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The women who helped bring down Sudan’s president

Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old Sudanese woman, has become an icon of the country’s uprising.

Sudanese demonstrators celebrate the arrest of long-time President Omar al-Bashir by the armed forces, outside the Defense Ministry.
Ala Kheir/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

Sudan’s military has overthrown the country’s longtime president, Omar al-Bashir. It’s a huge win for the hundreds of thousands of Sudanese protesters who have taken to the streets for months calling for his ouster — and for the brave women who have been a driving force in the protest movement.

Sudan’s Defense Minister Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf announced Thursday that al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Sudan’s Darfur region, had been taken into military custody. While it’s unclear if the military plans to turn al-Bashir over to the ICC for prosecution, it’s pretty clear that his brutal 30-year reign has come to a definitive end.

Much of the credit for al-Bashir’s removal goes to the women who have played a prominent role in the uprising that has swept the country and who have become the faces of the largely peaceful movement to topple the regime.

Earlier this week, an iconic photo of a woman named Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old engineering and architecture student, addressing protesters from atop a car went viral.

The image, captured by local photographer Lana Haroun, shows Salah standing on a white car surrounded by a sea of people outside the presidential compound and army headquarters in Khartoum, Sudan’s capital. Wrapped in layers of shimmery white fabric styled as a “toub” — a traditional Sudanese style of dress for women — and gold moon earrings, Salah towers over the crowd of protesters, her finger raised defiantly in the air.

A video of Salah leading protesters in songs and chants also went viral on social media. It shows Salah calling out, “In the name of religion, they killed us,” with the crowd responding, “Revolution!”

Her toub, and those worn by other women protesters, has become a symbol of freedom, strength, and solidarity in a country that has been suffering from a state of turmoil, oppression, and instability for decades under al-Bashir’s rule.

Salah and the thousands of other women who have been leading and participating in the protests are being referred to as “Kandaka” the Nubian title for “queen.” They’ve become both the face of the movement to oust al-Bashir and a symbol of the struggle for women’s rights in Sudan.

Women’s rights in Sudan are abysmal. They protested in large numbers anyway.

Despite the threats that Sudanese women continually face, ranging from child marriage to domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape, few policies have been put in place to protect women and girls in Sudan.

Sudan’s public order laws, which control women’s freedom of dress, behavior, association, and education, have led to the oppression and punishment of Sudanese women for years and enabled a patriarchal system to thrive. Girls as young as 10 years old are legally allowed to marry, and girls are frequently forced into marriages with much older men without their consent. Marital rape is also legal in the country.

Women’s rights in Sudan faced international condemnation last May when a child bride, Noura Hussein, was sentenced to death for killing her husband as he tried to rape her. However, after an online petition appealing for clemency garnered more than 1.5 million signatures, her sentence was reduced to a five-year jail sentence.

Yet despite having faced this kind of repression and exploitation for decades — or, perhaps, because of that fact — women have been at the forefront of the nationwide protests since they began in December. Reports estimate that more than 70 percent of the protesters who have gone out into the streets are women, according to the BBC.

Since images of her leading protests went viral, Salah says she has received death threats. Yet she remains undeterred: “I will not bow down. My voice can not be suppressed. Will hold Al-Bashir responsible if anything happens to me. #JusticeWillPrevail,” she wrote on Twitter, just one day before al-Bashir was removed from power.

After the military announced al-Bashir’s ouster, Sudanese women took to the streets to celebrate. Huge crowds of protesters gathered and were seen cheering amid celebratory gunfire in Khartoum on Thursday.

But not all of them are convinced this is a happy ending

Many protesters reacted with anger after Sudanese Defense Minister Ibn Auf announced in a speech Thursday that a two-year transitional government administered by the military would take over following al-Bashir’s arrest.

On Twitter, Salah accused the al-Bashir regime of “hoodwinking Sudanese civilians through a military coup” and demanded that a civilian council be put in charge of the transitional government.

Protesters also said that after Ibn Auf, a key military leader during al-Bashir’s suppression of rebels in Darfur in the early 2000s, delivered his speech, their hope had been turned to anger and disappointment as they realized he was unlikely to give al-Bashir up for prosecution by the ICC.

“They just replaced one thief with another,” Ahmad Ibrahim, a young protester sitting on the ground under the sweltering heat near the sit-in outside of the army headquarters, told the Washington Post. “We are going to keep pushing until all of our demands are met.”

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