After months of anti-government protests, the Sudanese military removed President Omar al-Bashir from his post earlier this year, but Sudan’s fight for a government created by and for the people didn’t end there. Activists continued their massive demonstrations following the coup by military forces that unseated al-Bashir—and their demands for democracy have been met with brutal violence from the Transitional Military Council that is now in power.
Women are uniquely caught in the crosshairs of Sudan’s civilian crisis—and they’re also forming a front line in its unfolding revolution.
The BBC estimates that 70 percent of the protestors fighting for democracy in Sudan are women, and videos and pictures of women on the front lines, including an iconic image of Alaa Salah leading protest chants against al-Bashir—have been going viral on social media.
This isn’t the first time women in Sudan played a pivotal role in the nation’s fight for freedom: Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, for example, the former leader of The Sudanese Women Union, was at the forefront of demonstrations in 1964 against the military rule of Ibrahim Abboud. But Salah has since become a visual symbol for the movement, and is using her growing platform to draw more attention to the crisis.
In a Twitter thread, Sudanese-American and interfaith educator Hind Makki pointed out the symbolic importance of Salah’s outfit—explaining that the white outer garment she is shown wearing is a traditional Sudanese outfit called a thobe, worn by women protesting military dictatorships in Sudan in the sixties, seventies and eighties.
Sudanese activist Khadega Mohammed, who is based in the United States, told Ms. that the power of this image represents “not just her [Salah], but Sudanese women as a whole.”
The role women are playing in Sudan’s uprising sends a powerful message about the future activists on the ground there are fighting for: one in which women have power. It also provides a stark contrast from the violence women are disproportionately facing in the struggle to end military reign in the region—one Mohammed sees as closely connected to the outspoken nature of activists like Salah.
Data from the Sudanese Central Committee of Doctors revealed that paramilitary forces raped over 70 protestors in Sudan’s capitol city of Khartoum earlier this month, in a raid that killed over 100 and injured over 700. On social media, individual doctors working in the region have also shared stories of sexual violence from the field.
The use of rape as a weapon of war is tragically common. Data in the 2018 Conflicted Related Sexual Violence by the UN Secretary General reiterated the reality of sexual violence as not only a product of, but also a strategy of, conflict; the 2019 UNOCHA Humanitarian Overview further highlighted the heightened risk women and girls in settings of conflict and displacement face targets of sexual and gender-based violence.
“Because women are speaking out,” Mohammed posited, “men focused on trying to scare them away.” But history, and the voices forming the front line in Sudan right now, provide us with good reason to believe that women won’t back down in the fight for their own freedom.