Women take prominent place in Sudanese politics as Abdalla Hamdok names cabinet

New Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok is walking the equality walk with his new appointments

epa07784051 Members of Sudan's newly formed transitional Council (R-L) General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, Hassan Sheikh Idris, Genereal Ibrahim Jaber, Raja Nicola Issa Abdul-Masseh, General Shams al-Din Kabashi, Aisha Moussa, Mohamed Alfaki, General Yasser al-Atta and Sadeek Tawer look on during their sweaing-in ceremony at the presidential palace in Khartoum, Sudan, 21 August 2019. The Sudanese opposition and military council signed on 17 August a power sharing agreement. The agreement sets up a sovereign council made of five generals and six civilians, to rule the country until general elections. Protests had erupted in Sudan at the end of 2018, culminating in a long sit-in outside the army headquarters which ended with more than one hundred people being killed and others injured. Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir stepped down on 11 April 2019.  EPA/MORWAN ALI
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In keeping with tradition in the predominantly Muslim Arab world, a short reading from the Quran kicked off last month’s celebration of a landmark power-sharing agreement reached between Sudan’s protest movement and the generals who removed and succeeded longtime dictator Omar Al Bashir.

What came next in the much-heralded celebration was both unusual and surprising; a Christian cleric read out a prayer.

In a series of firsts that were virtually unthinkable six months ago, Sudan has shown the world since the April 11 removal of Mr Al Bashir that with its freedom from dictatorship comes the pursuit of values such as equality, justice and, perhaps most importantly, inclusion.

Sudan has a tiny minority of Christians, so the appearance of a senior Coptic Christian cleric on the podium during the August 17 ceremony was a symbolic but significant acknowledgment of the country’s diversity.

This gesture was followed less than a week later by the appointment of a Christian woman to the Sovereign Council, an 11-seat body that will operate like a collective presidency until late 2022 when free elections are planned.

Raja Nicola Abdel Masseh’s appointment sits in sharp contrast to the policies adopted by Mr Al Bashir’s corrupt Islamist regime, which went to great lengths to disenfranchise women and whose wars against ethnic African rebels in the south and west of the country were fought with strong religious and sectarian undertones.

Newly-appointed Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, an economist with many years of experience at UN agencies, is a firm supporter of women’s rights and is already proving his commitment to the cause.

In his first public comments after his swearing in last month, he lamented what he described as the disproportionately low representation of women in the opposition negotiating team that hammered out the power-sharing agreement with the military.

The alliance of the Forces of Freedom and Change, a coalition of political parties, trade unions and rebel groups that led the uprising and negotiated with the military, submitted three options for each ministerial position, from which Mr Hambok was to select one nominee.

When formed, the government will function as the executive branch of government alongside the Sovereign Council.

Of the 16 people so far nominated by leaders of the protest movement and accepted by the prime minister for the new government, four are women. Most prominent of their number is veteran diplomat Asmaa Abdullah, who, if confirmed, will become Sudan’s first ever female foreign minister.

The three other women are Walaa Al Bushi for youth and sports, Intisar Saghyroun for higher education and Lina Al Sheikh for labour and social development.

Next will be the creation of a transitional legislature in which women have been guaranteed at least 40 per cent of its 300 seats. The chamber should sit by November at the latest. The Forces of Freedom and Change will select two thirds of the members, while the remainder will come from political parties outside the alliance.

Women played a leading role in months of deadly street protests against Mr Al Bashir’s rule starting December last year. Hundreds were detained during the uprising and many women were beaten and sexually harassed by Al Bashir’s security men on the streets, according to activists and witnesses, in an unusually harsh treatment of women in a conservative country that appeared designed to discourage them from participating in the unrest.

Mr Hamdok is expected to announce his entire cabinet later this week, completing the second phase of the transitional period after the creation of the sovereign council last month.

The focus of the first six months of the transitional period will be to end the long-running conflicts in western and southern Sudan, something activists describe as mandatory if Sudan was to have democratic rule.

Rebels in those areas are mostly ethnic Africans who say they are fighting to end the monopoly on political and economic power by the Arabized north and centre of Sudan.

The prime minister has said he was adamant that his Cabinet is representative of all of Sudan’s regions, including areas which had in the past been routinely overlooked.