Jode Tariq, a slight 23-year-old woman with red hair extensions on her shorn head, has been arrested three times since street protests against Sudan’s strongman leader Omar al-Bashir started in December. On one occasion, her arm was broken by security agents, she said. On another they cut off her hair.
“The first time I was arrested from Khartoum’s downtown, while in the truck before reaching custody, they poured cold water on my back,” Ms Tariq said. “One of them ripped off my headscarf and cut the bun off my head with a razor blade.”
Ms Tariq is one of the thousands of Sudanese women, long repressed by Mr Bashir’s Islamist regime, who have appeared in huge numbers at the vanguard of a protest movement calling for him to stand down. Sparked by a demonstration in December over the rising price of bread, the protests have become the biggest threat to Mr Bashir’s rule since he seized power in a military coup in 1989.
Initially led by mostly male doctors, lawyers and other professionals fed up with economic decline, the movement has since broadened to include more women, youth and political leaders angered by the regime’s corruption and authoritarianism. At least 57 protesters have been killed and hundreds have been arrested since the protests began. Last month Mr Bashir declared a state emergency, appointing military and security officials to run Sudan’s 18 states.
Women are now at the forefront of the campaign, often taking to the streets in larger numbers than men, according to Dr Ihsan Fagiri, the head of the No to Women’s Oppression Initiative, a rights organisation.
Footage of the demonstrations frequently shows hundreds of women chanting anti-government slogans. In some cases, as many as 80 per cent of the protesters, Ms Fagiri estimated, have been women. Their participation is a dramatic rebellion against the ageing autocrat — still wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in the eastern Darfur region — and the country’s so-called morality laws, which curtailed women’s rights in the 1990s.
Mr Bashir is now facing the broadest opposition to his rule in three decades in power, said Rosalind Marsden, a former UK ambassador to Khartoum and Sudan expert at Chatham House. “By going out in such numbers and defying the security forces again and again, women have really become a significant, new political force,” she said.
Sudanese women have a long history of political and social activism. Dr Khalida Zahir, Sudan’s first female doctor, was arrested and flogged in 1946 for opposing British rule. Later in 1951 she co-founded the Sudanese Women’s Union, which fought for women’s right to vote and equal pay and played a key role in the street protests that toppled dictatorial governments in 1964 and 1985.
“Women in Sudan are revolutionary and very aware of their rights,” activist Ms Fagiri said last week after her release from Omdurman female prison. She had been jailed for 75 days for participating in the protests. “This government wants to make us second-class citizens and that will not happen,” she said.
After Mr Bashir seized power in 1989 his alliance of military leaders and Islamist clerics tightened Islamic laws to win diplomatic support in the Gulf and consolidate its control at home. Under the vaguely defined morality and penal codes, women must cover their heads in public, obtain their male guardian’s consent to marry, and face lashes or even the death penalty for “crimes” such as adultery. Many Sudanese say the laws, which tend to target the poor and marginalised rather than the rich and powerful, are at odds with religious and cultural tolerance of Sudanese society.
“What is happening now is positive and women should be proud of themselves,” Sara Abduljalel, a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professional Association, which has led many of the demonstrations. “Despite all the pressure women in Sudan are subjected to, they have showed that their resistance is stronger than the government’s terrorism,” she said.
That resistance has manifested itself in different ways. On one Sudanese Facebook group, originally set up to identify cheating husbands, its 340,000 female members try to identify undercover intelligence agents from photographs taken at demonstrations.
In response to their activism, women have suffered some of the worst abuse of the security crackdown. Like 23-year old Ms Tariq, many claimed to have had their hair cut off. One, who asked not to be identified, said that two security agents held her in a chair while a third cut off her hair with a blade. Others said they had suffered sexual abuse while in custody and have been prevented from seeing their families. “One of [the security agents] kept touching my hair and the hair of the other women who were arrested with me” one woman, who asked to remain anonymous, said of her arrest in January. “We couldn’t do anything, they were armed.”
Despite the intimidation, groups of women continue to protest. “Hey Bashir, get out of here, you can’t face our revolution,” one group of university students chanted at a protest in the capital this month. “Our revolution is a women’s revolution,” they sang.