Photo: Romy Arroyo Fernandez/NurPhoto via Getty Images
The Cultural Aftermath of the Sudanese Revolution
Women artists continue to create their work in a country where their cries for freedom and justice for all have still gone unheard.
When millions of Sudanese people marched in uproar against their president Omar al-Bashir in late 2018, they chanted a slogan that channeled the frustrations of young people living under the former military officer's harsh 30-year rule. Four years later, Sudanese women, a number of whom played a crucial galvanizing role in the uprising against al-Bashir, still live in a country that has not fulfilled the hopes and wishes that many died for.
Throughout the 2018 protests, "Tasqut Bas" ("Just Fall, That is All") became the rallying call on the streets, demanding immediate democratic change – even in the face of arrests and killings, and as a state of emergency was declared. Immortalized by Alaa Salah standing on a car, leading powerful chants, young women often outnumbered men at these protests, highlighting their role in pushing for freedom, peace and justice for all.
Even after security forces killed and raped peaceful protesters during the Khartoum massacre in June 2019, the nation continued to demand the ousting of al-Bashir. Gloriously feeding the resistance, women unleashed a wave of creative energy, as seen sprayed up on walls or posted online to protest against the patriarchy. Alaa Satir, Assil Diab and Yasmin El Nour are just some of the women who led the way with their revolutionary art.
After a three-day general strike, and nearly a year of continued civil disobedience and peaceful protest, al-Bashir's reign seemed over, allowing for a civilian-led transitional government.
But since October 2021, when Sudanese army general Abdel Fattah al-Burhan led a military takeover a little over a year later – choosing to refer to it as a means to 'rectify the path,' as opposed to a coup – hopes of the country emerging from under authoritarian rule have been dashed. More than 120 civilians have been killed by security forces at anti-military protests, and on the fourth anniversary of the 2018 protests, tear gas grenades were thrown into the crowds. The country remains in turmoil. Women continue to be targeted, with reports of sexual violence, systemic attacks on their participation in the public sphere, and the imposition of strict dress codes.
OkayAfrica spoke with three young women, who all work in the creative field, about where they see their futures in an obstructed revolution that may have already failed.
Rima Galander is 25 years old and grew up in Khartoum but left to study in China at 17, where she reveled in the discovery of different cultures. "I was happy to have left behind a closed-minded society," she tells OkayAfrica.
When she returned to Sudan in 2017, it was with newfound independence, and not long afterwards, profound change seemed possible from the disturbances across her nation. Galander was not an activist but participated as a sideline supporter. "I would bring food and drink to the protestors at the sit-ins, even though my family was against it. It was not something they could understand," she says.
She believed in the promise of a new world, having started a modeling career in China to return to work as a producer in Sudan's burgeoning fashion industry. However, she is concerned that the revolution has stalled.
"I don't think the same tactics are working," she says, of her frustrations over Khartoum regularly grinding to a halt. "I don't support the new protests as I'm trapped having to fight through crowds and tear gas. The government seems to be winning."
As she sees it, the older generation's call for a military coup has been an enormous setback for the democratic movement. Security forces impose how women dress and socialize in public, pressuring families to cover up their daughters or keep them at home. "I am a Muslim, but I don't cover my hair. My relationship is with God, not with society," says Galander. "Islam should not be used to control us. Our practice must come from the heart."
Toomi Khalid's popularity as a singer grew online during the revolution. The newly graduated doctor has created confusion for some of her audience as she chooses to dress conservatively, and yet also covers the songs of Beyoncé and Amy Winehouse. "There is a stigma for a woman who chooses to be on stage," she tells OkayAfrica. "They say you cannot be modest and be up there."
The 24-year-old marched to military headquarters on the 6th of April in 2019, in the lead-up to the Khartoum massacre. "People were falling all around me. There were teargas and bullets, and we were running for our lives," she says. "We were mentally prepared to die."
Khalid reflects that they marched for the universal equality of human rights rather than for women's rights alone. Inspiringly, ululation -- the long shrill sound commonly made by Middle Eastern and African women to express joy or sorrow -- played a central role at the time. "When we heard that sound, we knew to gather; we knew that something was about to go down. It fed the energy of the protest; it was beautiful." Since the coup, singing has been Khalid's only escape.
For women like Khalid, Sudan seems to follow a familiar vicious cycle in its modern history of ousting a dictator, having a transitional period, then elections, and, finally, a new military coup.
Duha Mohammed, 29, is a photographer who found her voice documenting the protests but does not feel safe continuing to do so under the new regime. "To break this cycle and have the peaceful country we deserve is a hope we hang onto," she says. "For a moment, we occupied places we had not before – sitting on the street, freely having social interactions – existing outside. How can chilling not be acceptable? For women, the months we had were a victorious time."
For some of the men fighting for change, they found it challenging to accept the breaking of these social norms, and for them, feminism was a step too far. "Many men don't include us in their maths," says Mohammed. "We fight within the fight because they think we want to ruin their understanding of 'family.' Whatever they say, the transitional government gave women no significant roles."
Ultimately, there is no deadline for revolution. Although it may have become normal to not have the space to express yourself, a generation of women in Sudan wish to dress as they want and sit where they please. What was achieved, even for a few moments in time, cannot be taken away. No amount of harassment can begin to extinguish it, either, and these women, like those around them, will continue to create as best they can, while the quest for freedom and equality carries on.
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