Sudan: women’s rights in the military’s firing line
Women’s rights are under attack in Sudan, where the military is in power following its 2021 coup. Hopes for democracy and progress in women’s rights were high following the 2019 revolution that led to a brief period of democratic transition. But now the morality police are set to return to the streets to keep a close eye on women’s appearance and behaviour. This year a woman was sentenced to death by stoning, and although the sentence was overturned, it offered a further indication of a conservative backlash. As the international community tries to negotiate some kind of compromise government, it must make the protection of women’s rights a priority.
All Sudanese people have lost crucial freedoms since the military regained control. But Sudanese women have lost them twice – first as citizens and then as women.
Some progress was made in advancing women’s rights following the April 2019 revolution that forced out dictator Omar al-Bashir after almost 30 years in power. But that’s fast being reversed since the military regained power.
As the military regime moves to silence its critics, it’s specifically targeting female protesters, activists and journalists. The ruling junta’s tactics include threats, intimidation, arbitrary arrests and prosecution – and for women, sexual violence to try to intimidate them and force them into compliance.
A recently announced decision to create a new community police unit to ‘reaffirm the relationship between people and the police’ has caused justifiable fears that it may be an attempt to recreate the Iran-style public order police that used to enforce morality rules, targeting women. This was abolished by the transitional government in November 2019.
In June, Sudan was shaken by news that a 20-year-old woman had been sentenced to death by stoning for adultery – the first such case in almost a decade. Although the sentence was later overturned, it offered another concerning sign of a possible return to the past.
The authorities have made their views of women unceremoniously clear even as the world watches, as seen in a widely shared video that shows Sudanese-Australian activist Nazik Osman confronting a government minister, during a visit to Australia, over the regime’s corruption and human rights abuses. The minister is heard responding that, if they were in Sudan, ‘we would beat you until you begged us to stop.’
A women-led revolution
Al-Bashir came to power in 1989 through a coup that allied the army with the Islamist National Islamic Front. His regime went on to impose a strict interpretation of Sharia law, including through the 1991 Criminal Act and the 1996 Khartoum State Public Order Act, which applied to Sudan’s capital and most populated state.
The laws subjected women to rigid dress and behaviour codes limiting every aspect of their lives, from who they could spend time with to where they could go and when. Treated as dependent minors, women needed to have a male guardian and were required to obtain his permission to work outside the marital home. Punishments included flogging. Girls as young as 10 could be legally married off by their families, and female genital mutilation was legal and widespread.
But when Sudan’s democracy movement rose, women protesters challenged their subjugation. In April 2019, the image of a woman dressed in white standing atop a car became an icon of the Sudanese revolution. The woman in the photo, Alaa Salah, was later nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Alaa was just one of thousands of Sudanese women who took to the streets to call for an end to al-Bashir’s rule. For months on end, women joined together across ethnic, religious, class and educational divides. They braved waves of threats, intimidation, violent repression and arrests. On the streets and online, they chanted, made art, spoke poetry and advocated for change. It was estimated that women accounted for up to 70 per cent of protesters. It was their efforts that gave the revolution the momentum it needed to succeed.
As the most marginalised under al-Bashir’s regime, women had the most to gain from his departure. Acutely aware of this, al-Bashir targeted repression against them, ordering his soldiers to ‘break the girls, because if you break the girls, you break the men’.
Initial steps forward
Despite their role in the revolution, women were largely sidelined in the political processes that followed: only two women were included in the negotiations that led to the formation of the transitional government, and those two were the only women appointed to the 11-member Sovereign Council.
Still, the Sovereign Council took some initial steps to settle the revolution’s debt to women. At the same time that the morality police were dissolved, in November 2019 many laws restricting women’s fundamental freedoms – their rights to move freely, associate, dress as they please, work and study – were repealed.
Female genital mutilation was outlawed by the transitional government in April 2020. In an attempt to eradicate it, three-year sentences and fines were introduced to punish violators.
While child marriage remained legal, in 2020 the transitional government lifted three reservations previously placed on the African Charter on the Rights and Welfare of the Child. These concerned child marriage, children’s privacy and pregnant girls’ access to education.
Although punishment by stoning remained on the books, in August 2021 Sudan ratified the United Nations (UN) Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, widely seen as protection against practices such as stoning and flogging.
But Sudan still hasn’t ratified several human rights conventions, including the key global treaty that protects women’s rights – the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). It’s one of a global handful of states not to have ratified it.
In April 2021 the cabinet voted to ratify CEDAW, albeit with crucial reservations that stopped short of recognising equality between women and men. But no further progress came. The following month, Sudan’s Fiqh Academy – the institution that studies Islamic jurisprudence and law – issued a fatwa banning ratification.
In practice, Sudan continued to be ranked as one of the world’s worst countries to be a woman: in its 2021-2022 edition, the Women Peace and Security Index ranked it 162 out of 170 countries based on indicators such as years of education, employment rates, financial inclusion, share of parliamentary seats, discriminatory norms and intimate partner violence.
Structural inequalities take decades to overcome, so it’s no surprise the short-lived experience of the transitional government barely made a dent. But women’s everyday lives improved under the transitional government, and the changes they saw gave them reason to hope for more and believe they could be the agents of change. But then the army took back control.
Sudan’s thwarted democratic transition
Al-Bashir was ousted on 11 April 2019 when the military turned against him after months of democracy protests.
The military established a Transitional Military Council (TMC) to rule the country, but people kept protesting to demand democracy instead of military rule. These peaceful protests were met with violent repression that left hundreds dead. After months of negotiation, in August 2019 the TMC came to an agreement with the Forces for Freedom and Change, a coalition of leaders of the revolution, and eventually transferred power to a mixed military-civilian ruling body, the Sovereign Council.
The newly formed Sovereign Council, meant to govern for a fixed three-year transitional period, oversaw the reversal of some al-Bashir’s most repressive policies, including those that restricted women’s rights.
But progress was forestalled when the military seized power in October 2021, arresting leading civilian politicians – including Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok – and declaring an eight-month state of emergency. While Hamdok was reinstated in November 2021, he quit in January 2022 over the military’s continuing interference in his attempts to form a government.
The military has brought several leading al-Bashir officials back into government and rolled back many of the advances in rights made under the transition. While limited talks between the military and some civilian groups began in June, key democracy groups have boycotted them on the grounds that they are not genuine. Peaceful protests remain subject to brutal repression.
An uphill battle
Sudanese women continue to fight for their lives and their rights. Aware that their fate is tied to that of their country’s democracy, they continue to protest against dictatorship, publicly questioning the legitimacy of the military regime and criticising attempts to roll back freedoms. In response, they have been fired upon with live ammunition and teargas. But they honour their strong history of civil disobedience and continue to endure.
As the military regime moves to silence its critics, it’s specifically targeting female protesters, activists and journalists.
For the most part, they are fighting a lonely battle against an enemy with substantial fire power and few ethical qualms. Sudanese civil society has urged UN human rights bodies and the international community to take action to preserve freedoms and protect women from violence, but their appeals have tended to go unanswered.
International involvement in Sudan has primarily taken the form of negotiations to restore shared civilian-miliary leadership – a process that has been fraught with obstacles, including rivalries between mediators, lack of neutrality, conspicuous conflicts of interests and limited inclusion of those resisting the dictatorship. These raise questions about the sustainability, legitimacy and commitment to democracy of any government that may result.
Nothing short of an inclusive democracy will meet the expectations of the Sudanese women who continue to protest. In its interactions with the military, the international community must ensure attacks on women’s rights stop and whatever government results commits to the path of progress.
OUR CALLS FOR ACTION
The international community must condemn abuses and call on the government to adhere to international human rights standards, particularly those that relate to women’s rights.
The military junta must stop using violent tactics to repress peaceful protests.
Mediators must invite more women and more civil society groups to participate in negotiation processes.
Cover photo by Reuters/El Tayeb Siddig via Gallo Images