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The Women At The Forefront Of The Sudanese Revolution

“Kandakas” are leading the protests in Sudan, asking for more recognition and space in society.

Women celebrating  in Khartoum on April 11
Women celebrating in Khartoum on April 11
Jean-Philippe Rémy

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir, who has been in power for nearly 30 years, was ousted and arrested on April 11. Defense Minister Awad Ibn Ouf announced the army had decided to oversee a transitional period of two years before holding elections. Protests against Bashir, who took power in 1989 through a military coup, lasted several months.Le Monde correspondent Jean-Philippe Rémy talks to the women who seek more than just an end to Bashir's regime.

KHARTOUM — Sitting on the edge of the sofa with her back straight so as not to touch the backrest, her hands flat on her legs, her dress pulled down, she embodies the archetypal well-behaved Sudanese girl. Her mother, slumped on a nearby chair, keeps a watchful eye and seems satisfied. With just one look into Alia's eyes, you understand what really drives her. She is like a volcano that chooses how it will erupt: calmly, slowly, but with all the fire of the earth.

She could have been that young woman whom the whole country knows and admires, photographed on April 8, stirring up a sea of demonstrators from the roof of a car, singing songs to the glory of the "revolution" and dressed in the style of the great popular movements that brought down two military regimes, in 1964 and 1985.

That woman now embodies the so-called "kandakas' — the title given to the queen mothers of the kingdom of Kush, which erected dozens of pyramids three hours north of Khartoum, and gave the country an empress who defeated Augustus' Roman legions, just before the Christian era.

When she goes out to protest, Alia is inspired by this story. For her, Sudanese women have even more to gain from the ongoing struggle than men. They outnumber men during demonstrations, and not only.

A professor who hacked into the Ministry of Education's system and obtained confidential statistics discovered that the same applies to universities: "In total, there are 76% of girls. They are the majority almost everywhere, even in medicine, architecture and agriculture. They are more educated than men, and yet their place in society is limited. Obviously, this is intolerable!" says the teacher, a veteran of the 1985 revolution, who is now working on a prototype for metal stars to slash the tires of security forces' vehicles — in order to neutralize them when they go after young girls, for instance.

Alia laughs and smiles, but this fight is extremely hard for her. Her brother, Babiker Abdelhamid, was killed during the demonstrations in Khartoum. He was a 27-year-old doctor, and was shot down while trying to help people who had been injured by security forces in the Burri district. Doctors in Sudan are targets of the forces loyal to President Omar al-Bashir, who have committed serious atrocities over the past 30 years.

The movement began within the middle classes, and spread to other circles of society. Hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Khartoum since April 6 to protest against the army.

We want to change the world, we want to change the way we live.

Here in Kafouri, a wealthy neighborhood in Bahru (north of Khartoum), the noise and fury of street violence could remain just a distant rumor. Nonetheless, Alia, like her sister who recently joined her, found in this movement a way to highlight her own struggles: "Before, it was mostly hard for the poor. Now, everyone is affected. This is what some of the protesters, especially the men, think. For us, it's something else: We want to be free."

Alia's sister does not hold back: "We don't just want to change this dictator, we want to change the world, we want to change the way we live. We want to study wherever we want. I was lucky, our parents let me attend university in Malaysia alone. But what about the others? All those who have no right to anything? We want to reverse all this! We see what the world is like through social media. We know what is happening in Algeria. We see how women all over the world live, and we are no different."

In demonstrations, on the streets, in cafés, in living rooms, the same shock wave is moving things in an undistinguishable way. There is still much to be done, so the "kandakas' continue the fight, and are at the forefront of the demonstrations.

Despite all the violence, insults, pain and fear, women of all ages are there, in the front, as close as possible to the armed men who will hit everything they can get their hands on, without ever crushing their spirit. "This generation must claim its rights, and understand that this government betrayed the Islam it claimed to defend with its nonsensical rules," says Soha Karmalla, a student from a private university on her way to a protest, while adjusting her black baseball cap that matches her clothes — with the exception of a pair of swimming goggles in her bag, for tear gas.

Alia pauses and looks at her watch. She must not be late for work. She is a doctor at the hospital, and she cries every day. "The money I take for lunch, I never spend it, because I can't help but pay for things that are dear to my heart: families with a sick person who can't afford basic medicines or a medical test. Poverty is frightening. Today, I had to buy stomach pills from a man with an ulcer. There has always been a problem, but now, we're reaching the bottom."

Women sentenced to be whipped

Once, she had the opportunity to do an internship at a hospital run for the security forces: "I couldn't believe it. Over there, everything was well organized, all the instruments worked, all the drugs were available. While the population is suffering, they have all this comfort, this luxury. That's when I understood everything."

Her heart is caught in-between several revolts. For instance, the one against the public order police, set up after the military-Islamic coup of Omar al-Bashir in June 1989, which enforces "decent" clothing, and hunts down women caught in a car with a passenger who is neither their father, nor their son, nor their husband. Tens of thousands of women are arrested each year and sentenced under article 152 of the Criminal Code to be whipped dozens of times in addition to being fined.

Alia has no doubt: It is worth dying in the street to try to change this situation. "It's so hard for girls here. Until you're married, you're just a child, and even when you're married ... you're still a child. You can't even travel alone! But we're going to change that world."

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