An interview with the sudanese activist raga makawi
women's fight in the sudanese revolution
Raga Makawi is a Sudanese political activist living in the diaspora, in the U.K, for now 5 years. By profession she is an editor in the department of African Studies. When she was living in Sudan, she was involved in a number of organizations and initiatives dedicated to empowering women. Like many of her peers abroad, once the revolution erupted, she reported and provided support from remote.
What can you say in general about the participation of women in this revolution?
I would say that it was wide and across all sectors. But also it’s not new. There is some sort of Orientalist idea that women of Arab and Islamic culture are depoliticised. That’s actually not true. Maybe it does apply to a segment of the society, the middle class, who have the privilege of leading very particular lives that are conducted in private, in the harem. But that’s a very small percentage. Sudanese women obviously cover all wide crosses and live paths in Sudan. And most of them are breadwinners. Most of them work in public everyday.
The revolution is not something that you can avoid. Because it’s in your house. It’s the violence of state in your house that requires working class women to pay tribute and tax on their daily income far higher than they can afford. It’s about cultural intrusion. In their private lives, their private bodies, their relationships with women around them and the community around them, it’s about their ability to provide for their children.
So, again, understanding revolution as a political act where there is a separation between something called the people or the public and the state is also a misdemeanour. The revolution is about revolting against everyday-incidents that touch you on an individual basis. So I would say it’s natural for all women to be involved at every level to push back against the really problematic conditions in Sudan.
Who were the main female actors of this revolution? Were there many newly formed groups or were long-standing, traditional groups more active?
I can’t claim that in Sudan’s short post-colonial history – I mean maybe they were attempts – but I doubt there is a developed feminist discourse as such. Though there were strong and political institutions, like political parties, the communist party for example. Within these institutions there were feminist traditions. In the sense that there were both men and women who had a very clear agenda and understanding of the women’s place and projects within the overall kind of national scope.
That obviously has died out because of political developments that have to do with the world order in the last 50 years. The protagonists of these large state nationalist women’s projects have also died. In there place, “civil-society-NGO-liberal projects” have taken over. In that Sudan is not different than any place in the world. This is a mass ideological and economic project that has swept the world. The liberalisation of every agenda, including the feminist one.
Does this concern local and international organizations the same way?
Yes, it’s both international and local NGOs. Sudan, because of it’s economic conditions, is completely dependent on international aid and funding in order to finance local projects. There could never be a complete separation between international, ideological feminist projects and the implementation of small-scale women’s activities in Sudan. There is a connexion.
What were the main issues raised by women in this revolution?
In the Sudanese revolution, because the push-back against it was quite violent, there was no space in the scope of maybe 6 or 7 months – while the revolution was ongoing – for single agendas to come out. Most of the people, regardless of their gender, their race, their class, were all unified in one position and the message was always centralised in one: getting rid of the regime, ending corruption, rolling back the effect and authority of the security state.
Unless a particular issue happened. The daily developments of a violent revolution created different incidents all across. For example if a women was attacked or raped. In the aftermath of the 3rd-of-June-massacre (also known as Khartoum massacre or Ramadan massacre) a lot of women were raped. That particular incident brought about a focus in the aftermath of that incident taking place. Obviously the issue of women’s security, the issue of physical violence, the issue of rape, resurfaced on the agenda – but then it died quickly. It never grew enough in order to materialize itself into an institution that stands in itself in a legal framework or whatever.
Why do you think that is?
There could be a number of reasons. I’m not on the ground any more, so I don’t know about the day to day procedure of how institutions function but I would say that Sudanese women are not a unified block as such. Their interests and issues are not one and the same. They are not organized into some sort of a national ideological block that has some sort of political authority.
The women who were front in centre during the revolution and the ones who are now participating in the transitional government are women of the middle class. They have certain backgrounds. The patriarchal system, as it stands, obviously oppresses them but also provides them with a degree of privilege and protection. It’s a balance situation. They get some things and in return they have to give something back so they maintain them. But those women cannot claim to speak on behalf of the dispossessed masses of women, the working class women, the women who are working in the informal sector. Those, when they are physically assaulted, it’s a complete different game. The law doesn’t even apply to them in the same way. So that could be one reason. They are not unified. They are not even looking for being unified. The women of the lower classes and the ones of the middle and upper classes don’t see any common thing for them to come together.
The other thing is that Sudan has a political organization problem. Obviously years and years of dictatorship have weakened political institutions: it broke down all popular political parties, like the communist party, that was the closest institution to people at a grass roots level. So lack of institutional organization could be another issue.
And obviously money is always a problem. For society to organize itself and to build structures, it requires a degree of economic stability. But the reality is that crucial sectors that are required in order to develop a feminist discourse are missing. Sudan’s knowledge sector has been in decade for more than 40 years – no one is producing any text as such.
At a structural level people who are experts on the legal system and social protection will be able to give you more examples. I am not an expert on that.
In the revolution there was the demand for 50% of seats for women in the new government. Women activists I met were very disappointed with the outcome of this demand. What can you say about it?
I wouldn’t say it’s about a large representation. It (the new transitional government) did manage to bring women in some crucial roles as front runners. As a token of representation. But obviously the idea of 50 percent of the overall government structure or cabinet is also a figure or numbers, a frame that doesn’t really make any difference because you have to think about it in economies of scale.
Sudan’s government is a small and fragile one. It’s starved of money. So if you than reduce your transformative transitional project to nothing more than building a state bureaucracy or a civil service bureaucracy and spending the little money that you have on just, wage bills, how will that really help the majority of the women out there who don’t have the “right” education, who don’t have the “right” background to be employed in such a position anyway? So if the idea of your capacity as a government is to hire two percent of the population, and than half of that is women, how will that benefit the majority of the population half of which are women?
This idea of reducing women’s development and empowerment to equality with men in governments is a bit of a reductive approach. And obviously that’s part of a bigger problem in Sudan. The relationship of the state is a relationship of dependency. People want the state to hire them. They want to have some sort of economic stability that comes through state jobs and state wages. And they care very little about what it means than in terms of redistribution of resources.
During the revolution, pictures of Alaa Salah chanting revolutionary messages in the traditional Sudanese white thoub (traditional robe in Sudan) went around the world. Though the symbol and aesthetic of the white thoub, often referred to as the thoub of the “Nubian queen” belongs only to a certain class and ethnic population represented in Sudan. Would you say there was a lack of visibility for other classes and populations in this revolution?
Absolutely. If you are able to follow what Alaa was chanting, the tradition, the culture, the message, is not just in her white thoub or the way that she looks, or even the recognition of her being a mainstream middle-class women. But even the message that she was chanting is that of a very specific type of political culture. That’s very central. It has to do with central Sudan and the history of central Sudanese politics. And it’s a language that is not easy to follow. It excludes people from the periphery or from different regions. So it’s not just Alaa in her image or in her body politics, but even in the message that she chants. The international worlds were able to associate with that image and message, but other women internally are not. That’s also problematic.
What were the means of repression used by the regime, specifically against women in this revolution?
During the revolution itself the security order had full means to violently repress everyone. Live ammunition was used, class A weapons that are not supposed to be used against civilians, people were rounded up and jailed in thousands. Women’s treatment inside prisons received from security personal or under the security order would be different than males. Because they tend to be more vulnerable. Rape as a weapon is prevalent, physical violence, and just the fact that women because of their biological makeup require different needs and spaces that are adjusted. But all of that is obviously absent.
And then there is a second level to be added to that that affects women specifically. Men were also subjects of rape, but in the case of women, should one get pregnant, there are no procedures to deal with these kind of situations and there is a whole other level of cultural backlash and the stigma that is associated with women who are deemed as “Not virgins, not pure, no good and you don’t want to marry them”. And their families would suffer some consequence.
In the leading period after the new transitional government was reinstated another type of structural violence took over from the old one. It was no longer the heavy hand of the security establishment but the socio-economic and socio-cultural setup that always existed in Sudan and continued unabated. The accessibility of state or the new government to certain classes while overlooking others or the needs or issues of women of other classes means that the violence structure is being reordered. There is a little bit of reform on the top while the bottom of the pyramid continues to be ignored. I would consider that a continuation of the violence, even if not directly, through socio-economical and socio-cultural maintenance of those structures.
Can you give an example?
It’s not just in terms of participation in politics, but also about the government needing to adopt and adapt policies that answer to specific needs of the most vulnerable population.
Look at the corona virus now and how it’s dealt with. Above 80 percent of the informal sector in Sudan is women: Tea-sellers, most of them work in the service industry…They live hands in mouths. Sudan yesterday imposed a curfew, which means most of them are going to be losing their income. But unlike in the West, there are no measures in place to be sure that they have access to even food items, in order to survive.
Another example is Sudan’s very problematic family law or legal code. It gives unabated rights to the males, the husbands over the women and their children. The issue of reforming the family law caved as a number one issue (of this revolution). There was a huge campaign a few month ago with strikes and other activities and mobilizations that constrained the government to kind of step in. Nothing was done. That’s because this is probably seen as “less of a priority” – because it of goes to the core of the power-dynamic problem.
If you reform the family-law in Sudan you basically adjust power-politics. You fix the social contract. You make it more equal. There are consequences associated with that and the government doesn’t want to go into something at that level.
Did any of those problematic laws change after the fall of al-Bashir?
Some laws changed. Some laws that are associated with certain political projects. The infamous public order law for example was suspended, or at least that is what they say. There is a lot of unclarity and vagueness about what happened exactly and what the implications were.
But the public order law which was the law that allowed the police during Bashir’s regime to conduct arrest based on a morality code always applied to different people in different ways. For women of the middle class the suspension of this law means they can now work in places that they couldn’t before without to worry about being harassed. That’s clear. But then what about the rest of different segments of the community and society?
So the legal suspension of the public order law didn’t actually change much in the application of these arbitrary arrests and assaults covered by a “moral code”?
That’s the claim. The units inside the police who were entrusted with carrying out this moral code are no longer existent or active. But the reality is that the morality code was just a cover for what was actually a taxation system.
The question is: is the police still continuing to tax poor segments of the society? Have they just changed the narrative but still continue to tax women who are poor? Obviously they still have the authority, they are still very much in power and the Sudanese transitional state doesn’t have the power or capacity to monitor these activities outside of Khartoum or even in the outskirts of Khartoum. What if these activities are going on unchecked? So it’s not enough to just cancel a law by running a line through it. It’s an institutional problem.
And I would say that it’s impossible for those activities to just stop over night, but I can’t give you alternative scenarios because I’m not on the ground unfortunately.
In her article Sexual Violence does not stop Sudan’s Women from speaking up (https://www.cmi.no/publications/6999-sexual-violence-does-not-stop-sudans-women-from-speaking-up) Samia al-Nagar writes that in the aftermath of the Ramadan-massacre, in which the Doctors of the Central Committee of Sudanese Doctors reported 70 rape cases, mostly women, “The strategy to scare female protesters has failed. Instead, Sudanese are starting to embrace survivors of sexual abuse telling them that they are brave, whole, respected, honourable and strong; that the brutal harm the military forces have inflicted on them does not define them. Sudanese have marched in support of survivors of sexual abuse and demanded justice on their behalf.”
To conclude she calls this new embracing of survivors of sexual violence “nothing less than the start of a social revolution.” What is your perspective on this issue? Would you say the perspective on survivors of sexual violence changed in the public discourse through and within this revolution?
I don’t think so. Obviously Samia is an established scholar in her rights and an experienced feminist. But I would take claims as such with a grain of salt. Because there is a huge difference. A social revolution is a change, a transformation at a structural level of society. What we are talking about here is an incident that is reduced to an event, associated with a very violent event at an unusual time. Revolutions are times of ruptures. So by definition anything that happens within them or within there timescale cannot be used to define the norm. This is a time where a lot of sacrifices have been made.
So you don’t think that these events brought a real, ongoing change?
No. You also have to look at the outcomes of it. What have those women who where sexually assaulted gained? Nothing changed. I’m not sure about the kind of response that they were provided. Maybe some members of the civil society through their contacts stepped in to provide them with the service that they needed. But to claim that at a social level things were transformed is taking it a bit too far.
Because the thing is: even during the revolution, within the revolution’s sit-in, there was a specific area that was deemed. The people in it were labelled as “vagabonds”. So within the sit-in itself there was a segregation between those who were considered to be the accepted mainstream – people who had a shared political common ground – and a smaller group who was also in the sit-in, but whose activities, actions and behaviour were considered as inappropriate. The mainstream separated itself from this smaller group. There was a lot of ongoing debate, even within the sit-in, about how to deal with these people – and some of them were women. They were judged, and at times assaulted, either directly or indirectly, because they were seen to be using the sit-in to exhibit, express and communicate ideas, that were alien to Sudanese culture.
For example just the fact that they had more relationships with boys, let’s say, in the sit-in; also they smoked, they drunk…
Within the Sudanese mainstream culture there is an idea of a reputation, specially when it comes to women. And there’s a list of checks of “do and dont’s”. And if you deviate, than you become the other. If you become the other, your body is than – “fair a gain”.
So this was happening within the revolution. And no one was defending them. There were incidents of sexual harassing, sexual misconduct, even by males who were part of the revolution itself. Those males were aided in these activities by the Sudanese culture.
So the claim that there was a social transformation because ex number of women are seen as scarified for the greater good and for the revolution has no bearing on the reformation of the state itself. The biggest evidence for that is that those women are now gone. You don’t hear of them. They are nameless, they are faceless. And there has been no legacy in the aftermath of what happened to them. There has been no push to reform laws or start ideological discourses around rights of body and sexuality. Again, there is nothing to show for it.
What do you know about the participation of LGBTQ+ people in this revolution?
I don’t know about their position in this revolution, which is also in itself a testament that there was no place for singularity or alternative identities. Their absence is in itself a testament. But I can also assure you that in Sudanese culture, again, even at times of civil order, even at times where governments are democratically elected, these kinds of spaces are not open to be assumed publicly by alternative sexualities.
Which possibilities and perspectives do you see for a world-wide solidarity between women’s and LGBTQ+-movements to unite the fights?
There has to be some sort of more rigorous approach to feminism and feminist discourse. It has to rise above these ideas of equality in the liberal sense. From my experience, what women and the LGBTQ-community share is an aversion to ideas of mainstream sexuality that is tied in with property rights:
The characteristic of a woman is her femininity and femininity is associated with sexuality. At least in Sudan, your degree of “beauty” but also wealth allows you to secure a good marriage. That’s “the optimum” that women look towards. That means you’re being groomed from an early age to enter into a property rights contract that props up the patriarchal order.
In the same sense, sexualities that deviate from the mainstream challenge the nuclear family – in the sense of a man and a women who reproduce and than the social order continues.
So women are prior contributors to the social order because they have the ability to reproduce. That’s being done by coopting them into a system on the most horrific of terms. Their sexuality is written into it.
The contribution of the LGBTQ-community – even if it’s not a conscious one – to an alternative type and means of sexuality in which people are just able to enjoy themselves and to develop alternative identities away from the needs to reproduce and maintain the order, is something that is to be commended. I feel that the feminist movements around the world could learn from the LGBTQ-community: could learn about challenging mainstream-sexuality, challenging property rights, challenging patriarchy as a whole.
And in economic terms, what do you think would be the first steps towards challenging patriarchy?
Feminism as an idea is a very middle class, liberal project. If women really want complete equality and freedom they need to stop looking only at themselves and consider the wider society. Specially the larger working-class, international community. Their realities are different, their needs are different, and the law applies to them differently. If there wasn’t a real attempt to unify the common struggle ground, than segregation will continue and feminism will just continue to be text inside of classrooms.
Coming back to the Sudanese Revolution, did you see any attempts towards this?
The working class women in Sudan, their work never ceases to end. They live revolutions on a daily basis. Just being able to continue from one day to another is like a mini-revolution. It’s not written into a fancy discourse and labelled as feminism. Unlike for women like Alaa Salah who is now nominated for a Nobel price, no one gives them recognition. They were not recognized and I would say that they were politically overlooked.
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