The women of Sudan are pushing for a feminist agenda

On 8 April 2021, hundreds of Sudanese women marched in the capital city of Khartoum to protest gender-based violence and gender discrimination. One group held a banner which read: ‘No defeat, no retreat’. (Ayman Hussein)

On 8 April 2021, hundreds of women gathered in Khartoum to rally against domestic and gender-based violence in Sudan. In what has been described as “one of the most historical displays of resistance since the 2018 December Revolution”, the March was held to draw attention to the Covid-related rise in violencedirected at women and girls, and to denounce gender discriminatory laws and patriarchal restrictions.

During the procession between the Ministry of Justice to the Public Prosecution Office, participants from more than 50 organisations read aloud a ground-breaking memorandum entitled The Feminist Manifesto, which was developed by several civil society organisations working on women’s rights and gender issues in Sudan.

The communiqué, which is Sudan’s first-ever official feminist proclamation, calls for the elimination of “laws that distinguish citizens on the basis of gender”. It states: “We, the women of Sudan, know that we are not free, nor are we equal citizens in the eyes of the state” and demands a commitment to fight misogynistic ideology, as well as guarantees for the safety and security of all women and girls.

Reflecting the aspirations of some of the participating women’s rights groups, the document stems from widespread discontent with the way the transitional government continues to put women’s issues on the back burner.

Two years after mass protests in December 2018 led to the end of the 30-year dictatorship of President Omar al-Bashir in April 2019, the discriminatory and patriarchal laws passed during his rule are still in effect under the majority-male transitional government.

While the ruling council has made some important reforms – such as repealing laws which governed how women could dress and behave in public and making female genital mutilation illegal – it has failed to enact deeper, more fundamental changes that would totally dismantle the many legal obstacles to equality and challenge the conservative societal norms that lead to the oppression of women and girls. Moreover, women have been largely side-lined from the formal political process following the revolution and excluded from decision-making bodies despite their massive participation in the 2018-2019 popular uprising.

“If we live in a reality in which we don’t have decision-making powers in our own homes, how can we aspire to participate effectively in running the country’s affairs?” asks Yosra Akasha, the Sudan programme coordinator at the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) network. She stresses that granting women civil and political as well as social and economic rights is “at the core of equality”.

Unapologetic demands

As a result of almost two years of consultations carried out by SIHA, more than 250 women from various grassroots movements and across different regions of Sudan received training in women’s political participation that led to the drafting of the Manifesto. In a country with deep ethnic and class divides, women and girls from different regions, cultures, religions and socio-economic backgrounds were selected from dozens of associations. Representatives from the various groups discussed and drafted the statement in the hope that it would serve as a basis for a women’s rights-led discourse and action plan during and following the transition period.

“The women of Sudan are not a homogeneous bloc. With all our differences, we worked together towards one feminist agenda,” says Saeeda Yousif Tia, president of the Self-Help Association, which operates in Khartoum and the neighbouring city of Omdurman, and works to empower women in grassroots communities through job creation. “Our diversity must be a strength,” she asserts.

The declaration unapologetically sets out demands for equal rights for women which are detailed under three themes.

The first, policy and legislation, calls for the reform of discriminatory laws that limit the effective political participation of women and hinder gender equality in the home, world of work or in wider society, such as the notorious personal status law, which has far-reaching consequences for the lives of women and girls in areas such as marriage, divorce, inheritance, guardianship and custody. It states, for example, that girls as young as 10 can get married if they have the permission of a judge and forbids women from working outside of the home without the permission of their husband or father.

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The second strand, which focuses on peace and transitional justice, calls for the meaningful participation of women in the implementation of the Juba Peace Agreement signed in October 2020 between the transitional government and major armed movements in Sudan, which is aimed at ending decades of war. The activists’ demands focus on transitional justice mechanisms for female survivors of sexual violence in conflict settings, and women’s participation in all peacebuilding processes.

The third element, economic and social rights, demands the full and active participation of women in the social and economic dimension. Details include granting women the right to obtain identification papers for their children, the right to divorce and ensuring that women can access part of the wealth obtained during marriage, in recognition of their economic contribution through caring responsibilities. It also calls for women’s equality in inheritance, and their right to own and access land.

The document also calls for the adoption of international covenants and treaties related to gender equality. In April, the Sudanese cabinet ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) which protects women from gender-based violence. However, it fell short of endorsing three of its key articles, asserting equality between men and women at all political and social levels, and in matters like marriage, divorce and parenting.

“The government is dealing with legal reforms through a piecemeal approach and is making very little change to the daily realities of women,” says Akasha of SIHA.

“Every Sudanese woman has a voice”

The communiqué is important in the context of the country’s democratic transition, given that women were instrumental in the overthrow of Bashir, and have been fighting for gender equality even long before his three decades in power.

“The memorandum is an opportunity. Since the revolution women can speak up, formulate and push their demands,” says Samia El-Hashmi, co-founder of Mutawinat, a Khartoum-based women’s rights organisation which focuses on legal reform, legal literacy, and women’s access to justice.

For El-Hashmi, the inclusivity behind the Feminist Manifesto is what sets it apart from other initiatives. Every line was discussed and agreed upon by a cross-section of women from across the country and from different backgrounds and settings, including rural areas and conflict zones.

“Every Sudanese woman has a voice in the Manifesto. They are not one unit, but that didn’t stop them from coming together to agree on a minimum set of rights,” says El-Hashmi, who contributed to the drafting of the document.

The Manifesto opened an important debate about gender inequality in Sudanese society, inviting progressive thought from a broad coalition. “Women are engaging in the dialogue regardless of their contrasting views,” says the feminist activist Ounaysa Arabi, who helped organise the 8 April rally. “It has created a space for discussion and allows us to speak about divisive topics in public.”

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Some women deem the initiative radical with regards to controversial issues like family matters, particularly women’s inheritance whereby, under Islamic law, women are entitled to half of what is available to men.

“Not everyone has to approve all the points contained in the declaration,” Akasha reasons. “Some women can express their reservations where they feel that certain sensitive questions clash with cultural, societal or religious norms, as long as they respect the rights of the other women who demand gender equality in all aspects of life.”

Since delivering the memorandum to the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Interior Affairs, and the Attorney General, there has been no official response, but feminist activists are determined to keep fighting.

Yousif Tia of the Self-Help Association says the next step is more awareness-raising about the initiative. She wants all women, from city residents to remote villagers, to have the opportunity to become familiar with the agenda and be engaged in the discussions about the next steps. In her view, it is most critical that the advocacy continues.

“We live in a violent system represented by the authority of the family and that of the state,” she says. “We won’t get what we want unless we mobilise and press for change.”

While feminist groups continue to advocate for the adoption of the Manifesto, and with more and more women feeding into the discussion, further points will be added to the agenda in the future. “The communiqué is not final, we will revise it as and when changing political and social circumstances give rise to new demands,” says El-Hashmi.

Women’s rights activists are currently working to lobby various government ministries and generate public debate on the proposed agenda. Ultimately, they want the Manifesto to serve as a basis for the laws and policies that will ensure true gender equality in Sudan. They refuse to be silent in the face of exclusion and lack of protection from the violence that they endure on the streets and in their homes.

Alaa Salah, the Sudanese student and activist who became a global icon of the revolution, stated during a 2019 UN Security Council debate on Women, Peace and Security: “After decades of struggle and all that we risked to peacefully end Bashir’s dictatorship, gender inequality is not, and will never be, acceptable to the women and girls of Sudan.” Her words echo those of hundreds of other Sudanese women activists who are steadfast in their resolve and will not rest until their rights are secured.

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