The challenges of being a young feminist or LGBTQ+ member in Sudan, according to civil society organizations means you cannot voice your own identity while working on community issues. As a result, young feminist groups and LGBTQ+ members feel that their issues are not represented, worked on, or funded. Moreover, in conditions of peace or conflict, the actual struggles of vulnerable groups like women survivors of sexual violence, sex workers, and LGBTQ+ individuals are not investigated, measured, or researched in order to design effective interventions.
While the revolution promised a better future for human rights and sexual freedom in Sudan, in the aftermath of the 25th of October 2021 coup, which was led by the Sudanese military and the Janjaweed militia, the notorious militia responsible for the genocide in Darfur. This coup nullified the democratic government and put the country in a state of emergency.
Feminists and LGBTQ+ groups are left to deal with the backlash. Civil society organizations are predicting the harshest outcomes, especially for these groups. Restriction of mobility by family, bullying, and violence, imprisonment, honor killings, homelessness, rape, and unsafe abortions. Organizations state their role is very limited since they are forced to operate discretely and on a small scale to provide support and protection, and this must change in the face of another totalitarian regime.
The current situation in Sudan puts more pressure and considering the long history of dictatorships and military rule in Sudan women and LGBTQ+ groups fear degradation in human rights in general and women and sexual minority’s rights, and this fear comes from the turbulent political history in Sudan. A brief look at Sudan’s history takes us back to the post-independence Sudan.
In 1956 Sudan won its independence from the Anglo-Egyptian condominium, which was marked by the start of the documented feminist movements following western demands, such as voting and education. The "Educated Girls Association" was formed in Khartoum among elite women, where education had been accessible to upper-class women since the 1920s. In 1965, the Sudanese parliamentary elections saw the election of the first woman, Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim. She was a parliamentary speaker, a leader within the communist party and a funder of the Sudanese women’s union. She is seen to be among the first Sudanese feminists and politicians.
Politically, women's rights have seen great gains with democratic governments and great defeats when conservative governments are in power. During the thirty years of Omar Albashir’s regime, which started after the 1989 coup it toppled the democratic rule in Sudan and led to Sharia law enforcement. Women were removed from civic spheres, along with restrictions on mobility, and ownership, and made to adhere to a strict Islamic dress code enforced by the public order police. They carry out articles of public order and criminal laws, and a considerable part of this enforcement is based on the decision of the police officer. Women were harassed in the streets, where many women and under-aged Sudanese girls would be picked up by the police for wearing pants or behaving in a way that is deemed inappropriate. One striking example is when a girl got picked up because the policeman didn’t like the way she was walking. Women could face trial, and they could be punished with 40 lashes andof almost 200 Dollars.
During the overthrow of Albashir's regime, women played an influential role. Women constituted up to 70 percent of protestors in peaceful marches. After the overthrow of the regime, women organized themselves into the largest women's rights coalition in history “MANSAM”. This coalition enabled them to achieve remarkable results, such as attaining a 40% quota for women in all governmental bodies within the Juba peace agreement. This coalition also played a major part in the transitional government ratification of CEDAW and the criminalization of FGM. This coalition which has more than 60 political and civil society organizations, armed groups, and women experts managed to push the government to increase women’s representation in the transitional government.
That being said, women feminist groups in Sudan are currently divided into two main categories: one being conservative feminist groups which are mainly older women elites from Khartoum who have political participation as their main demand, and the other is a demographic of younger feminist groups which include women and men with priorities of achieving more freedoms, democracy, and justice beyond the capital.
LGBTQ+ groups are to be found within the margins of activism at the moment, due to the threats imposed on sexual rights in Sudan. Homophobia is prevalent even among culturalists, educated people, women’s groups, civil society organizations, and workers. This is evident after the government removed the death penalty for sodomy in a very discreet manner because of fear of a public backlash.
In conservative Sudan, sexual freedom and rights are taboo. Young women and men are prohibited from experiencing and expressing their sexuality in any way. Sexual relations outside of marriage and between people of the same sex are prohibited by law. As a consequence of these regulations and communities being overwhelmingly against sexual freedom, advocating for sexual freedom is a highly sensitive and risky endeavor. This is due to the sensitivity of the topic. Laws are not protecting civil society organizations working in the issues. And the risk of facing prosecution and harassment from National Intelligence and other government bodies is probable.
Civil society organizations stated that working on women’s rights has become easier after the revolution. They stated that after 30 years of oppression they can work directly in women’s rights, gender, and feminist awareness campaigns but this is not the same for LGBTQ+ activism and sexual rights, which include sexuality, sexual orientation, right to abortion, and access to contraceptives. However, LGBTQ rights activism still has to operate covertly, and support groups have to work under different titles to raise awareness, and support groups are to be conducted in a secretive way and with limited numbers.
December revolution and the promise of a better future in Sudan
During the December 2018 revolution in Sudan, freedom, peace, and justice were the slogans used on the streets of Khartoum and other Sudanese cities for a period of 4 months before the overthrow of the Islamist dictatorship of Omar Albashir. After three months, the democratic transitional government was announced; many considered this the beginning of a new era for human rights in Sudan.
Feminist groups in Sudan are witnessing a renaissance now more than ever. The current debates among these groups are challenging. One of Sudan's biggest women's alliances “MANSAM” in history has been criticized for being elitist and failing to represent women from the peripheries, young women, , and people of LGBTQ+ identities.
According to civil society organizations, the debate over sexual rights, which gained momentum after the revolution, is now subdued – the argument is that now is not the time to advocate for sexual freedoms and that doing so now would cause harm. Another organization reported that left-wing political parties had changed their stance regarding sexual rights and sexual identities and that they had abandoned the cause.
In response to the many violations committed by government forces and armed groups (the Khartoum sit-in break, Tabit mass rape...) the general public is trying to deal with sexual identities, sexual rights, and sexual violence victims in the same way it has always interacted with them – by silencing and denying the existence and struggles of this vast category of Sudanese people. They are left to deal with their struggles alone, stigmatized and rejected from the community.
Young generation Sudanese feminist groups a new safe space
Despite all the struggles the solidarity between younger feminist groups and LGBTQ+ groups run deep and intersects in spaces. Having a safe space within a caring community and supportive friends is a very difficult thing to find in Sudan. This is perhaps partly due to the different perspectives lack of understanding younger and older generations carry, as well as the labeling of sexual freedoms and sexual identities as foreign and contrary to religious beliefs. This challenges the long history of the community in Sudan.
Sudan's future of inclusive feminism that focuses on advocating for representative political and social spaces with respect to sexual identities and does not discriminate based on age, is tied with the presence of a democratic civilian government. Civil society organizations are predicting a huge dip in human rights in Sudan if this current coup continues, especially for young feminist groups and LGBTQ+ activists. However, if a democratic civilian government is established, we might see a future where outdated beliefs about age and sexual identities are no longer a restriction, nor a limit. We will also see an increased number of spaces where expression and identities are accepted and supported.
The key themes of the article are Sudanese Feminism, Intersectionality, LGBTQ+, grassroots feminism, and solidarity. Feminist Futures