Women seek further gains in post-revolution Sudan

New prominence in public life has not ended male dominance, activists say

Sudanese men and women celebrate outside the Friendship Hall in the capital Khartoum where generals and protest leaders signed a historic transitional constitution meant to pave the way for civilian rule in Sudan, on August 17, 2019. - The constitutional declaration formalises the creation of a transition administration that will be guided by an 11-member sovereign council, comprised of six civilians and five military figures.
The agreement brought an end to nearly eight months of upheaval that saw masses mobilise against president Omar al-Bashir, who was ousted in April after 30 years in power. (Photo by Jean Marc MOJON / AFP)
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A woman chief justice; four in the Cabinet, including the foreign minister; two sitting with army generals on a body that functions as Sudan’s collective presidency; and, the icing on the cake, a women’s football league whose games are open to female as well as male fans.

It is just six months since Sudan was ruled by a corrupt Islamist government that went out of its way to disenfranchise women and banish them from public life. They were jailed or flogged for violations of the strict dress code prescribed by radical clerics, such as wearing pants or exposing hair, and chastised for standing up to abusive spouses. Women athletes in shorts playing in public was simply unthinkable.

But the elevated standing of Sudanese women today is not a concession from a society immersed in patriarchy and religious piety. It is anything but.

Sudanese women surprised the world during the four-month popular uprising that led to the fall of Omar Al Bashir, the country’s Islamist ruler of 29 years who is now in jail while on trial on corruption charges. They often outnumbered men in the street protests that the president’s security forces tried to violently suppress.

After the military removed Mr Al Bashir on April 11, women took the lead in the sit-in outside the armed forces headquarters to demand the generals hand over power to civilians. They organised food and water and free medical care for the tens of thousands who took part. Women also participated in the tortuous negotiations between the pro-democracy movement and the military that led to a power-sharing deal on August 17.

"The Al Bashir regime really went after women and their response to that was emphatically manifested in the revolution." Shady Lewis Botros, a London-based political analyst and author, told The National.

But there is further to go, say some of the women whose street activism contributed to the seismic societal change in Sudan. They complain that the selection of the women now in the Cabinet and the Sovereignty Council was not transparent enough and was influenced by male-dominated traditional parties.

"It's certainly much better than in the past, but I am not fully satisfied," said activist Hager Sayed. "The nominations were made behind closed doors inside the Forces of Freedom and Change. They should have gone for technocrats who are independent. Our expectations were much higher than this," she told The National.

The Forces of Freedom and Change is a loose alliance of political parties, rebel groups and trade unions that led the uprising against Mr Al Bashir and negotiated the power-sharing deal with the generals who succeeded him.

However, Ms Hager and other women say they are watching with deep interest how trade unions and political parties are preparing the women they intend to nominate to a proposed parliament in which women will hold 40 per cent of the seats.

The transitional chamber, which will sit until free elections are held in 2022, will be formed once peace agreements are reached with anti-government rebel groups in three regions west and south of the capital, Khartoum. The August 17 pact gives the two sides six months to reach an agreement. The talks are being held in Juba, South Sudan.

“But for now, the challenge is to bolster the capabilities and efficiency of women selected to senior government positions and to defend them against bullying by men,” said Sulaima Ishaq Sharif, a women’s rights activist who lectures in psychology at a private Khartoum university.

“The representation of women in the government and their active participation in public life is a war that’s much fiercer than the classical man vs woman gender war,” she said, explaining that political parties that put women forward for government positions did so grudgingly and against strong opposition from their male counterparts.

Mrs Sharif said another obstacle to fair representation for women was the entrenchment in state institutions of men who do not believe in gender equality, mostly Islamists loyal to Mr Al Bashir.

“Satisfaction about the representation of women will not come from the size of their representation. It will come when the selection process does not entail the exclusion of other women,” she said.

“The whole thing about women’s representation has just not risen to the level of the revolution and women’s role in it.”

But some of the wins to date are truly impressive.

Chief Justice Neemat Abdullah Kheir, for example, was the choice of the pro-democracy movement. Her nomination to the post was rejected by the generals, but they gave in after street protests backing her appointment. She is the first woman to hold this position in the entire Arab world.

The pro-democracy movement has consistently maintained that only someone like Mrs Kheir could ensure that criminals from Mr Al Bashir’s regime would be brought to justice and that state institutions were purged of the former president’s supporters.

Women play football in Sudan for first time in 30 years

Women play football in Sudan for first time in 30 years

The launch of a women’s football league is no less important. The 21-club league ushers in an important facet of gender equality in a deeply conservative but football mad society. Significantly, the first fixture, played in Khartoum’s oldest stadium, was officiated by three women.

“There is now the political will to make women’s sports one of the pillars of the country’s development and we will work to provide the infrastructure,” Youth and Sports Minister Walaa El Boushi, one of the four women in the Cabinet, said at the inaugural match.