How Sudanese women got their revenge on Omar Al Bashir

Angered by repression and toughened by years of hardship, women drove the protests that toppled the president

Sudanese protesters attend a demonstration in front of  the defense ministry compound in Khartoum, Sudan, May 4, 2019. REUTERS/Umit Bektas
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Elaf Nasreldeen Suleiman was chatting with her friend in his parked car on a street popular with young people in Khartoum, Sudan's capital.

He had drunk a small amount of alcohol and was giving her a lift home after an evening spent with friends, but they had stopped briefly for a chat.

Ms Suleiman, 21, had visited her mother's grave near her home in Burry district that evening and had in her handbag a copy of the Quran from which she read some verses at her mother's graveside.

"A police patrol drove past us but it returned seconds later and the men got out and approached us," the computer science graduate said.

"They took my friend and drove him to the police station in their car, while another policeman drove the car I was in to the station.

"On the way, he kept asking me whether I drink, why I was wearing my scarf around my neck and not to cover my head, and why I was alone with him in the car.

"Insultingly, he asked why someone like me would have a copy of the Quran in my bag."

Her friend was kept at the police station for three days before a judge sentenced him to 40 lashes for breaching the ban on alcohol.

Ms Suleiman walked free shortly after she arrived at the station, but felt offended and disrespected by the police intrusion and treatment of her.

Like most Sudanese women, she was a victim of the harsh and discriminatory practices of the regime of Omar Al Bashir, Sudan's ruler of 29 years who was overthrown by the military last month.

But she and many others soon had a chance to avenge themselves.

In the four months of street protests that preceded Mr Al Bashir's fall, Ms Suleiman devoted much of her time and effort to organising demonstrations in Burry.

It is one of Khartoum's oldest districts and a traditional hotbed of dissent that was on the receiving end of some of the most violent crackdowns by the security forces.

"For years, women went to court to be punished by judges for just being out alone at night or wearing pants, which had been prohibited by the government," Ms Suleiman said.

"They wanted to break every woman and push them out of public space. The revolution was our answer."

Elaf Nasreldeen Suleiman speaks to The National at the sit-in protest outside the Sudanese military's headquarters in Khartoum. Hamza Hendawi / The National 
Elaf Nasreldeen Suleiman speaks to The National at the sit-in protest outside the Sudanese military's headquarters in Khartoum. Hamza Hendawi / The National 

The armed conflicts and economic crises that defined Mr Al Bashir's rule left many of Sudan's women stronger, more resourceful and shouldering many of the responsibilities traditionally borne by men.

Add to that the anger and frustration over discriminatory laws and attempts to sideline them, and you have an explosive mix that found an outlet when the protests began in December.

Women risked arrest by rallying support for the uprising on buses and at food markets.

They organised and led street protests in the face of live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas, and raised funds to pay for medical care for the injured or compensate families who lost loved ones.

During February and March, when thousands of mostly male activists were in detention, women almost completely took over the leadership of the uprising.

It took the country's feared security agencies some time to realise that women were playing such a big role in the unrest.

When they did, they responded with violence and sexual harassment to scare them off the streets, arresting hundreds, raiding their homes and beating them up on the streets.

Of the nearly 100 people killed by security forces during the uprising, at least four were women, activists say, and hundreds of women were injured.

Many of the women arrested were taken to the "refrigerators", windowless, three-by-four-metre cells that are kept unbearably cold. The cell doors have an opening just big enough for food to be pushed through.

The women's prison of Umm Durman in the greater Khartoum area became so crowded that some of those held there were kept under a covered stand in the sun-baked courtyard.

There, with 24 women shared 12 single mattresses, said former inmate and psychology lecturer Hadiya Hassaballah.

"I had to walk over my fellow inmates to get to the toilet or go and pray," Mrs Hassaballah said at her Khartoum home.

"Conditions and food were so bad I decided to fast five days after I arrived there. Later, I went on a hunger strike to protest against conditions.

Her strike ended on March 8 when Mr Al Bashir ordered that all detained women be released.

Mr Al Bashir was ousted by the military on April 11 but the revolution that led to his fall appears far from over.

Hundreds of thousands of Sudanese are staging a sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum and similar venues across much of the country, to demand a swift handover of power to a civilian-led transitional administration.

KHARTOUM, SUDAN - APRIL 27: Women protestors arrive in the main gathering point to protest against the military junta on April 27, 2019 in Khartoum, Sudan. After months of protesting from the people of Sudan, organised by the Sudanese Professionals' Association (SPA), President Omar al-Bashir was ousted having been in power since 1989. The following day they also forced his successor, Awad Ibn Auf, to step down. The SPA and the people have organised a sit in at the Ministry of Defence calling for the "third fall" of the Transitional Military Council who are currently in charge. (Photo by Fredrik Lerneryd/Getty Images)
Women protesters arrive at the sit-in outside the military headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan. Getty Images

But while the tough negotiations continue, Sudan's women have been celebrating the downfall of Mr Al Bashir's regime, reflecting on their role in the uprising and the hardships they endured under his rule.

"After decades of war that harvested the lives of tens of thousands of men, the subsequent displacement of millions and the mass migration of men to the West or the Gulf region to find jobs, women became a force that cannot be underestimated," said Amal Al Zein, a veteran anti-government activist and a senior member of Sudan's communist party.

The economic crises that befell Sudan under Mr Al Bashir's rule also meant that a growing number of women elected to take jobs to bring home a second income, something that produced more empowered women, Mrs Al Zein said.

What is particularly impressive about the women's role in Sudan's uprising is that they performed it in a deeply conservative society in which patriarchy was entrenched.

The regime made it easy for men to take more than one wife – Islam allows four but only if strict conditions of justice are met – including girls as young as nine if their male guardians approved.

Women could be forced to stay home and make do with the meagre income of their spouses rather than seek work to help their families out.

In some rural areas, it was against the law for women to be outside their homes after 6pm unless accompanied by husbands or male chaperones.

Authorities, acting at the behest of radical clerics, tried to force women who attained a high profile out of the public space. Working women were reluctantly tolerated, the activists said.

"Women who spoke against such laws received death threats from radical Muslims," said activist Aseel Abdou, 24.

"Even Khartoum's famous tea ladies who sit on sidewalks for hours in the merciless heat to make a living were tirelessly chased away by the police.

"So is it any wonder that when the revolution began women just exploded?"

With the days of violence and arrests behind them, at least for now, Sudanese women are clearly celebrating and cherishing their freedom, and that is nowhere better manifested than at the sit-in outside the military headquarters in central Khartoum.

Many of them gently sway to the music played at the site, zealously chant revolutionary slogans alongside men and seem to make a point of wearing pants, which authorities had gone to great lengths to discourage under Mr Al Bashir.

They wear their head covering as scarves and mingle freely with men. Some have completely done away with any pretense of modesty, wearing skin-tight jeans and tops.

Others deliver fiery political speeches from the main protest stage or use bullhorns to address smaller crowds on the sidelines.

As if to make another anti-Al Bashir statement, women's favourite spot at the sit-in appears to be around the tea ladies, resting on rickety garden chairs or stools as they sip their hot sweet tea and coffee.

"We have endured a dictatorial regime for far too long and the reason why so many of us took to the streets is that we suffered the most," Ms Abdou said.