Sudan has finally, and after a long struggle, overthrown one of history’s most ruthless dictators. The Islamist regime of Omar Elbashir was in power for almost thirty years. The end of his regime signalled a great victory for Africa as a whole and the region in particular.
The women of Sudan have been at the forefront of the revolution overthrowing Elbashir and his regime, and it is with particular joy that the women of Sudan celebrate this event. Throughout the 30 years of his rule, women and girls have been faced with tremendous struggles and been exposed to great violence.
In its early years, the regime introduced what was known as the Public Order Law. It consisted of seven chapters imposing a set of prohibitions and penalties. These predominantly affected women, not only by preventing them from claiming their rights but also by legalizing various forms of gender-based abuse in the name of religion. The law undoubtedly favours males while giving a religious justification for masculine superiority. It also silences the voices of those who oppose through accusations of religious infidelity.
Political analysts have stated that these laws were kept deliberately vague to increase their effectiveness as a means of control. Uncertainty surrounding the laws, along with prejudiced, arbitrary application, left women extremely vulnerable and unprotected. It resulted in the alienation of women from authorities who should protect them. The relationship between women and law enforcement officials, in particular what is known as the public order police in Sudan, is charged with much fear and suspicion.
In a historic move, in November 2019, the public order law was repealed by the transitional government in Sudan – headed by new Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok. There has been much speculation on how far the new transitional authorities will be willing or able to go to overturn what was enforced by the previous regime.
However, the repeal has also been met with much controversy. While the majority of young people agree with the repeal, others feel that it defies the longstanding Sudanese traditions of modesty and virtue. It seems that residue of the previous rule remains, and women remain largely subjected to ‘societal law’, a direct implication of decades of Islamist ruling. For many Sudanese people, violence against women is not only the result of laws, but also of the aggregation of customs, traditions and social cultures.
In addition, there is still a lack of knowledge among a large portion of Sudanese women regarding their constitutional rights. Male dominance continues to thrive despite the revolutionary spirit in the country, and many have attacked the repealing of the law on the grounds of morals and family values.
Despite ongoing challenges, the future is beginning to look brighter for the women of Sudan. Unlike in previous years, Sudan’s women welcomed the 2019 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence campaign. The campaign was even acknowledged by Prime Minister Hamdok himself, setting a completely different tone to that of his predecessor.
This has been a strong catalyst for female activists in Sudan working to tackle the issue of gender-based violence in the country. Social media campaigns and grassroots initiatives have started to build more momentum. Paramount to this progress has been a new sense of security for activists – not only women but activists of all genders. This has been made possible, in large part, by the abolition of the public order law.
While we still have a long way to go, this reform is a great victory. It is a dim light at the end of a long tunnel, and the first step of many to come to end gender-based violence in Sudan.