To be a woman in Sudan

Women in Sudan have gone from being state subjects to war spoils.

Alsit Mountain. Image credit Ahmed Fouad via Flickr CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed.

Recent coverage of the Sudanese war after a prolonged period of silence showcases women firing guns at training camps in the Sudanese Armed Forces’ strongholds. These images contradict the otherwise perceived image of Sudanese women as passive actors. Men and women in Port Sudan, Blue Nile, and other regions under the control of the Sudanese Army have heeded the army’s call for popular mobilization. Contrary to public belief, conscription, as was the case in the early days of the Islamist regime of the 1990s (at the height of the state’s war with the South Sudanese) is not the remit of masculinities alone. Women too had their spaces within the then-jihadi camps, complete with an ideological role; pious females, obedient wives, and when called upon a mobilized resource.

Before that, most reporting on women’s needs and their general deteriorating conditions took place in and between the private social media correspondence of activists. Low key and coded, women raised funds and extended already stretched networks to provide relief to survivors of sexual assault. Short and precise, the social media calls for SGBV intervention usually read “contraception and antivirals required in X location for X amount of rape victims.” The stigma associated with sex outside of wedlock, whether coerced or not, is a persistent feature of Sudan’s failure to democratize, one that even the recent civilian transitional government with all its flair failed to address.

Sudanese civil society will attest that criminalizing rape in particular, and all other forms of GBV in general, remains a challenge despite tabled reforms since the 1990s. In a highly conservative setup like that of Sudan, the women’s agenda has often been used to appease opponents and/or simply discarded afterward with no consequences on the legitimacy of the political actors. Despite its popularity, the 2018 revolution did little to change the status quo. Disgruntled women protestors and activists, members of the Resistance Committees are publicly outspoken about violent tendencies within their grassroots structures. Violence against women in Sudan is a cultural subtext rather than episodic. The continuities, as well as the urgent cases, require sufficient attention and intervention if the issue is to be addressed.

It is difficult not to read women’s readiness for military mobilization in the context of the widespread fear that has gripped the public following 10 months of war between Sudan’s two generals. Once allied military actors, the Sudanese Armed Forces (SAF) and Rapid Support Forces (RSF) a paramilitary group created and legitimized by the state, are now locked in a fierce battle to out-win each other without consideration of the destruction, displacement, and unmitigated violence on the public and especially on women and children. The persistent targeting of unarmed civilians by both belligerents has been widely documented. According to the latest figures, displacement is at 7.7 million, some outside Sudan, the majority of about 6.6 million, according to IOM, remain within the country. The failure of both parties to adhere to the rules of engagement has been catastrophic for the public, with some moving from one area to the next looking for security and shelter, others holed up in Khartoum still with nowhere to relocate. Those who managed to escape to other states found life outside of Khartoum near impossible. Minimal infrastructure and services at exorbitant prices added to their suffering. As the fighting patch expands, the revictimization of already displaced communities is more than likely. At the expense of women more than others.

It is against this backdrop that women are carrying guns. The failure of the army to protect them and the state’s indifference to their daily struggles puts them in the unruly position of “self-defense,” whatever that may come to mean in the contentious dynamic of public militarization during and after the war. Prescribed rights at times of peace limit women’s resilience and coping mechanisms during the war.

Women are particularly motivated to self-defend on the pretext of widespread practices of sexual assault by the RSF. During the first nine months of the war, reports of rampant sexual abuse were rife. Multiple incidents were reported of male relatives being either killed or suffering gravely after reacting to their wives, mothers, or sisters being raped by RSF assailants in their presence. The social stigma associated with rape, already present, engenders violent preemptive reactions against and by women ranging from forced marriages, sometimes to RSF fighters, to suicide. Local organizations reporting on Sudan from the ground in Khartoum state that internal displacement is mostly driven by fear of unprovoked RSF reprisals, carried out against women and girls. The actions of the militia suggest extreme break-in and humiliation tactics, not unlike the ones prevalent in Darfur’s previous genocide. Their behavior seems to match the militia’s long-adopted scorched earth policy. In a widely circulated social media post, an RSF member boasted that both women and property/wealth in areas captured are considered war booty and, as per the law of combat, their exclusive and indisputable right.

Sexual violence in Sudan is interwoven into the larger state of lawlessness that abounds where “goods” constitute all that can be bought, sold, and consumed; women’s bodies included. Stories from Al Gezera state, Sudan’s second-largest and most populous city, after its invasion by the RSF in December 2023, describe how people hid women and girls alongside their cars in the forests at a distance from the villages. A standard narrative from captured areas is that RSF soldiers invade homes looking for three items; cars (to be later driven and sold in markets in Chad), cash, and young women.

In her award-winning report on the epidemic of sexual violence after the outbreak of the war in April 2023, Sudanese journalist Dalia Abdelmonim described how Sudanese women navigated the terrains of insecurity and lawlessness that engulfed Khartoum in the complete retreat and absence of law enforcement. The report quotes a rape victim’s plea for privacy: “don’t let the other soldiers see,” a desperate attempt at minimalizing the damage. If anything, the survivor’s testimony exposes the boundless possibilities of injustice in a context like that of Sudan where rape is better than gang rape, especially when there is no hope for recourse in the near future, if ever.

Such grim stories invoke memories of a long history of systemic violence against women in Darfur, still ongoing, and more recently in Khartoum in the wake of the 2018-19 protests. Darfur made global news in 2014, 10 years after the war broke out in 2004 after the Sudanese army’s 36-hour raping rampage of 221 women in Tabit’s North Darfur was chronicled in a 48-page report published by Human Rights Watch. Their commander-in-chief and then president of the country Omar Al-Bashir was indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, earning him the title of “the only sitting president wanted by the ICC.”

The Tabit incident was neither the first nor the last. All fighting groups, parastates, and rebels, systematically target women while engaged in hostilities. In May 2023, less than a month after the war broke out, a group of soldiers from Sudanese Alliance Forces kidnapped and forcefully detained seven young women in ElGenina in west Darfur. Held in sexual slavery, these young students were forced to cook and clean for their captives for two months. When the city was raided in June 2023 by the RSF, stories of Arab fighters targeting black Masalit women evanesced amid the news of the mass forced displacement of 400,000 inhabitants of AlGenina to neighboring Chad.

The events that transpired in the aftermath of the 2018 revolution suggest continuity in  a concerted policy of violence against women by armed actors. The RSF with the blessing of the army and under the watchful eye of the state committed heinous acts of sexual violence against the public in what came to be dubbed as the June massacre, On that day, more than 200 people were murdered, 70 women raped and unaccounted numbers of disappeared persons likely to have been subjected to torture and or sexual assault after going missing.  Before that, in the period leading to the 2018 revolution, the systematic use of the law to criminalize and harass women activists into subjugation is well documented. To this day, no individual or entity has been held accountable for these acts of violence. It is difficult not to read Sudanese women’s extreme and widely varied reactions: some taking up arms, others making religious quests to end their lives to avoid rape and end their suffering, all in the broader, ongoing context of memories of directed violence, disempowerment, and the state’s failure to protect.

Complicit in these acts of sexual violence is the state at both the legislative and the executive levels. Beyond the complicities of government, bodies such as the Central Reserve Force (CRF), also known as the riot police, who use sexual violence against female protestors as an intimidation tactic, failure to pass laws that clearly criminalize rape and all forms of gender-based violence exacerbate misconduct by the public and uniformed personnel alike. Under the Sudanese criminal code, rape and all other forms of physical violence are treated with equal consideration despite the political and social weaponization of the former. An Islamic-based legislative system (Sharia Law) constrains recourse to justice further by placing the burden of proof on the complainant. I seldom met women survivors of sexual violence who willingly went through the system to seek justice.

The feeble legal framework is assisted in its onslaught on women by normative frameworks to institute a strict social order. The infamous Public Order Law (PLO) repealed in 2020 yet still present in many forms, is a relic of Islamic jurisprudence that sought to control women and ethnic minorities. To achieve this, problematic paradigms of womanhood emerged centering female bodies as sites of sexual control. The PLO availed police officers wide-ranging powers to arrest and detain on the pretext of “disorder.” Without a definitive legal code to govern its application, women, especially political activists, were targeted and persecuted. The law itself stipulates a set of vague modalities that govern private and public conduct, their parameters loose and fluid, subject to the arresting officer’s judgment and power to carry out the accusation. Stories abound of women detained, publicly berated, and humiliated before being tried and jailed. One was accused of indecency for wearing trousers, and another of debauchery for hanging out with a male friend. In one extreme case of law used a pretext to commit crimes, Safia Ishag, a political activist and artist, now in exile, was gang-raped in 2011 by members of the security police while in their custody. None to this day were ever brought to justice.

When Safia’s case was made public, she became the subject of popular backlash, and the validity of her claims was denied and questioned. Unsurprisingly, the dominant Sudanese feminist narrative is still stuck defending the credibility of rape and sexual assault survivors. Since the 2018 revolution, and its subsequent 2019 massacre that brought violence into full view, the tendency to support and believe women victims of sexual assault has improved yet the legal framework to combat and end it is still lacking.

The public’s view and reaction to the abuse of women as well as the authority’s complicity in their disempowerment is enabled, as explained above, by a complex set of normative and legal frameworks all working in tandem and should be considered as a leading factor in women’s vulnerability to sexual violence during the war.

Not unlike the PLO, Sudan’s family law gives sweeping powers to male relatives over women’s bodies, curtailing their choices without explicitly defining the limit of male guardianship. Women in Sudan can neither marry nor divorce themselves, in both cases, they require the legal intervention of a male guardian. They also struggle to hold and keep custody of their children. This too has been to the detriment of women, their right to make life choices or even push back against all acts and forms of violence. A 2020 report by UNFPA cited physical and sexual violence, as well as restrictions on freedom of movement as some of the issues affecting women respondents. This is despite the democratic wave that swept the country after the 2018 revolution. Restricted movement, especially in the context of war means that women can’t make informed choices on how to protect themselves from belligerents.

While leaving Sudan in April 2023 after the war broke out—a choice I made for myself and on behalf of my family—I met many women who either could not leave Khartoum because they did not have permission of their male relatives, or because they did not possess the financial means and know-how to escape conflict. A prolonged history of structural exclusion of women from politics, lawmaking, and the market, places them at increased risk of sexual violence.

Post-war Sudan is a lawless wasteland where all forms of order have broken down. The capital Khartoum is territorially divided and governed by warring groups. Checkpoints and other forms of roadblocks dictate entry and exit routes. Limited movement of people and goods amid insecurity and the re-territorialization of the city threatens the safety of its remaining residents. Women especially are vulnerable to these developments. Displacement, death of male relatives, financial strain, and lack of contact are all factors proven to increase the risk of sexual violence. And while men are faster to carry the gun, conscript, or get absorbed into illicit activities to survive the disorder, women remain external to its operational logic. Where women are integrated it is likely coercive. Sexual violence during conflict takes on many manifestations, most of which are impossible to grasp while battles are still raging.

Despite the endless suffering, the topics of violence, especially rape, and by extension, the means of protection, where they do exist, are highly politicized. Anti-RSF popular rhetoric places a larger emphasis on their crimes against women because it aids in their criminalization by the International Community. On the ground, conscription, popular mobilization, and all other forms of community militarization embody patriarchal messages that once again use the purity of women’s bodies as a measure of triumph; “our dignity lies in defending the virtue of our women” goes the most dominant war slogan. While these approaches do avail some consideration to the violence that women experience in the absence of the law, they also turn women’s bodies into national monuments where ideals of masculinity, integrity, and other political agendas are pursued. Consequently, the debate around sexual violence has been captured by both sides of the war to rally popular backing for their violent interventions. On the one hand, the anti-RSF camp accentuates cases of rape by reporting and generating a positive discourse around their criminality, on the other, the armies’ crimes ongoing and historic have been whitewashed as they are hailed as a national institution whose mandate is to defend the masses.

Cleavages in the post-war women’s rights narrative have engendered more violence against them. The use of SGBV as a pressure tactic has discouraged and at times prevented women from reporting incidents. This is especially the case if the perpetrators are members of the army. Meanwhile, victims of rape by the RSF are also silenced, despite being at the center of the anti-war narrative. Prevented from presenting their experiences while being reduced to objects to ramp up the RSF atrocities scale, their ordeals are soon forgotten as is the heinous act that befell them.

Further Reading