The empire strikes back in Sudan

-Two years after the revolution, the Islamist old guard is fighting back

By Rebecca Tinsley

Sudan’s people’s revolution is in danger.  The former regime’s old guard are reasserting themselves, accused of assaulting women who dare to walk the streets of Khartoum; undermining the fragile economy and stirring up ethnic clashes in Darfur. They are leading the struggle between secularists and Islamists, as Sudan faces tensions with Ethiopia due to the war in Tigray and the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam.

A transitional government consisting of a joint military and civil council and a civilian-led cabinet took power after vast protests that ended Field Marshall Omer Bashir’s dictatorship in 2019. Yet, two years later, the women who were at the hearty of the demonstrations face pre-meditated physical attacks as they claim their space in the new Sudan. Islamists and traditionalists are fighting back against progressive change, defending laws that punish women for seeking education and other opportunities. Meanwhile, a judge sentenced a 21-year-old to Islamist-era cross amputation of a foot and hand for stealing $48. The previous regime’s 1991 criminal code also allows crucifixion and stoning to death.

A history of violence

Women from the black African ethnic groups in the periphery have been the targets of rape, torture and murder for many years. But it is less usual for women identifying as Arab to face violence. Now, say non-Arab activists, they are tasting the persecution endured by females in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has the daunting task of overseeing reforms in Sudan

Video of a recent gang rape in Blue Nile was widely shared on social media as an explicit warning to women across the country not to demand equality. Uniformed men, thought to belong to the Rapid Support Forces – the rebranded Janjaweed militia which killed as many as 400,000 Africans in Darfur – were filmed perpetrating the rape. The video is part of a series of reprisal attacks on women following the signing of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). The new Sudan government has not yet ratified CEDAW and is asking for exemptions. Yet, even in its amended form, CEDAW is unacceptable to Islamists and other traditionalists from all ethnic backgrounds who defend and perpetrate violence against women.

The attacks are linked to calls to bring back the old regime’s public order laws which punished thousands of women each year for vaguely-defined offenses. Women’s rights groups accused Islamists of using the law to deter women and girls from leaving their homes to seek education or work. In 2009 the case of Lubna Hussein gained notoriety when she was convicted of public indecency for wearing trousers, and jailed for six months. Amnesty reports that 40,000 to 50,000 women a year were arrested and whipped under the public order laws.

Sudan’s 1991 Family Law effectively legalises marital rape and domestic violence, assigning control of all women and girls to male guardians. According to strictly interpreted Islamic law, a four-year-old son or male cousin is considered the moral guardian of a grown female relative. The UN says that  88% of women in Sudan have undergone female genital mutilation.

In a recent survey, 34% of Sudanese agree that men are justified in beating wives if they step outside the home without their permission, if they do not obey them, or if they decline to have sexual intercourse. These attitudes are not restricted to the older generation. The public assaults on women have mainly been perpetrated by gangs of young men, cruising the streets in vehicles, spotting women whom they consider to be indecently dressed (in trousers, or without headscarves, hijabs, niqabs, etc) and beating them before driving away. Passing men are reported to offer no help or support to the women, and on occasion they applaud as women are whipped. There have been hundreds of online messages from men expressing approval of the attacks.

Women led a series of peaceful protests in April calling for the abolition of discriminatory laws, and the adoption of international treaties and charters guaranteeing equal legal status. At one demonstration a man drove into the crowd, running over one woman and then physically assaulting several other protesters. Women were key to the 2019 revolution the Islamist regime with a transitional joint military and civil council, and a civilian-led cabinet. There is concern women have once more been sidelined. The Women’s Cooperative Association of Khartoum has complained that the Ministry of Industry and Trade will not register a women’s cooperative unless they have male members.

The transitional government is under pressure from the old guard on several other fronts. Elements from the previous regime are alleged to be using targeted currency speculation to undermine attempts to rescue the troubled economy. (Sudan’s annual inflation rate reached 341% in March this year). Many of Bashir’s officials and supporters had financial stakes in government-connected businesses that are now threatened with increased scrutiny.

Old school justice

Civil society groups have highlighted the continuing presence of Bashir-appointed judiciary in Sudan’s legal system. In June, Moaz Abdel Majid Ismail, a 21-year-old man was sentenced to traditional “hudud” punishment for stealing goods worth $48. Hudud is the cross amputation of a hand and a foot. As recently as 2013, three Darfuris were sentenced to be crucified under the 1991 code, and two women were sentenced to be stoned to death in 2007. This puts the country in breach of international and regional treaties which Sudan has signed.

Khalid Omer Yousif, Sudan’s Minister of Cabinet Affairs, argues that the revolution “ended the legitimacy of Islamists” and old regime loyalists but, concedes, it is going to be a very long process with input from the civil society and the transitional government.

Women fighting back

In spite of the threats to their safety, women in Sudan are countering the traditionalist narrative. Sudanese diaspora members are also vocal. For instance, a UK-based group of Sudanese women’s rights activists, co-convened by Waging Peace, the NGO I founded, came together weekly for 9 weeks to find ways to help for the survivor of the Blue Nile rape and her family.

Fatima Bensouda, retiring prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, recently visited Khartoum, adding impetus to efforts to extradite Ahmed Haroun, the former governor of South Kordofan, indicted for crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Ethnic tensions in the remote western region of Darfur have increased alarmingly, as UNAMID, the UN/African Union peacekeeping force, withdrew. UNAMID sites have been sacked and looted, and there are concerns that armed anti-transitional government groups will step up attacks on civilians. The promised 20,000 Sudanese protection troops have not materialized. The International Organization for Migration estimates that attacks on non-Arab groups led to 150,000 Darfuris fleeing their homes this year. Internally displaced people at the camps in El Geneina that I visited in 2004 at the height of the genocide still have no incentive to return home. As recently as last month, 20 were killed in El Geneina.

Khalid Omer Yousif, Sudan’s Minister of Cabinet Affairs, argues that the revolution “ended the legitimacy of Islamists” and old regime loyalists. But, he concedes, “This is going to be a very long process and it must involve civil society and well as the transitional government.” Another advisor to the transitional government, speaking anonymously, says that those benefitting from the previous system will resist change because their wealth, social status and the status of their ethnic group is threatened. He appeals for the international community, and Sudan’s new friends like Israel, to use any leverage it can to support the transitional government.

*Rebecca Tinsley’s novel about Darfur, When the Stars Fall to Earth, is available on Amazon.

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