In a country as diverse and divided as Sudan, who gets to define women’s rights and struggles?
In December 2018, the Sudanese people decided to once and for all end Omar al-Bashir’s dictatorship. He had been in power since 1989. Women, who had been disproportionately affected by his regime’s violence, became the beacons of the revolution; at times more than seventy percent of the protesters were female. After Bashir’s ouster, Sudan entered into a transitional phase in July 2019 with the goal to establish civilian rule by 2024. Determined to keep up their momentum, 2,000 women marched to then-Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok’s office in Khartoum in January 2020. They submitted a petition signed by 46 citizens’ groups and 13 political parties, calling for Sudan to ratify the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, end female genital mutilation (FGM), and legally prohibit child marriage.
Throughout the year, women repeatedly took to the streets to demand their political inclusion. On October 25, 2021, General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan took control of the government in a military coup and suspended the Constitutional Declaration. Since then, the Sudanese people have continued their protest and feminists have taken on the challenge of ensuring that women’s rights are protected and advanced in a society that tries to silence them. Amid the turmoil, a new feminist movement is taking shape, searching for an inclusive and culturally appropriate definition of women’s rights.
Visions for the new Sudan differ depending on a person’s social background, political beliefs, and oftentimes, gender. “In the beginnings of the revolution, we already knew that the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA), the main organizer of the protests, will not prioritize women’s rights,” says Ounaysa Arabi, a feminist activist, journalist and student of politics at Khartoum University. “In the winter of 2019, the SPA talked about women cleaning the streets in the new Sudan. So I called for a women’s protest with fellow feminists.”
Their call was shut down by widespread fear that a feminist protest would shatter the revolution’s unity, attesting to the hierarchies of most revolutionary struggles: civil rights first and women’s rights second. “Men and women alike didn’t want to participate.” Women were on the front lines of the protests and organizing themselves into unions, but feminists were far from united. Arabi criticizes that gender equality in Sudan is limited to statutes, laws, girls’ education, and FGM. “The feminist movement in Sudan is not progressive. The main groups, which are all made up of the same people, refuse to speak about sex work, LGBTQ+ issues, children of rape, ‘illegitimate’ babies, or matters of inheritance.”
Feminists have not yet agreed on how drastically they want society to change; is political transformation enough, or will it take radical social change to really improve women’s lives?
“During the revolution, some women were kicked out of the Sit-in because their looks didn’t agree with the conservative taste,” says Arabi. “We’re still fighting against strangers, who are not the police, telling us what to do on a daily basis.” Take, for example, young women’s concerns about attempts to reinstitute the infamous Public Order Laws, which used to dictate admissible fashion for women and punish “moral indecency” with arrests and floggings. Abolished in 2019, they seem to be making a comeback, remodeled as the “Community Police.” Returning to a practice that disproportionately targets women, based on misogynistic ideas of what is “proper,” would be a major setback for women’s rights, the country, and the ideals of the revolution overall. “I don’t think the military will dare to bring back these laws. The real problem is that society itself continues to uphold them because they give conservative people a sense of stability,” Arabi explains.
Rooted in a history of student and youth activism that dates back to the 1990s, Local Resistance Committees (LRCs) emerged as new political agents for radical social change during the Uprisings. Upon watching their leaders fail, they took the revolution into their own hands, working on political charters while building solidarity through the 5,200 LRCs across the country.
As Muzna Alhaj, an activist and representative of her LRC, explains, they are guided by the Three Nos: No compromise with the regime; No negotiations; No legitimacy to the coup leaders. The LRCs are made up of young people from all socioeconomic classes and ethnic backgrounds. However, feminists have critiqued many LRCs for keeping women out of decision-making processes, by making meetings inaccessible to them (for example holding them at night or in areas that are unsafe for women), or stereotyping their roles in the revolution. Journalist and activist Ilaf Nasreldin writes: “Are we putting the image of revolution before the goals of the revolution, or was equality never a goal to begin with?”
A union in which the LRCs become feminist and feminist movement takes on the democratic structures of the LRCs can have far reaching potential as an alternative, female-led, bottom-up model of governance. “Certain people and classes have been ruling Sudan since independence  and there are always the same issues. As a student of political and social studies, it’s just a déjà vu,” says Arabi. “The only thing that’s changing is the dynamics of the feminist movement. It is nothing like a déjà vu.”
In September 2022, 40 women active in civil society organizations, feminist groups, political parties, rebel movements, and universities formulated a unified gender-responsive constitutional vision. Despite its growing pains, the movement is steadily advancing. “Every single faculty of Khartoum University has a feminist entity,” says Arabi with pride. She is optimistic, because “we’re just making a lot more progress than ‘them’ [the men]. We are forming and reforming and understanding ourselves.” She is hopeful that this new generation can build on the work of their elders and make a difference.
“Sudan is so culturally and ethnically diverse, and our understanding of rights differs across the country. It’s impossible to be unified over everything, but we must find a mutual agenda that we all agree upon. Then, nobody will be able to stop us.”