The Great Battle of the Republican Palace
By Reem Gaafar
Exactly two months ago, Sudan’s peaceful revolution against 30 years of dictatorship was crowned by the establishment of the 1st civilian government in 3 decades. The victory came at a dear and painful price, with many young lives lost and many more injured, maimed, detained and sexually assaulted. The new technocratic government had been given the seemingly impossible task of attempting to resurrect in 3 years what had been systematically destroyed over 3 decades, and to do this it pledged to appoint the best of the best. The most recent of these appointments was Sudan and the Arab world’s first female chief justice, honourary Niemat Abdallah, sworn into office a few days ago. She is the latest addition in a line of the highest ranking female officials in the country, bringing the total to a meagre yet enormous 7: herself, 2 women in the sovereign council, and 4 ministers including the country’s first female minister of foreign affairs. But even as women celebrate this hard-won victory, it is painfully obvious what a tiny victory it is in the long battle towards dismantling the patriarchy and putting women in the place they deserve. And despite its small size, it did not come easy.
The coalition that guided the protests had put in place an Agreement of Freedom and Change which more than 80 political and civilian parties had signed, and which became the manifesto of the revolution. The agreement clearly stated that among other things, women would have at least 40% of seats in all levels of government. But after former president Omar Albashir was deposed on April 11th and negotiations with the Transitional Military Council began, we watched in dismay as rooms full of men led negotiations, spoke on television and signed agreements. Towards the end of the process (mostly to shut people up), one woman was pushed into the room and propped up in the back line when pictures were taken. However, neither she nor any other women were invited anywhere near the stage during the fancy signing ceremony of transitional constitutional document which effectively ended military rule and ushered in the era of (partial) civilian governance.
It wasn’t clear just what the problem was. Were there not any qualified women? Were the women being actively excluded? Did the women not want to step up to the responsibility? Whenever approached with the issue, opposition leaders would avidly agree that it was unacceptable, then shrug their shoulders in a show of perplexity over what the problem exactly was and who was behind it. Then, when the technocratic government was being formed and nominations for ministerial positions were put forward from the same coalition of political and civilian parties, a total of 65 nominations were made for the 20 positions – only 16 of which were women. By then it had become obvious that all the fancy talk about women’s representation was just the usual lip service, and women took matters into their own hands. They started posting and sharing impressive resumes and backgrounds of dozens of women from all over the world as nominations for the different ministerial and administrative positions.
Organized women’s rights groups such as Khamseen, (or Fifty, a movement calling for 50% of seats for women) and No To Women’s Oppression conducted sit-ins, recorded live videos on social media, wrote articles and made as much noise as they could, calling for a dismantle of the patriarchy and to recognize the Sudanese women’s role in the revolution and in life in general. Even some men joined in the movement. These protests were met with vicious accusations of lesbianism, disrespect and simply wasting people’s time. Women stood alongside men against the movement, shaming the protesters and talking about ‘more important matters’ such as justice for the martyrs and bring perpetrators to justice, and rebuilding the country which apparently neither needed nor wanted any meaningful representation of women in government.
Apparently, women were only good for ululating in the front lines of the protests and facing the bullets alongside men, but nothing more. The movement didn’t hold back, and eventually some representatives even managed to meet with the newly appointed prime minister who reassured them of his full intention to give women the positions they deserve. Thankfully, he was the only person who actually followed through on his promise. And yet, even as these historic changes unfold in front of us, more protests are marching forward demanding dissolution of unjust laws that limit women’s basic rights to things as simple as what to wear, to taking care of and traveling with their own children. The fight is very obviously far from over.
In the past, Sudanese women had made great progress relative to the region through the hard work of pioneers such as Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, granting early rights to vote, work and study, equal pay, maternity leave, fighting FGM and many other things. But under the 30 years of the NCP regime, they were targeted and harassed by idiotic laws, poverty and poor education, setting them back decades and severely weakening their bases. And Sudan has never been much different from its regional neighbours and friends in its culture that primarily oppresses women under the guise of customs and chastity.
Everyone loves talking about ‘women’s rights’ and ‘empowering women’, giving them what they ‘deserve’, ‘equal opportunities’, and so on and so forth. It has become a piece of bubble gum that has been chewed tasteless. But when it comes to practice, they find that not only is doing much more difficult than saying, but men (and women) don’t really want to move out of the way and let women in. And when someone else steps up and does, those who don’t outright complain and criticize still sit on the sidelines waiting for the slightest slip-up – or whatever could be loosely translated as such – to jump up and say ‘well that’s what you get when you put a woman in charge! We told you so!’
The bottom line is this, ladies: no one is giving you anything. Ever. Both men and women will resist and hold back and come up with all the excuses they can to keep you in your place behind and below. You have to fight for your rights, and keep on fighting, and teach your children and their children to keep up the fight. It’s a battle to which there seems no end in the near future, but is not impossible to win. The Republican Palace is just one stop in a long, uncomfortable journey.