Supporting Women in Sudan Can’t Stop at Sharing a Viral Photo
Dressed in a white thobe, Alaa’s hand reaches to meet the fervent outcry of the crowd. “Thawra!” they chant, meaning revolution in Arabic. Lana Haroun’s image of Alaa Salah, 22, standing tall atop a car in Khartoum has come to symbolize Sudan’s uprising. On the other side of the world, in New York City, I gaze at Alaa’s courageous stance that has rapidly flooded my social feeds. A mix of eager hope and a dose of apprehension arises within me. This tension recalls the history of oppression and violence that women in the Middle East and North African countries have faced time and time again after political regime shifts.
— Lana H. Haroun (@lana_hago) April 8, 2019
Alaa’s stance emboldens my pride in Sudan, a place I call home. It highlights the need to interrupt the monolithic representations of male leadership in revolutionary protests, the peace process, and the resulting governing body. Alaa is more than a symbol of the women currently leading Sudan’s revolution. She also represents a long lineage of women who have toiled to preserve the human rights of their communities. Alaa’s traditional garb is reminiscent of Sudanese women in the 1970s and 80s who protested when the Islamist regime threatened their basic freedoms. As well as the Nubian Sudanese queens, known as kandaka, whose legacy in Sudanese folklore memorializes them as patriotic heroes. Today, according to BBC, it is estimated that over 70% of protesters on the ground in Sudan are women.
At Peace Is Loud, we use storytelling to advance social justice movement building, with a focus on women’s rights, gender justice, peace and security. By recognizing that peace is an active process instead of a static destination, we can begin to empower the activists who are shaping a culture of peace and breaking the cycle of gender disparity and violence.
I am reminded of Hend Nafea, whose story is chronicled in theWomen, War and Peace II film, a college activist at the time of Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power during the Arab Spring of 2011. After the initial exaltation of Mubarak’s demise and attempts to civically engage in Egypt’s future governance, Hend finds herself silenced, heavily intimidated by members of the Egyptian military, and accused of treason and political espionage. The documentary illustrates that Hend is not alone in this isolation and abuse. Many women in Egypt and across the African continent attest to the ways their bodies became sites for violence, greed, and the broken promise of a more democratic and equitable future.
From the ousting of President Omar Al-Bashir to the power scramble by military officials, Sudan’s political trajectory follows an eerily similar path to Egypt. As Sudan begins to rebuild its leadership, parliament, and constitution, it calls me to ask: how can we support the sustainability of women activists in times of war and revolution? Once Alaa’s symbol of resistance ceases to inundate our newsfeeds, how can we ensure she is protected and given substantial political representation in Sudan’s newly emerging government?
Elect women to office and build their leadership capacity
As Sudan sheds its past three decades of authoritarian rule and transitions into a more democratic government, it will be vital to build the capacity of women political leaders that will occupy new political positions. Egypt’s failure to replace its lineage of dictators with representative leaders taught us that mass mobilizations need to identify leaders who can swiftly replace authoritarian rulers. The people of Sudan have demonstrated a formidable commitment to usher in a government that is reflective of their human rights and is inclusive of the nation’s populous. Beyond promoting the static image of Alaa, I call on us to invest in Sudanese women political leaders, raise the visibility of their policy platforms, and equip them with the necessary tools and training to build their capacity as future leaders of a new representative government.
After all, as history has shown us, when women are uplifted as political leaders, “countries experience higher standards of living, including positive developments in education, infrastructure and health, and tangible gains for democratic governance, such as decreased corruption, greater cooperation across party and ethnic lines, and more sustainable peace.”
Confront gender norms that threaten women’s bodies
A few days ago, Al-Bashir was imprisoned and formally indicted on multiple counts of crimes against humanity, war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Court. Public order laws implemented under Al-Bashir disproportionally targeted women to protect national ‘morality’ through floggings and long-term imprisonment for minor infractions, such as wearing pants. Confronting the rigid gender norms imposed by dictatorial governments that seek to control women is the first step toward dismantling violent masculinities.
Often times the upheaval and ebb of revolution assumes the end of violence and resurgence of peace within a community. However, in order to shift the culture of violence against women, especially during periods of whirlwind mass mobilizations, reform needs to be channeled back into institutional structures in order to yield concrete, sustained change. Such systemic change requires support at all levels — from civil society to multilateral organizations — to be the mechanism through which human rights compliance is enforced.
Invest in women and girls education
Investing in girls education in Sudan will create a sustainable succession of future women leaders that will disrupt the institutional and structural patriarchy that has plagued Sudan for decades. When girls are educated, countries routinely see high returns in income, improved quality of life, lower mortality rates, and more. As a 22-year-old engineering student, Alaa is a prime example of how the seeds of education can sow a proactive, dedicated citizenry.
Women in the global south do not need Western standards of empowerment. They need access to educational resources, teacher trainings, and equitable models of education. As Dr. Sakena Yacoobi, Founder of the Afghan Institute of Learning and one of the speakers on our bureau, reminds us, through a holistic approach to education for women and girls, we not only transform their lives, but we strengthen and sustain the foundation of society.
I remember sneaking into my grandmother’s closet during childhood summer vacations in Sudan and adorning one of her many colorful, carefully patterned thobes. My aunts and uncles would cheer as I brazenly walked up and down our terrace in an impromptu fashion show. To me, the thobe represented the ultimate grace and fortitude of a Sudanese woman. Today, the rest of the world gets to see what I saw back then.
Alaa’s stance and the tireless ancestry of women’s leadership that she represents highlights the need to address the nuanced complexities of power and privilege that are barriers to breaking the cycle of gender inequality and violence. Women in Sudan – and around the world – can strategically position themselves at all levels of leadership, from grassroots to grasstops, to disrupt the legacies of an authoritarian regime with a political ideology steeped in patriarchy. They are not alone in this fight. I challenge us to encourage women’s political participation, confront restrictive norms of gender, and invest in girls education to ultimately pave the way for women in Sudan to lead the nation towards reconciliation, security, and peace.