Sudanese feminists, civil society, and the Islamist military

Despite being circumscribed by an Islamist-military government, the NGO/civil society participation of progressive women in Sudan has become a quasi-movement in and of itself, representing a robust initiative on behalf of women and youth.

Sondra Hale
12 February 2015

The double jeopardy for feminists of being caught between Islamism and militarism is glaring in the Sudanese case where women have been encased in an Islamist-military regime since 1989.   

In Sudan ( formerly Northern Sudan ) this seeming double jeopardy of Islamism and a military regime had the ironic effect of partially liberating many activist women from their secondary roles in Sudan’s patriarchal political parties.  The last two decades has seen the growth of a  heavily gendered civil society in which feminist activists have migrated/segued into national and international non-governmental organizations from liberal and leftist political parties such as  the Sudanese Communist Party (SCP), the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), and the liberal wings of the Umma Party and the National Democratic Party (the latter two being Sufi-based).  Many  women, including those in the Sudanese Women’s Union (an affiliate of the SCP) had already become disaffected by their exclusion from decision-making and leadership within these parties and their patriarchal attitudes toward women, not to mention the insistence within the SCP that such issues as domestic violence should remain in the private sphere.

Women of the SCP were pressured not to interrupt the “heroic narrative” of the Party by smearing it with accusations of domestic violence and other internal and family abuses (and in some cases, rape). Elsewhere I have written of the Sudanese Women's Union as the "wing of the patriarch". The so-called traditional and even progressive parties were part of the “crossfire” within which women were caught.  

An irony of contemporary Sudanese feminist politics is that when the parties were banned by the conservative Islamist military government in 1989, many women found new spaces for activism.  Even when the parties became legal again a few years later, all parties, with the exception of the ruling National Congress Party, were still constrained and immobilized by the Islamist regime.  As a consequence, the parties have done nothing significant for women for decades. During the period of the ban, men had gone into exile or underground, or were imprisoned, and although many women had the same experience of imprisonment or  exile, many cloaked their political activism under the banner of such issues as mutual aid, literacy, health, and a bit later, various violence against women issues and legal rights under the banner of human rights. In operating this way they were able to create a space for activism that was relatively safe.  All along, these feminists in the NGO’s have been hindered, challenged, kept in check, and endangered by the many legal and political obstacles the Islamist government has put in their way.  The Public Order Law “keeps them in check” in the public arena with regard to dress codes, circumscribed modes of social behaviour, and forms of participation in public spaces.  At the same time, these political women have been unable and unwilling to collaborate with the Islamist military regime from which most of the funding for projects comes.  They have had to seek funding from donors abroad (Norway and the Netherlands), which often has the effect of arousing government suspicion that they are under foreign influence.  Feminists have to navigate the morass of bureaucratic hindrances and harassment that impede their work, and are finding that working with the masses or even within modest grassroots efforts has now become dangerous.

Grassroots efforts, civil society, and women’s ngos 

For many, “civil society” has meant the creation of free spaces for the formation of social and self-help associations and mutual solidarity.  The ways in which these grassroots organizations and movements used public space are creative and, dangerous, operating in the face of not only the established Islamist authorities, but also rising Salafism and the active recruiting by groups aligned with Islamic State.

Nevertheless, women political actors have moved into different and creative modes of political expression, buoyed by the increasing use of social media and the taking and converting of public space. While NGOs in general suffered considerable funding cut-backs over the last three years (some of the foreign funding has shifted to South Sudan, for example), some are making use of local resources to continue their activities. In Sudan, the "Khartoum Rising" event in 2013, and “One Billion Rising" in 2014, both co-organized by Salmmah Women’s Resource Centre in collaboration with other civil society and youth groups, was an example of a relatively low-cost yet far reaching event. The organizers staged a dance of freedom by hundreds of young and older women, holding it in an open, semi-public space on the campus of Ahfad University for Women, videotaping it, and sending it viral on YouTube. The association of the words “rising” and “spring,” did not go unnoticed, perhaps a quiet announcement of Sudan’s entry into the insurrections of contemporary times.

The causes of this abandonment of authoritarian regimes, old ideologies, and “politics-as-usual” by youths, and women in particular, may be a result not only of neoliberal economic crises, but also of  the exclusion of women and youth in the leadership of most parties; the domination of affiliated women’s wings by the parties; the influence from the diaspora where youth and women were freer to be active and vocal about contentious topics; the consequent migration of many youth and women into NGO’s, resulting in the growth of civil society and its heavy reliance on youth and women activists; and more recently, a result of the abandonment of any welfare role of the government.  

These independent gendered groups cross party lines, but mostly consist of unaffiliated people who belong to the larger social activism milieu. The seemingly ad hoc demonstrations that took place in various towns in Sudan, especially in Greater Khartoum, in September, 2013  began as a response to the government’s neoliberal austerity measures  such as the announcement of lifting of subsidies for essential products like fuel, but soon began to move in the direction of demands for regime change. These groups formed a web of social media campaigns and alternative news channels.  Young women, who are prominent in these all-youth groups and who had their share of arrests and deaths, have also formed all-women groups to mobilize and strategize their engagements. Examples from Facebook include “Women for the Revolution” and “Women Peaceful [demonstrations] for Our Martyrs.”  Another powerful feminist group that crosses party lines periodically activates as a direct response to violations against women.  Calling itself “No for Women Oppression,” it consists of older feminists aligned with a newer generation. In January 2015 a coalition of many women’s groups, including the one just mentioned, called itself “The Women’s Political Forces and Civil Society Organizations and Groups and issued a statement in support of the opposition’s Sudan Call for democratic changes.  In their statement the women describe this Call as “signed by solid and different national civilian and military forces, who are concerned about the welfare of this country, as part of their collective efforts to save Sudan and establish a peaceful, equal citizenship and democratic State…as an alternative to the current authoritarian and totalitarian regime.”  There are eleven signatories, ranging from liberal to leftist.

In addition, new alliances are forming among the internally displaced persons, most of whom were formerly rural and now are among the urban displaced, and their creative uses of urban resources. These are activist roles now feared and combated, oftentimes violently, by the central authorities in Sudan, especially with the rise of Islamism and the recalcitrant, secretive military and National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS). 

These more radical women’s organizations are the heirs of slightly earlier Sudanese women’s non governmental organisations that were formed in large numbers after the worst years of the Islamist take-over.  Examples include Salmmah: Women’s Resource Centre (1997) the Gender Centre; Sudanese Organization for Research and Development (2007), and Asmaa Society for Women Development (2005) that works for displaced people living in Greater Khartoum.  Women political actors in Greater Khartoum formed mutual solidarity and self-help organizations that seemed relatively safe from government retaliation, while they went about their partially clandestine activist work on behalf of women.  This came to an end in 2009 when the government expelled a number of International NGOs, and more recently in 2012 when it shut down four more.  In mid-2014 Security raided and shut down Salmmah ( perhaps the most radical of the feminist organisations), and there are as yet unconfirmed rumours of more forced closures to come.

It is clear that these women-oriented NGOs, more than political parties and their affiliated women’s wings, are among the most active - along with some youth groups- and make up the bulk of civil society. In fact, NGOs that serve women have taken up the role of women’s movements, not quite grassroots movements in the strict definition of the term, but as  “civil society on the move.”

Analyses of non governmental organisations are rife with contradictions. On one hand they serve the government by tending to the underserved, by actually taking on some of the burdens of the state as service providers. On the other hand, the government is highly suspicious of them, sees them as a potential threat, and tries to keep them under tight control. For example, mandatory registration is not made easy and is not just a bureaucratic formality. With impunity, the government can either refuse a registration or drop an NGO from the rolls, and many are being constantly harassed by the threat of refusal of registration, in effect, shutting them down. In 2012, a number of NGOs were dropped from the rolls and the numbers of progressive or radical ones that serve women in Greater Khartoum are declining. 

Partially, these assaults on the organisations are a result of the fact that in 2012 the Humanitarian Aid Commission (HAC), which had previously supervised many of them, was moved under the Ministry of Interior and  placed under more ruthless security apparatuses.  Since then hey have been under more constant political surveillance and assault. But the various aggressive acts on the part of the government toward NGOs have been met with resistance.  One outcome of the government attack in 2012 was the formation of the Civil Society Confederation.

Despite relentless efforts by the Islamist military government to monitor and control public space for registered or informal civil society entities, a new surge of creative thinking and action is emerging. There is a search for safe spaces for programming, such as Ahfad University for women, and the British Council, plus organizing through social media by  Girifna, a radical mainly youth group and more recently Abena.  Although NGOs have suffered considerable funding cut-backs over the last two or more years, some are making creative use of local resources to continue their activities.  Another example is the “Youth to Youth” Salmmah program where the staff organized dialogues between NGO youth and the youth of some Sufi sects. Another creative activity has been the monitoring and documentation of the September and October 2013 fatalities, a data-collecting and disseminating strategy which was used by international news channels to find the other side of the story to that told on State media.

The civil society participation of progressive women has become a quasi-movement in and of itself, perhaps displacing the more ideologically-inclined party participation, but representing a more robust movement on behalf of women and youth. The government is unstable, however, and it remains to be seen what will happen to these feminist-led NGO’s if and when the current Islamist-military regime falls or undergoes  a metamorphosis and political parties become fully functional again.

The author wishes to acknowledge that much of the research used in this article was done in conjunction with Dr. Gada Kadoda, independent researcher, Khartoum, Sudan.      






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