“If I could walk, I would go to the streets again”, Muna*, a 25-year-old Sudanese protester, told me over the phone recently. She was shot and severely injured by the army during an early June crackdown against a sit-in in the capital Khartoum, when activists say more than 100 people were murdered in one day and dozens of bodies were pulled from the Nile.
Despite the bullet that remains lodged in her leg, Muna has continued her activism for women’s rights and democracy in Sudan, calling others to join the ‘millions march’ later that month, on 30 June. She didn’t even let a month-long, total internet blackout get in her way, sending text messages and going door-to-door, by wheelchair, to spread information to keep the revolution alive.
As a Sudanese women’s rights activist, living in exile in Egypt, I’ve watched this revolution unfold with a mixture of astonishment and fear. Every day, I speak with women like Muna on the frontlines. They have been the heart, the mind and the driving force of the revolution which kicked off in December 2018. In April, they ousted one of the world’s worst dictators, Omar Al-Bashir.
Now, these brave women fighting for freedom, equality and justice face increasing challenges, amidst a violent, Islamic fundamentalist backlash. After 30 years in power, Al-Bashir and his regime have powerful socio-economic, religious and militarised allies throughout the region – and now these forces are working together to fight back against change in Sudan.
The forces that attacked the sit-in on 3 June included militias led by the Wahabi Sheikh, Abd-Alhai Yousif, according to reports from a leading woman journalist who has been closely following these events and movements. He is well known for organising anti-democracy, pro-Sharia campaigns from his Islamic centre in Sudan, funded by Turkey and the Saudis. He even called for Jihad against a civilian government if it ever became a reality.
Radical religious groups including fundamentalist preachers have openly supported the Transitional Military Council (TMC) that replaced Al-Bashir immediately after his ousting, in what is now widely regarded as a military coup. This backing has meant that the military council has consistently refused to hand over power entirely to a civilian-led government.
This month, the military council and pro-democracy protestors signed a political accord agreeing to a joint sovereign council to rule for three years, while elections are organised. But many women I’ve spoken with remain pessimistic and mistrustful of this deal. They continue to take to the streets to protect their revolution, demanding accountability for military atrocities and for experts, not political parties, to make up the transitional government.
The Sudanese women’s sit-in, outside military headquarters in Khartoum, continued for two months after Al-Bashir’s regime fell. It became an open space for all people – not only politicians and educated elites – to discuss the country’s future. Ordinary women and stay-at-home mothers were among those who gathered to dream of a new, equal society. Demands came out of this space for civilian rule and separation between religion and state in Sudan.
Tea and food sellers had also taken centre-stage in the sit-in. These people were among the most targeted by the Sharia public order laws which prevented women from working on the streets; they had been beaten, jailed, lashed and killed by the state. These women wanted to protect the revolution because they knew it could translate into real change in their daily lives.
“We have to remain on the streets to protect our rights that Islamists fundamentalists always tried to push back against under the name of Sharia”, one of the sit-in protestors, Wifag Gorashi, told me over the phone earlier this month. “Our presence on streets made them afraid for their positions”, she added. “That is why they attacked us so violently”.
This week, protests are expected to kick off again – for those responsible for the 3 June crackdown to be held accountable for all of their crimes. State prosecutors have announced charges against eight (unnamed) military officers allegedly involved in the day’s violence. But their investigation’s findings – which acknowledged only 87 deaths – have not satisfied activists who’ve told me they do not give the full picture. This is a systematic problem of the military regime; responsibility cannot be pinned on a few individual officers.
Amal Qous, one of the tea sellers at the sit-in, was found dead 15 days later, in the Nile. Another five tea sellers are still missing more than a month later. Meanwhile, Human Rights Watch and United Nations officials have reported how sexual violence, including rape was used widely against the sit-in. Such abuse is a long-time tool of oppression and intimidation against Sudanese women, used to silence them from war areas to police and security detentions.
The TMC military council that replaced Al-Bashir, deployed Janjaweed soldiers (now re-branded as the ‘Rapid Support Forces’), to disperse the sit-in. The Janjaweed are notorious for mass rape and ethnic cleansing in Darfur and have been called ‘evil on horseback’. General Mohamed Dagolo, known as Hemedti, is vice president of the TMC and also leads the Janjaweed. He's personally been accused by human rights groups of orchestrating war crimes.
Altayeb Mustafa, a prominent Islamic fundamentalist, and former dictator Al-Bashir’s uncle, congratulated Hemedti for his tactics in ending the sit-in’s "negative practices" including “prostitution", referring to women's presence.
Mahmood, who witnessed the attack, told me what this looked like. He described seeing Janjaweed soldiers dragging and beating a pregnant woman who used to sell tea in that area of the city. “They were beating her on her back until her water broke”, he said. “When she started bleeding the soldiers said to her: ‘we will not let you give birth to this fatherless child’”.
Fighting back tears, he added: “the soldiers kept beating her with sticks and the back of their guns between her legs until she passed out. Then they took her to the river side and we heard gunshots. She was probably killed there”.
In deploying the Janjaweed, many Sudanese protestors I spoke with suggested that the TMC wanted to send a message to women specifically: that they are sexual objects, only, and will be treated as such by this military junta. Beyond the sit-in crackdown, every day, there are fresh reports of violence, and there will be many other cases that don’t reach the news, in the ongoing crackdown on revolutionary energy and demands.
These stories come from across the country. Just this week, on Monday, I learnt via Whatsapp that at least eight students, including a teenage girl, were shot dead by snipers while attending a peaceful pro-democracy procession for secondary school students in El Obeid, North Kordofan, in western Sudan.
Supporters of Al-Bashir’s regime included many regional players, including from Wahabis, Jihadists and ISIS supporters. This is why, many people believe, the regime was relatively unshaken by the Arab spring.
Publicly, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have all designated the Muslim Brotherhood (a transnational Islamic fundamentalist association) as a terrorist organisation. They have even waged wars against the Brotherhood in countries from Libya to Syria. Yet ironically, all of these states have retained close alliances with Sudan’s Muslim Brotherhood.
In part, this is because Sudan’s military is supporting the Saudis’ war against Yemen, contributing more than 30,000 Sudanese (mostly Janjaweed) soldiers. Above all, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Egypt have remained faithful to Sudan’s Brotherhood because they fear the impact of a successful popular revolution, and real democratic change, in the Middle East’s second largest country.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE have openly declared that they gave the country $3 billion dollars in ‘aid’ – $500 million of which went directly into Sudan’s central bank (controlled by the military government). The rest was donated in the form of food, medicine and petroleum products. Given the revolution was sparked by major hikes in basic living costs in December, these donations inadvertently throw a lifeline to the rule of the military council.
Media reports have shown that the military council has been hiring lobbying groups in western countries to defuse international pressures on it. This includes a Canadian group, Dickens & Madson Inc., reportedly hired for $6 million by the leader of the Rapid Support Forces and the military council Hemedti to help polish their image post-revolution.
This contract says: “We shall use our best efforts to ensure favourable international as well as Sudanese media coverage for you”. Dickens & Madson Inc is headed by Ari Ben-Menashe, once an Israeli spy who more recently worked for President Mugabe of Zimbabwe, according to Channel 4.
According to other media reports, Gulf money helped to organise rallies against any governance agreement between the protesters and military that does not include Sharia as the main source of rules and laws.
Sara*, a young doctor, told me about one ‘in support of Sharia’ rally she passed, in her car, on 16 May in the capital Khartoum. Islamic fundamentalist protesters violently attacked and verbally abused her, accusing her of ‘spying’ and taking pictures of them. She told me that “the police refused to report the case and to identify the attackers as the pro-Sharia protesters”.
The Sudanese women revolutionaries that I spoke with believed that Gulf money helped organise this protest specifically. And yet, despite all of their money, influence and connections, it appears that these Islamic fundamentalists can’t gather in their millions, or thousands, pointing towards what seems to be a lack of genuine belief in the Sharia cause.
The relationship between religious fundamentalism and military dictatorship in Sudan is not a new story: it has been strong since a coup d’état swept Al-Bashir to power in 1989, alongside the National Islamic Front (Sudan’s Muslim Brotherhood) which imposed Sharia law.
Since then, “Sudanese women and girls have been living under a Sudanese version of ISIS: the Islamic State in Sudan (ISIS)”, said Nona Ali*, a young women’s rights activist from Khartoum who joined the protests this year.
But this history means we know how to resist them as the old regime continues to use its old tricks in connecting anti-women, ultra-religious men across borders. We know what we’re up against, and we’ve built up our own regional connections too (with women’s rights activists across borders). While a political deal has been reached for now, between the military and protestors, Sudanese women have their eyes open: after decades of repression under the military regime, they know not to trust this military council.
Watching courageous and determined young women like Muna, Wifag and Sara, stand up against these militarised fundamentalists: I’ve never seen anything like it before. Despite their ongoing trauma, pain, and injuries from the frontlines, they’ve managed to shake up the region and will continue to reclaim their rights in the face of an ultra-religious backlash.
* Names have been changed to protect identities.