The 'Revolution of the Burnt Cities'
Nertiti and the challenge to the Sudanese Women's Movement
by Sara Abbas
Almost a year has passed since the signature, in August 2019, of the constitutional declaration in Sudan, which ushered in a transitional period of power-sharing between the civilian opposition and the military. The declaration was a result of a mass, non-violent uprising which began in December 2018 and continued throughout 2019, despite state brutality. Women and youth formed the backbone of the insurrection, which managed, in April 2019, to bring down the regime of Omar al-Bashir after three decades in power.
As I have written elsewhere, the December Revolution was both political and social, since the presence of women in public space - outside of sanctioned hours and in such large numbers - was unusual. While women of various economic classes had taken part in Sudan’s 1964 and 1985 uprisings, spending the night at the sites of protest, as many women did in this revolution, was a new practice. It was an act of collective female agency and a claiming of public space in a way hitherto unseen.
However, despite a constitutional charter that is progressive when it comes to women’s rights, and despite insistent demands by women’s activists, this has not translated into real inclusion in formal political structures. In fact, women’s exclusion has been palpable. It was confirmed once again in recent weeks by the Prime Minister’s announcement that he has selected 13 of the 18 state governors. None are women.
While the revolution has triggered a proliferation of gender activism by women, a broad-based, inter-sectional women’s movement has not yet formed. Thus far, the three politically most influential women’s bodies – all predominantly Khartoum-based (though some have branches elsewhere) are 'MNSM', an umbrella grouping of civic and political groups; 'No to Women’s Oppression Initiative', a collective of women activists which has resisted the regime since 2009, particularly its public order laws, and the 'Sudanese Women’s Union' (SWU), a leftist body with deep historical roots. SWU was responsible for many of the early legal gains in women’s rights in the first decade following independence, and has been suppressed by every dictatorship since.
MNSM and 'No to Women’s Oppression Initiative' were two of the earliest members of the 'Forces for Freedom and Change' (FFC). The FFC was the political coalition from which the civilian component of Sudan’s Transitional government stems. At the time, SWU was part of MNSM but has since left the coalition. Although diverse in some ways and aspiring to be more so, these organizations are positioned firmly within the professional, urban middle-classes. The joint feminist organizing and struggles against gender oppression has led, since the transition began, to some legal reform, notably cancelling of the public order laws. However, it has been less successful in enforcing a principle of parity in political structures.
In large part, this is due to the ingrained patriarchal structure of Sudanese politics, civilian and military alike. But the divisions between women’s groups have also meant that they have not been able to form an effective front. For example, tensions abound between SWU on one hand and MNSM on the other. Recently, Reem Abbas, a journalist who sits on MNSM’s coordinating committee, wrote a public post on her Facebook page in which she expressed deep frustrations with this issue. She decries the conflicts in “the spaces of women’s activism”, especially what she perceives as aggressive gate-keeping by more established women’s activists towards newer and younger ones. Abbas writes (original text in Arabic):
I want to speak about my experience of contact with the [Sudanese] Women’s Union…for a long time I considered it the main body that brings together the struggles of Sudanese women, and was proud that my mother fought in its ranks in her youth...
Right now, I see them as a group of women convinced that they have inherited work related to women from their mothers and fathers! Any group that wants to work must either work under them or not work at all! … It is not possible for a single body to represent all the women of Sudan...
But when a body other than the [Sudanese Women’s] Union tries to work amongst women, [we hear] loud calls to prove [our] legitimacy. “Where did you even come from?” [they ask] or “when did you even start?”. [Even if] we started an hour ago, is it not our right to work or what?”
This frustration by younger generations regarding the dominance of certain activists and modes or thought within Sudan’s fractured women’s movement are not likely to disappear any time soon. Not in a country where 61% of the population is under the age of twenty-five, and where many of the young women have been deeply politicised by the revolution. But an even bigger challenge has emerged in recent weeks, one that is at the intersection of gender, class, ethnicity, region and the rural/urban divides that characterise Sudan.
At the end of June and in the midst of the ongoing Covid-19 crisis in the country, the people of the town of Nertiti in Central Darfur began an open sit-in. This is an area that has long been targeted by state violence, racism, neglect, dispossession and war. Protestors there, organized by the resistance committees, the civil administration (i.e. tribal authority) and the committees of the displaced, have made urgent demands to the transitional government and have refused to be moved until they are met.
The demands include: the removal and replacement of state-level and locality officials still in place from the al-Bashir regime, the disarming of the militias, protection for the farming and herding communities and their livelihoods, bringing the mining operations under the control of the government and an end to the marginalization of the area and its people. Women from the area and neighboring ones have taken part in large numbers at the sit-in. While sharing the above demands, they have also highlighted their systematic targeting through rape and sexual violence- an issue that has never been addressed since the Darfur conflict began in 2004.
Nertiti inspired other sit-ins in several war-affected and impoverished areas of the country. Some have been dispersed brutally, showing once again that the state, especially in the so-called “areas of the margins”, continues to operate with impunity. These sit-ins have shone a spotlight on the shortcomings of the Khartoum-centered, middle-class embedded, women’s movement. They raise questions on the extent of its representativeness, on whether its priorities are those of the majority of Sudanese women, and from an inter-sectional standpoint- whom exactly an increase of representation in governmental structures would benefit.
In a searing piece by feminist Hikma Ahmed (original text in Arabic), she writes: “We must rethink the feeling of guardianship within the women’s elites, those who have a voice and the space [to speak]”, adding:
Returning once again to the masses at the sit-in in Nertiti, we see masses of women in the front: the women farmers whose work was never legalized, the women builders who dig through mountains and make bricks… who have not been looked at as agents but who rose to the public’s consciousness as victims of war, rape and so on. Those women have major and urgent demands. They left the camps of the displaced and the cities they were displaced to in order to call for these demands.
This is not the revolution of the stable cities, it is the revolution of the burnt cities, the revolution of those whose land, crops and dreams have been snatched from them, a revolution against the kind of revolutionary bent that in its search for a return to stability has contributed to destruction, and turned into a war trade that profits from the continuation of the conflict itself.
Even in the “stable cities”, as Ahmed puts it, like Khartoum, class conflicts have risen more prominently to the surface in recent months. This is because, as Willow Berridge has argued, the centre-periphery divide in Sudan is not just one between the “central states” and the outlying provinces (“the peripheries”), and not just between urban and rural areas. It is also recreated within the cities themselves, where the affluent parts are deemed in need of protection by the state against the peri-urban areas on their outskirts, which house the poorest and the displaced.
During the Covid-19 lockdown in Khartoum, the government had announced that it will provide some financial help to women sellers of food and tea, to help offset the loss of income. While some received help, it was paltry. Others have said that they have received no help at all and in fact, the police arrested several for ignoring the lockdown in order to work.
As Jalila Koko, a teacher and activist from the Nuba Mountains who lives in Khartoum told me, poor and working-class women in the city are suffering greatly due to the economic situation, even since the Covid-19 restrictions have been lifted:
She who wants to go back to work must deal with transport. Transport has become a problem…If a woman is working in Khartoum and comes from Omdurman [the old part of the city], it costs her 400 or 300 SDG to get there. This is so incredibly difficult. This issue has hurt me more than anything. So what if they have stopped the lockdown if the transport [costs] haven’t changed?... prices are on fire.
The fire is getting hotter, whether in the streets of Khartoum where an economic war against the poor has long been waged, or in areas like Nertiti, where simply attempting to farm or to herd can get a woman raped or killed. Organizing by racialized and economically exploited women is growing. And yet, it is growing by and large outside the Sudanese women’s movement “proper”. Whether the movement evolves, and quickly, to stand in real solidarity with these women - without guardianship, as Ahmed has put it, is an open question. The answer will be the difference between it being a challenge to the status quo, or an extension of it.
Sara Abbas is a PhD candidate in political science at the Freie Universität Berlin. This article first appeared on the CMI Website. Reproduced with permission.