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Sudan: Women on frontline risking all to call for reform
In Sudan’s conservative society where many believe a woman’s reputation and honor doesn’t belong to her alone, young female activists who are increasingly choosing to be on the frontline in the fight for democracy and human rights. But not without a cost! They have faced more direct physical and sexual assault to deter them from standing up for their rights.
“The rape of Safia Ishaq made our female members scared and reluctant to work, they are strong, but this crossed a red line,” said Sarah Faisal, who is affiliated with the youth movement, Girifna that is an Arabic word for “We are Fed Up”. She was referring to the rape ordeal of one the movement’s members last year.
Girifna aims at using civil resistance to overthrow the current Sudanese government.
In February 2011, 25- year- old Safia Ishaq was kidnapped by three National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) officers and gang-raped during her detention.
When Ishaq recorded a video testimony with the help of a friend to speak out about her ordeal, she shocked the Sudanese society, a conservative society where issues such as sexuality and rape are rarely discussed.
Ishaq had to flee Sudan after facing security threats from the NISS who were harassing her family about her whereabouts; she left behind a disapproving society and even worse, disapproving parents.
Faisal who worked with Ishaq in Girifna said that when you are subjected to sexual assault, the society does not protect you, it ostracizes you and discriminates against you instead.
“I think the NISS which is the main tool to suppress activism benefits from the way society views rape victims and uses sexual assault as a torture method and a way to pressure this activist out of the opposition sphere,” added Faisal.
Since 2011, along with other youth movements, Girifna has organized a series of anti-government protests in Sudan. Inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt, the protests attracted hundreds of youth, but the protests were short-lived as the security crackdown became brutal. Rights-groups reported the arrest of over 130 youth activists last year alone.
Female activists in Sudan have been told off by police and security officers that they will face arrest, abuse and even rape. Every assault, verbal abuse, groping or even rape is justified because a woman does not belong to the streets and when she goes out, she willingly puts herself in this vulnerable position.
When Samah Adam, a young activist was arrested for participating in a protest last year, officers violently dragged her by her blouse. During the incident she tried to cover her chest, she was told she deserved this for going out to protest in the first place. She said that officers dragged women by their skirts and blouses and tore in the process as a way to humiliate them.
Adam was arrested in the afternoon and kept in the premises of the NISS until the early hours of the next day where she was beaten and was threatened with rape.
“I felt protected because I was in a group of 10 girls and it was my fourth arrest so I was less afraid of their threats,” she said. She added that if she was alone, she could have faced rape.
“The rape ordeal of Safia Ishaq was horrible, but the reactions to it by the society were even more disturbing,” said Amel Habbani, a journalist and activist who has served jail-time for writing about the rape case of Ishaq.
Habbani and another journalist, Fatima Ghazzali were jailed for their articles on the rape of Safia Ishaq but the NISS denies the incident but the official police medical report is proof that the rape occurred.
Looking back at the case of Ishaq, Faisal said that many activists and politically active women she knows fear sexual violence tactics and tell her “we don’t know what we will do or where we will go if we are rapped by the security agents. The security have succeeded in spreading fear of sexual assault in women,” she added.
Habbani who writes regularly on gender issues and violence against women believes that female activists are fighting on so many fronts. On one hand, they have to fight an unjust system and a sexist security apparatus and on another hand, they are fighting a sexist society.
“Even male activists who are very open about their opposition to the regime and the many infringes on rights issues it carries out are sometimes unresponsive to issues related to women’s rights,” said Habbani who referred to a well-known activist who stood against female activists on the case of Lubna Hussein and lashed at them in the newspapers.
Hussein, a vocal journalist was arrested in a restaurant with other girls and sentenced to 40 lashes for wearing trousers that were deemed “inappropriate ” by the public order police. Unlike the other girls, she refused to be lashed. In return, she went to court where she received a jail sentence and served time before she was bailed out.
Female activists don’t even have to go to a protest to face these security risks, they are also terrorized by security officers from engaging in events organized by activists.
The NISS was shaken by the Safia Ishaq case. Until recently, activists reported that Sudanese government officials are asked about the investigation into Ishaq’s case at government-level international meetings. The NISS denies the rape charges and at least 10 journalists were tried and are currently still tried for writing about the rape case.
Still the security always finds a way to push female activists out of the front lines.
“There is a new trend, confiscating our equipment to stop us from working,” said Dalia Haj Omar, an activist. Omar added that her laptop and camera were confiscated last month because of her activism.
In a few weeks, the Sudanese parliament is expected to pass a strict anti-espionage Act. Activists and journalists fear the Bill because it will target their work whether through its social media, writing and activism. This law could sentence for instance a journalist to death for any work that is deemed by government to be a violation of this Act.
About the author: Reem Abbas is Sudanese freelance journalist and blogger.