By Nafisa Eltahir (@nafufa)
Late last year, public outcry in the streets, homes, and social media feeds of Sudan followed the implementation of several unpopular economic policy decisions. Reminiscent of many earlier moments in Sudanese history, the loudest voices condemning the government have been distinctly female. As women all over the world now march against Donald Trump and his inane policies, Sudanese women look on with a knowing familiarity.
Liberation of the exchange rate by the Sudanese government in early November closed the threefold gap between the official Sudanese Pound-to-Dollar rate and existing devalued black market prices. Prices immediately spiked, most notably for fuel, electricity and medicines. The drug price surge became the most common rallying cry, and the anger was compounded by the feeling that the government had been intentionally mismanaging its budget.
As small scale demonstrations spread throughout the country, people started to take notice when groups of young women, using social media, organized demonstrations in various locations throughout the greater Khartoum area.
Starting around November 16th, large female-only Facebook groups suddenly became organizing spaces. This occurred primarily on one group known as Fasikh w Jalikh. These groups are perceived to be confined to conversation surrounding beauty and skincare treatments, and are often ridiculed by the general public, as women-centric spaces often are.
However, this was not the first time such groups had become politicized. Similar discussions had sprouted up surrounding earlier protests at the University of Khartoum, when several young women were arrested. This time around, the young women began to plan their own peaceful protests on major streets throughout the capital.
The first such protest occurred on November 17th, and featured only 6 women. Following their example, other stands took place throughout the next few days, attracting larger crowds. The demonstrations were peaceful, and the images of young women on the street pleading their case — often for the first time — were potent. Their decision to take to the streets came with considerable risk, enough so that it was near impossible to interview any of them for this piece. Many of the young women were arrested and tried for disturbing the public peace and public nuisance. They also faced abuse online, from both men and regime-aligned women.
These young women were joined by those even younger. The morning of November 24th witnessed an outpouring onto the streets of Khartoum North high school students. One student recorded an impassioned video, demanding that her fellow students rise up, and criticizing the men who she said would rather stay at home and let girls fight for them in the streets.
Older women also made their voices heard. A viral message came from a woman named Um Kabas, who decried the high prices’ effect on her family, criticized the lack of public outrage — particularly from men — and called for a general strike. She was arrested from her home on November 26, the video of which was also distributed widely.
The recurring criticism of men in these videos and elsewhere hints at a building frustration. As exists throughout the world, men are persistently dominant in Sudan’s political sphere — both within the regime and opposition — yet have few results to show for. As daily life becomes more difficult, these women appear poised to cast aside this form of paternalism.
The three-day nationwide general strike began on November 27. The deadly September 2013 protests loomed large on people’s minds. Those demonstrations, also against price increases amid government mismanagement, were met with live ammunition resulting in the death of around 200 people. The strike, requiring people to stay at home, thus allowed both men and women to participate fully without fearing for their lives. Social media played a role in encouraging and tracking participation. At least 3 women arrested for distributing flyers for the strike in different locations. No to Women’s Oppression, a group representing women of different political affiliations, held a three-day hunger strike concurrent to the nationwide strike.
While the prominence of women in this last period is noteworthy, it is not at all new. A quick look back at Sudan’s history reveals a women’s movement that has been active not only on women’s issues but in the larger politics of the country.
The Sudanese Women’s Union was founded in 1952, four years before Sudan gained independence from Great Britain. It was founded with a specific anti-colonial vision: “There was nothing that would be accomplished for women if Sudan did not first become independent. … So, the women’s movement was tied up with the general nationalist movement and the democratic movement,” explains current executive board member Azza Eltigani Eltayeb.
This attitude continued within resistance movements against subsequent military dictatorships, through to the present day. Heavily involved in the resistance against Nimeiri, the group was abolished by his regime. However, other organizations sprang up in its place. By being active participants in popular revolutions, women were able to advance their own agenda, including demanding full political participation.
It hasn’t been an easy march. As Ms. Eltayeb explains, “Women are forced to resist in many arenas: in their parties to gain a leading role, in their home and work lives. … Just as the pressures on them are compounded, their resistance is also compounded.” While women are very often foot soldiers in resistance, efforts are not always rewarded with full representation when it matters.
The current regime has also proven to be a major roadblock. “From the start, this regime has made a point to antagonize women and make an enemy of them. They wanted women to either follow their path or sit at home,” says Ms. Eltayeb. Several restrictions have been imposed under the much-maligned “public order" laws which attempt to lessen women’s role in the public sphere. That said, given the gains already achieved, the regime’s efforts were not entirely successful, and a women’s movement persists.
Current resistance efforts differ from the past in that many of the women now on the front lines come from outside the traditional activist circles. Experts note that as more women continue to take advantage of higher education, they have become more empowered.
“Within the universities, there was a break of the taboo of fear, the taboo that women shouldn’t go out in the streets on demonstrations," explains Dr. Balghis Badri, Director of the Institute of Women, Gender, and Development Studies at Ahfad University for Women. As an example, she cites the anti-austerity protests of Summer 2012, which emerged from women’s dormitories.
Social media use has spread rapidly, and across age groups. WhatsApp and Facebook in particular have provided an alternative to state-controlled media, and lowered the barrier to participation. Women are able to both gather information and make their voices heard from the safety of their homes.
Sudanese Dream, a writer and blogger active on the aforementioned Facebook groups, noted that there is a narrowing gulf between traditional activists, with specific political affiliations, and the everyday women now making their voices heard, who are often less privileged. She explains, “[The traditional activists] used to make fun of those Facebook groups, saying they were useless. That kind of attitude creates gulfs. … Now they see that those girls can play a role.” On the other side, “The girls on those Facebook groups, and the [older] housewives, discovered that the girls who used to get beat up in protests in the past are the same as them, that they didn’t do anything wrong,” she says.
Activists note that much of the disconnect is due to the regime’s stranglehold on media and education, whereby students are taught about women’s accomplishments in centuries past, but there is little open discussion about current resistance. Social media has played a major role in bridging that knowledge gap and motivating people to take to the streets.
Sudanese Dream says, “There is a condescending patriarchal mindset that likes to say: ‘look, the women came out for the first time, good for them,’ but the next day that is forgotten. So when women go out again, they say the same thing, [as if] it’s the first time.” This attitude calls into question whether women — though driving forces in protest — will ever succeed in securing their seats at the decision-making table.
What seems certain, with increased numbers and renewed fervor, the future of the movement will be decidedly female. While many women complained that they went out in the streets while the men stayed at home, Sudanese Dream argues that that’s the wrong attitude: “[protest] isn’t by default men’s job. You went out because you wanted to.”