For all but a decade of Sudan’s 63 years of independence from Britain, the country has been governed by the army. It is vital that civilians maintain pressure on the military in discussions about the terms, structure and duration of the transition. Talks have faltered over the division of power on the supreme council to over see the transition period. However, the revolution now under way is being interpreted only as a rejection of miliary rule.
The uprising was not just sparked by a fervent desire to oust General Omar al-Bashir. The umbrella group representing the professionals, trades unionists, students, activists and political parties includes many advocates for women’s rights as well as groups opposed to political Islamism.
President Bashir came to power in 1989 with the National Islamic Front; his movement, the National Congress party, was composed of political Islamists. He introduced prescriptive and invasive laws governing personal behaviour which have particularly restricted the rights of women. Mr Bashir may have done this more out of political expediency than personal conviction but, after 30 years, reactionary and exclusionary forces dominate.
Sudan’s last civilian prime minister, Sadiq al-Mahdi, deposed by Mr Bashir, is a descendant of the charismatic religious leader the Mahdi — who overwhelmed Britain’s General Gordon in 1885 and restored Sudan’s sovereignty. Mr Mahdi argues that Islam in Sudan has always been tolerant. At 84 he is very much seen as a member of the old guard, but he has anointed his daughter Maryam, rather than one of his sons, as heir to the leadership of his Umma party — one of the oldest in the country.
Women are taking the lead in Sudan. During the early stages of the demonstrations they reportedly even outnumbered male protesters. Balghis Badri, a prominent female activist and academic, has been instrumental in getting major gender rights legislation passed in Sudan. I must declare an interest: she is my aunt. My great-grandfather Babiker Badri pioneered girls’ education in Sudan at the turn of the last century and my family have long been campaigners for secularism, female emancipation and education.
Sudanese women are eager to ensure the clock will not be turned back after this revolution: my aunt warns that the opportunity to improve women’s rights must be seized before the patriarchal norms reassert themselves.
She has been heartened by the young women in this revolution, who marched, staged sit-ins, climbed trees, sat on fences, stood atop vehicles and threw tear gas canisters back at soldiers: these women protested without any regard for their personal safety. Before the fall of Mr Bashir, security forces are reported to have mounted sexual assaults on women, but there were few — if any — serious reports of harassment by male protesters. Indeed 22-year-old female student Alaa Salah has been described as the icon of the revolution after a video of her chanting revolutionary poems went viral. Women revolutionaries are called “Kandaka”, the title given to the powerful queens of the ancient Sudanese Kingdom of Meroe, who ruled nearly 2,000 years ago and led their people into battle.
These are heady, exciting and precarious times in Sudan. One chapter has successfully been closed; but the old influences remains. Moreover, there are worries that the army has become addicted to power, and that pro-Bashir Islamists are plotting a return.
There is much cause for optimism. The official spokesperson for the professional association that led the protests, Mohammed Yousif, a professor at Khartoum university, wants Sudan to be led by a young person — preferably a young woman. It is too early to tell if this vision will prevail. For me, Prof Yousif captures the spirit of the revolution: pro-women, anti-military rule, and against Bashir’s brand of Islamism. If the revolution fails the women of Sudan, it has failed the whole country.
The writer is an international broadcaster and chair of the Royal African Society
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