By: Fatime-Zara Beri*

This past April has ushered in a new change in Sudan. The spirit of revolution has taken over the citizens of Sudan. At the center of the revolution are women.[1] Massive scores of women protesters take to the streets in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan. As many as two-thirds of those who participated in the protests were women. Images of women — angry, defiant, now celebratory — have become emblems of the uprising. Sudan was a repressive place for women under Omar al-Bashir’s Islamist 30-year reign.[2] However, women have reclaimed their voice during the latest anti-regime protests and are determined to secure their place in the future. On April 10, 2019, Bashir’s 30-year rule over Sudan came to an end due to women engaging in protests as active participants.

Various segments and groups of Sudanese society have taken part in the protests and are still demonstrating out of concern that April’s military coup will not usher in the freedom, justice or peace that the protesters seek.[3]People from different political, ethnic, religious and social backgrounds have participated in the protests, culminating in a historic sit-in at the headquarters of the Sudanese Armed Forces. [4] However, women have been at the forefront. There is an overarching reason, stemming from the role of women in Sudanese society. However, there are particular reasons, too: the brutal oppression that women have experienced under Bashir’s government, as well as the hardships that they felt as the economy deteriorated. [5]

Under Bashir, Sudan transformed into a playground for brutal human rights violations, including allegations of genocide against Darfuri men, women, and children during the conflict in western Sudan, which led to an indictment by the International Criminal Court (ICC) against the Sudanese strongman. South of Darfur, in the Bahr al Jabal region, decades of brutal wars between the regime and the primarily Nilotic Christian populace finally led to the breakaway and independence of South Sudan, depriving Khartoum of the third-largest oil reserves in sub-Saharan Africa.[6] Such atrocities under Bashir’s rule has landed him on the radar of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The first warrant for arrest for Bashir was issued on March 4, 2009, the second on July 12, 2010.[7] Bashir’s rule was marked by decades of violence, human rights violations, and injustices.

Under Bashir’s government, women experienced oppression and bear the brunt of his brutality. In 1989, Bashir seized power in a bloodless coup.[8] When he came into power, women’s lives drastically changed. Under the provisions of the public order law (passed in 1992 and amended in 1996), women have been arrested, detained, beaten and imprisoned for wearing what are perceived to be indecent clothes, such as trousers or short skirts, going out with their male friends, or not covering their hair when in public.[9] Public morality laws limited the women’s movement without male guardians.[10] Corporal punishment such as lashings to severe abuses – including rape – by security forces while in detention were enforced.[11]Women’s rights defenders were mainly targeted, in a systematic attempt by Sudanese authorities to silence female activists, lawyers, and journalists. [12]

In conflict areas outside Khartoum, the oppression of Bashir’s government against women was more severe, as most of the human rights violations in these districts were committed against women and their children.[13] They have been subjected to sexual violence by government forces or government-supported militias. After examining their living conditions if they remain in their neighborhoods, many women have fled their homes and now live in internally displaced camps in Darfur. Others have sought refuge in neighboring Chad. It was because of this that displaced people, the majority of whom are women, joined demonstrations in support of the uprising. With the recent wave of protest, we see women taking a stand against a dictatorial society.

Throughout Sudan’s history, women have played a central role in society. In the ancient Sudanese Nubian kingdoms, women were queens and queen mothers, and they were referred to as “Kandakat,” or strong women. [14] In the Darfur region, and western Sudan more broadly, women who write poems in support of virtues and traits such as bravery in times of war and generosity in times of peace have historically played significant social and political roles. This tradition has helped give strength to and inspire those leading the current uprising.
As women took part in the protests, they were primarily targeted by the security forces and the militias of the ruling National Congress Party. Women’s participation was itself an affront to the pro-Bashir forces, and stern action may have been designed to force the families of women to insist that they stay at home. However, instead of accepting subjugation by Bashir’s security forces, women became more defiant and determined to continue. Women are at the forefront, the leaders, in Sudan. It is not the stereotype of women in the background cheering the men. Women are in the streets of Khartoum chanting and demanding justice.

The efforts of the women finally pulled off. On Thursday, April 11, 2019, Sudanese Defense Minister Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf announced the army had toppled and arrested Bashir, and a transitional military council would rule the country for two years.[15] However, demonstrators promptly rejected the military takeover, with the Sudanese Professionals Association, one of the main protest organizers, calling instead for a transitional civilian government to be put in place. [16] Protesters fear that another extreme Islamist with a different face will rule Sudan if left in the hands of the military.

Sudan’s future is being shaped in the days and months to come, and few protesters are likely to accept a two-year transition period led by Defense Minister Auf, a longtime Bashir loyalist who was blacklisted by the US in 2010 for his role in the Darfur conflict. The man who for the moment holds power, Auf, is himself associated with many of the atrocities that Bashir was responsible for in Darfur.[17] He is alleged to have coordinated many of the attacks by the Janjaweed, the brutal militia that was so active and caused so many of the casualties in Darfur.

Bashir’s ouster does not mean that freedom in Sudan is guaranteed. However, it is encouraging to witness civilians taking matters into their own hands. What is occurring in Sudan is somewhat a resemblance of the Arab Spring in 2010. What is more impressive is that women, young and old, are at the center of events campaigning for change.


[1] Nasredeen Abdulbari. “Why women led the uprising in Sudan.” The Washington Post. April 12, 2019.

[2] Leela Jacinto. “Women lead the charge, and chants, in Sudan protests.” France 24. April 11, 2019.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] International Criminal Court. “Alleged crimes (non-exhaustive list).”

[8]Al Jazeera. “Sudan protesters say army trying to break up sit-in.” April 20, 2019.

[9] Ibid.


[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

*Disclaimer: The content contained in the following material is the sole ownership of the author and does not reflect the Towson University Journal of International Affairs nor Towson University in any respect whatsoever.