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The new Kandakas: Sudanese women at the frontline of the revolution

Sudan
Women
Politics

Some 2,000 years ago, during the Nubian period, North Sudan was ruled by women, including Queen Kandaka, famous for her strength. Today, a new generation of Kandakas is taking back the streets and fighting at the frontline of the revolution.   

For the past three weeks protests have taken place, with each day being accorded a different theme. Friday is usually the day when the biggest demonstrations take place, and 13 July was  labelled Kandaka Friday, dedicated to all Sudanese women fighting from their homes and the streets, as well as those arrested and in prison.

As we head into the fourth week of demonstrations, it is worth remembering that the origins of the current protests can be found in the female dorms of the University of Khartoum, where students spoke out against austerity measures and fuel prices. That small demonstration has triggered widespread protests around the country. Led by students and youth movements, which are organizing via social media and word of mouth, the whole nation is participating actively and effectively. Political parties, lawyers’, doctors’ and teachers’ unions, as well as ordinary people, are all calling for the overthrow of the regime.

As expected under such a dictatorial regime, the peaceful protests have been brutally repressed by National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) forces, police units and informal militias known as ‘Rabata’. Many protesters have been arrested, badly beaten with batons, fired upon with tear gas and shot at with rubber bullets. While the exact number of detainees remains unclear, youth groups and social media activists estimate a total of 2,000 people are being held in known and unknown detention centres. According to Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, at least 100 people remain in detention in Khartoum alone.

While all detainees are subjected to various forms of physical and verbal violence, women face the additional threat of sexual abuse. Families of female detainees and human rights activists are concerned not only about the lack of fair trials, but also about the women’s exposure to the risk of rape. The regime has a long history of sexual violence, as manifested in the recent case of Safiya Ishag. Many of the female detainees, snatched from the street, from public areas or from their own homes by security forces, are held for long periods with no consideration of their state of health or the strain on their families. Two such women are Jaleela Khamees and Alawia Kbaida, activists who remain in detention after several months. And detainee Mawahib Majdud was arrested on the same day as her husband Mohamed Utman Almubark, leaving their children with no-one to look after them.

That the government should continue to humiliate and oppress women is unacceptable. In addition to the way women are abused and subjected to different sorts of violence in detention centres, the government has a tradition of oppressing women through degrading public order laws. An estimated 43,000 women were publically flogged for their ‘un-Islamic’ looks in 2008 alone, according to a Khartoum state police report (Section 152), while stoning remains a court- sanctioned punishment. Eighteen-year-old Intisar Sharief – who has been condemned to death by stoning – is currently fighting her sentence in a Sudanese high court.

We Sudanese women living in Sudan and abroad will no longer tolerate the regime’s actions. Here in Britain, a new body consisting of many women’s rights organizations and human rights groups was formed earlier this month under the name of Women’s UK Pressure Group. The group organized its first action on 14 July in support of Kandaka Friday and the ongoing protests in Sudan. It is looking to consolidate the effort of these different organizations to release the prisoners and register complaints about the situation of female detainees in Sudan.

A memorandum was submitted to British Prime Minister David Cameron during the 14 July demonstration. It appeals to the government to put pressure on the Sudanese government to release all political detainees and allow them fair trials and to fulfil its obligations to protect human rights – including the rights of all women.

Photo (top) of Sudanese woman by Al Jazeera English under a CC Licence

Photo (bottom) of London protests on 14 July by Nahla Mahmoud