Since December 2017, protesters have been calling for the fall of Omar al-Bashir, Sudan’s leader of the past 30 years. They have staged sit-ins in front of the presidential palace and army headquarters and risked their lives in large protests.
Last week, their cries were finally heard, as Omar al-Bashir was taken into military custody.
One woman’s image has captivated the world. The photo is of Alaa Salah, a young woman standing on the roof of a car.
Her traditional thobe and moon earrings glisten in the dusk light. She is pointing her index finger to the sky, whilst a sea of protestors capture her image through their mobile phones.
This 22 year-old woman has become the symbol of the revolution.
For many in the West, the image of Alaa Salah is fascinating. Perhaps because she is a woman, perhaps because she is dressed in traditional clothing, perhaps because she is a Muslim.
However, anyone who has been following the protests will know that this revolutionary spirit runs in the blood of Sudanese women. It is therefore not surprising, nor revolutionary, that in the current protests, women are taking centre stage. They have played a leading role in the peaceful uprising, which has swept across the nation – and they are not about to stop!
Videos show Salah singing the following words, as protestors chant back “Thawra”, the Arabic word for revolution:
They burned us in the name of religion
They killed us in the name of religion
They jailed us in the name of religion
But, religion is not to be blamed.
Her words resonate with the struggles of the Sudanese people, who have faced continued hardship during the decades-long rule of al-Bashir. In the name of religion, a state of turmoil, oppression and instability has faced the nation. And of course, it is women who have suffered the most.
Bashir’s 30-year role saw increased suppression of women through Sudan’s public order laws. Controls to women’s freedom of dress, behaviour and education all heightened during this period. Woman continually faced threats of FGM, child marriage, sexual harassment and domestic abuse with few policies put in place to protect their rights.
Many have commented that Salah’s outfit particularly speaks to these issues of women’s oppression, through the homage it plays to the traditions and historical revolutionary spirit of Sudanese women. Hind Makki, an interfaith educator, explained the significance of Salah’s clothing on twitter. She wrote:
“She’s [the woman’s] wearing a white tobe (outer garment) and gold moon earrings. The white tobe is worn by working women in offices and can be linked w/cotton (a major export of Sudan), so it represents women working as professionals in cities or in the agricultural sector in rural areas … Her entire outfit is also a callback to the clothing worn by our mothers & grandmothers in the 60s, 70s, & 80s who dressed like this during while they marched the streets demonstrating against previous military dictatorships.”
As Makki alludes, women have always been a central part of Sudan’s revolutions. Just as Mehaira, Mandy Ajbna and Fatima Ibhrahim before them, women’s involvement in these protests have successfully overthrown their oppressive regime.
Salah has become a symbol of the revolution in Sudan because her image represents the reality of women’s leading role in these protests.
Through one image, Alaa Salah has managed to tell the world the story of Sudan’s revolution and the strength in their resistance.
But, it is important that we do not reduce women’s involvement to a reaction to women’s oppression. Of course, women are fighting to remove their subjugation, but this is just one part of their protest.