By Dalia Haj Omar
October 30, 2011 — October 30, 2011 — Almost a year after a disturbing video surfaced on the web of a Sudanese woman being flogged at a Khartoum police station, Nobel Laureate, Toni Morrison wrote a letter directly addressing the woman in the video and indirectly all Sudanese women. She writes, not with pity nor advice but with encouragement for resisting a vicious regime and showing dignity under the most undignified and inhumane situations, saying, “You did not crouch or kneel or assume a fetal position. You shouted. You fell. But you kept rising . . . It also moved me to see your reactions; I interpreted them as glimmers of hope, of principled defiance.” Morrison ends her letter with optimism, trusting that Sudanese women are fighting for their rights the best they can, she says, “Each cut tearing your back hurts women all over the world. Each scar you bear is ours as well.”
This, to me, is a direct call of solidarity with the strife of Sudanese women. A reminder that we are not alone, and that the very little that is shared with the world — especially through visual online content and Satellite TV — is causing ripples of shock and creating sisterly bonds.
However, these bonds remain weak, and will not become stronger before women in Sudan and Sudan’s women’s rights movement start to communicate better within themselves and link with a wider following inside Sudan and with the outside world intentionally, frequently and directly.
The Sudanese women’s rights movement is one of the most vibrant in the country, and its struggle for women’s rights spans decades and has seen many successes. However, lately they tend to get too busy and forget to reach out to the rest of the world. Even within Sudan their reach, and their ability to change hearts and minds and to mobilise Sudanese women and men around pivotal issues that affect women’s lives, is lacking.
This is the not the first time that we have seen hands extending and calls of solidarity from the global community. We saw that in 2009 when the case of Lubna Hussien (dubbed the ’trousers journalist’) captured the imagination of the world. And again in early 2011 with the case of Safia Ishag, the young activist who was brutally subjected to multiple rape by state security agents in Khartoum, and was the first Sudanese woman to ever speak publicly of being raped.
Both these women where courageous and selfless by speaking up against injustices that were not only inflicted on them, but that are a daily reality for countless Sudanese women around the country. Rape (used most systematically in Darfur) and harassment by public order police for ’indecent dress’ (a problem all over the country) are the state’s ’weapons of mass destruction’ directed at the dignity and pride of women in Sudan. Lubna and Safia gave these two forms of state abuse a face and a voice that talked to all Sudanese citizens and to citizens of the world.
Using satellite TV channels and the internet (mainly through the technical support of the Sudanese Diaspora community), these two women took tremendous risks and defied social pressures to tell their stories. They challenged a regime that capitalises on a conservative society’s silence and shame when it comes to violence against women. Their personal stories were more compelling than any statistics and abstract reports from the human rights movement and international NGOs.
Their voices were hard for the regime in Khartoum to ignore, prompting the government to start its own propaganda to justify these acts by spreading despicable lies and rumors about these women — a usual tactic aimed at distracting attention from the real issues and that, unfortunately, Sudanese citizens fall for each time. The regime’s security agency went as far as filing a case against several journalists who wrote about the rape of Safia Ishag in national daily newspapers.
The women’s rights community was also quick to react, organizing protests, press conferences as well as initiating an ongoing campaign called ’No to the Oppression of Women.’ They demanded a transparent investigation by the state into the case of the woman in the video as well as Safia’s case; and that Article 152 of the penal code that justifies the flogging of women and men is eliminated.
Today, article 152 is still in place and neither of the two cases were transparently investigated. In Darfur the incidents of the rape of women and girls are on the rise and in Khartoum the regime heralded its ’second republic,’ and openly shared its intention to annul all rights under the Interim National Constitution (Sudan’s first constitution with a Bill of Rights) and return us to the dark ages and an extreme interpretation of Shari’a law that fits its needs.
Wondering why the human rights and women’s rights community in Sudan are not able to keep the momentum and visibility on issues related to violence against women and specifically the public order law and the targeted rape of women in Darfur and elsewhere, I directed my questions at some prominent women rights activists.
Niemat Koko, an old-time activist and one of the founders of the Gender Center said, “we are constantly reacting and never following through an issue for a long time, because we are stretched thin with limited resources, and the problems and challenges are plenty.” She added that, “the problem with the campaigns for Lubna and Safia is that we rallied around two personalities, that at the time gave us an opportunity, but the personalities eventually overshadowed the issues and that was a tactical mistake."
A poster from a demonstration organized by Sudanese women residing in Kenya in support of the elimination of the Public Order Law, September 15, 2009, Nairobi.
Nahid Mohamed Al Hassan, a young writer and activist and one of the founders of the, “No to the Oppression of Women” campaign, gave me a more nuanced critique of the campaign and the women’s rights movement in general. According to her, the women’s rights movement lacks strategic direction and is not able to have in-depth discussions and to agree on the intellectual and legal framework linked to women’s rights. She agrees with Koko on the reactionary character of the movement and the lack of long-term strategic plans. And points to internal personal conflicts among the older generation of women in the movement, which tends to hinder constructive debate.
Al Hassan adds that, “although there is a lot of potential and talent, the organisational, human resource and funding challenges are stifling progress.” She explains that most activities by the movement are funded through personal donations and that organizations that are funded are avoiding the real issues because they don’t want a clash with the government. For example, she says that, “no one is dedicated to working on CEDAW, because it is a delicate topic with the regime.”
Al Hassan also adds that the women’s rights movement lacks a grassroots reach and is not able to mobilize the street. “When we organise protests there are about 50 women who are usually ready to hit the street on women’s rights or political issues.” She clarifies that most of these activists belong to political parties and are not fully dedicated to women’s rights issues, because of the demands of their parties, which do not prioritize women’s rights. “In all honesty, the political parties are not committed to women’s issues. To them this is a distraction from the more important goal of regime change,” says Al Hassan.
The author is a Sudanese human rights activist. She posts weekly articles on her blog: Thoughts, Hopes and Speculations.