparatively under-represented depending on how conservative the area is. Due to widespread gender stereotyping and resistance to change in people’s mentalities, she continued, female members encounter various problems, from participating in street protests to reaching far-out locations to attend meetings, and contributing to strategy.
“Nevertheless, women are playing a pivotal role in the Sudanese resistance movement until now,” the feminist activist told TRT World as she battled a bad cough she developed from tear gas exposure after taking part in a rally near the presidential palace in Khartoum last week.
She added that where the female composition of committees is greater, members tend to work on strategy and planning more effectively and cooperatively, rather than debating or arguing over issues.
'Our line is very clear'
Well before the revolution, women’s involvement in the resistance goes back to the first day al Bashir seized power in a coup in 1989. For 30 years, women in Sudan have fought against the regime’s repression by being part of trade and professional unions and student groups, and forming various initiatives over the years.
‘No to Women’s Oppression’ was created in 2009 to defend women’s rights in Sudan after a group of women including journalist Lubna Ahmed Hussein were arrested for wearing trousers. Back then, authorities considered wearing ‘indecent dress’, like trousers, to violate the Public Order Law.
Today, women’s groups have become more organised and able to network in light of October’s coup which ended a military-civilian power-sharing deal agreed in 2019 following the toppling of Bashir.
In an agreement struck on November 21, army leader al Burhan reinstated PM Hamdok to lead a technocratic government until elections in 2023, a move that was slammed by the country’s pro-democracy movement which is against the military’s involvement in politics.
“Our line is very clear: we cannot make deals with military authorities, they are not serious about the transition to democracy”, Karrar underlined. “We believe they hold on to power and won’t hand it to civilians.”
She also pointed out that Sudanese people now overwhelmingly reject the 2019 constitutional charter for the transitional period which was signed by representatives of the Transitional Military Council and the civilian-led Forces of Freedom and Change alliance.
In an opinion piece, Shadia Abdel Moneim, a feminist and human rights defender who co-founded several resistance bodies to the al Bashir regime, wrote: “Today, the goals and demands of the revolution have become even clearer: the rejection of partnership with the military, rejection of the flawed constitutional document, rejection of the incomplete Juba peace agreements and the adherence to a transitional period led by civilians.”
The past two years of transition saw, on one hand, civilians aspiring to bring an end to the army’s grip on the country’s affairs and, on the other hand, the military wanting to retain its influence and financial privileges amidst a crushing economic crisis and political turbulence.
Tahir voiced the mistrust coming from the Sudanese street vis-à-vis the army, given the history of violent repression Sudan has lived through, which has returned in full force since the 25 October military takeover.
“No agreement, no compromise. We won’t stop rising up until the soldiers go back to their barracks,” she vowed. “There’s no way Sudan will be ruled by generals again.”
Not only has the coup been widely seen as an act of betrayal that departed from the course of the 2019 revolution, but for Sudan’s women it is also a threat to the revolutionary wins in the country. They have had the most to gain since the fall of Bashir’s dictatorship, and they have now the most to lose. Many fear the military’s power seizure endangers women’s human rights, wellbeing and even basic security.
One of the first acts taken by the transitional government was the repeal of the infamous Public Order Law, which regulated women’s freedom of dress, movement, association, work and study, that had been used largely to control women’s public presence. Other policies benefitting women followed to do away with some of the most discriminatory laws. The government also ratified international conventions protecting women’s rights.
As a result, women have become more visible in the public sphere, and enjoy freedoms such as going out with their heads uncovered, wearing trousers, working or travelling without male permission. They have entered professions that were reserved for men during the previous regime. Their participation in peaceful protests and marches has noticeably grown.
With military power restored, women are particularly affected as first targets of oppression in public spaces coming in very gendered ways.
Both Tahir and Karrar noted that throughout the country’s history, army rulers have used violence against women as a tool to oppress them and limit their participation in society. The use of rape as a weapon of war in the conflict in Darfur by the Janjaweed and government of Sudan provides an example of a strategy of terror created in order to gain power. Poor women and girls, internally displaced people, refugees, and those living in areas of armed conflict continue to be the most vulnerable to organised violence.
“Because women’s role in mobilising the Sudanese society is well-known, one approach long adopted by the regime has been breaking the society by breaking women,” Tahrir remarked, referring to a clear targeting of women and girls on the streets.
As freedoms and human rights under a military regime are at risk, women of Sudan remain on the front lines to resist any action that brings them backwards, demanding a civil and democratic system of governance that respects women’s rights.
“Without our participation in the unions and resistance committees, our voices wouldn’t be heard,” Karrar said. “We think for ourselves and fight.”
Major challenges like the military’s brutal repression, counter-revolutionary propaganda, attempts by the regime to co-opt some of the resistance committees along with the external support of the army rulers stand in the way of the resistance.
Women are well aware that they are paying a high price in the form of arrests, killings and other violence.
Yet, the pro-democracy movement appears today more united than during the revolution which raises hopes about the capability of women on the streets alongside male protesters and in the revolutionary organisations confronting the coup.