Debating Ideas aims to reflect the values and editorial ethos of the African Arguments book series, publishing engaged, often radical, scholarship, original and activist writing from within the African continent and beyond. It offers debates and engagements, contexts and controversies, and reviews and responses flowing from the African Arguments books.
In August 2018, a group of women activists who first congregated through a WhatsApp group began holding meetings at their respective homes to discuss the need to work together to mobilize for women’s rights. They worked to keep the meetings safe and secure as the security forces of Al-Bashir, who ruled Sudan from 1989 to 2019, were notorious for cracking down on any political dissent and political association, women’s rights included. The women came to organize under an entity called Sudanese Women in Civic and Political Groups, known henceforth as MANSAM.
A mere months later, the revolution in Sudan took off and many MANSAM members were detained for their activism. This crackdown by security forces which extended to all forms of opposition only served to strengthen the group which later emerged as one of the critical forces that supported women’s rights during and in the aftermath of revolution. MANSAM’s presence and contribution throughout the revolution was manifold. It was present at the sit-in in front of the military headquarters; it raised funds from its members in the Gulf to support women tea sellers who lost their livelihoods in the bloody dispersion of the sit-in on 3 June 2019. However, its most important contribution took place after Prime Minister Abdallah Hamdok was appointed following a deal between the military and the civilian political force. It oversaw women’s representation (through nomination and quota placement) in the transitional government which took power in September 2019 and lasted until the coup of October 2021.
When the early members first began their informal discussions over WhatsApp, they recalled the experiences of women’s groups that emerged and quickly dissipated because of male politicians’ machinations where women’s issues are usually overlooked or sacrificed. One of the main demands expressed was the need for a different political experience. In the context of Sudan and looking at the historical ties between the women’s movements and the patriarchal political parties, this proved to be a very difficult mission.
The post-revolution political landscape was no exception. In 2019, just months after Al-Bashir was ousted, similar disagreements began emerging. MANSAM began unravelling as women’s groups affiliated with political parties exited the coalition. In April 2022, the largest coalition inside MANSAM, the Women from the Sudan Revolutionary Front (SRF), a women’s wing affiliated with a coalition of armed groups and one of the main signatories to the Juba Agreement for Peace (JPA) in Sudan, hailed as a solution to its many conflicts, left MANSAM. The SRF began in 2011 as a front to the struggle against the ousted Al-Bashir regime and continues to bring together armed groups from different parts of the country. Upon their exit they published a statement accusing MANSAM of being yet another body that isn’t concerned with consolidating peace efforts at the national level; favouring Khartoum politics over integrating the periphery, a term frequently used to refer to politically and economically marginalized areas of Darfur, the Blue Nile and Kordofan regions, historically subject to conflict through elite infighting. The SRF statement highlighted the concern that the group’s leadership is captured ”by some individuals with limited revolutionary political horizons who use the position of MANSAM in the interest of their personal goals.”
While there might have been a truth to the SRF’s accusations, according to MANSAM’s counter-statement, the SRF committed the same cardinal sin through its withdrawal from the forum in support of armed groups signatories of the JPA, who ended up backing and participating in the October 2021 coup.
The SRF leaders never left the Sovereignty Council, the main governing body in the country, even after the coup that ended the transitional period which had followed the much-celebrated 2019 Sudanese revolution that ousted the decades long dictatorship of Omar Al Bashir. The transition itself was extremely flawed and cursed with weak civilian leadership, but the coup aborted any potential for democratic transformation in Sudan. The SRF’s broad coalition served as a legitimizing force to the coup. As every coup needs a political base, the SRF’s leadership along with native administration took on this role through organizing protests and strikes in support of the military in the period leading up to the coup.
Historical struggle for women’s liberation within political movements
Women as wings in political parties
The fight for Sudanese independence was just the beginning of how women’s resistance was shaped and swallowed by political parties largely at the hands of powerful men. Women organized and mobilized very early on from the 1920s in cities such as Wad Medani, Al-Obeid and Omdurman at a time when political parties refused to recognize their contribution or avail them of membership. In 1926, wives of employees at Al-Jazeera Agricultural Scheme began the women’s forum in Wad Medani, one of the many political associations established by women’s groups in contribution to nascent national politics.
In 1946, Khalda Zahir, the country’s first female doctor, initiated the girl’s cultural association. In 1949, women nurses and midwives organized in a union for health workers and around the same time, women teachers began to organize. These associational efforts culminated in the establishment of the Sudanese Women’s Union (SWU) in 1952. The SWU’s founding was centred on many objectives such as women’s economic empowerment calling for equal rights and full citizenship terms for women. However soon after, the union found itself tied to the nationalist struggle as an annex to the Sudanese Communist Party which was then at the frontline of the political struggle for independence and the only party post-independence to permit female membership.
Seventy years later, the SWU was never able to assert its independence and break away from the Communist Party. Moreover, the successive post-independence governments established women’s wings to mobilize women in support of their respective ruling political party agendas. Gafaar Nimeri, Sudan’s military ruler from 1969 to 1985, had the Union of Sudan’s Women which was affiliated with his ”Socialist Party”, while the Islamists, which ruled Sudan from 1989 to 2019, supported the establishment of the General Union of Sudanese Women which was shorthand for the women’s wing of their Islamist political party. The goals of the women’s political wings were to monopolize all the spaces and avenues for women’s rights and activism, claim an undeserved constituency through elections and abort any attempts to build an organic women’s movement.
MANSAM was born as perhaps the last attempt to unite women activists from all backgrounds in a common front to fight for women’s rights and to avoid their constant misuse as wings of patriarchal political parties in Sudan. It brought together many women who were wary of male-dominated politics derailing the women’s agenda for the benefit of central state political gains achieved through exploiting women for their votes and political labour. This wasn’t the first-time coalitions were an undermining force in the search for democratic rule. In 2016, the National Consensus Forces (NCF), a coalition of opposition political parties exited the larger political process led by the Sudan Call Forces with detrimental effects for women coalitions. For most women in Sudan, the news of the splintering of the Sudan Call Forces was insignificant, but for women activists and politicians, the impact hit close to home as it was a death sentence for the Sudan Women Solidarity Group (SWSG), an advocacy body which was formed in 2014 by women whose parties were members in the Sudan Call Forces, in conjunction with women members of the wider civil society. The SWSG was at its peak when its membership splintered after the departure of the NCF from the Sudan Call Forces. To women who occupied this socio-political sphere, the SWSG’s fate was reminiscent of many groups that ended when the political coalition collapsed as a result of disagreements between men driving patriarchal party politics.
The formation of MANSAM was from the start undermined by mistrust borne out of this complicated history of aborting democracy and a continued frustration with political contestations that historically relegated women’s issues always to the backseat. Women leaders were known to walk out of alliances when they stopped serving the interests of their political parties.
Despite these fears, MANSAM continued to grow until it became the largest women’s coalition in the country, bringing over 50 women’s organizations, groups and associations under its broad umbrella. While most of its membership was made up of civil society-based women groups, there were at least nine bodies representing women in political parties. In retrospect, they were prepared to take part in a once-in-a-lifetime experiment to champion women’s rights against all anti-democratic odds and to fight for women through and within their political parties.
In reality however, members struggled on a daily basis to reach consensus on the bare minimum of issues and sometimes the coalition would fail to make a clear stance when part of its membership would try to enforce the position of their respective political parties. For example, a political statement would go under many rounds of edits to ensure inclusiveness of opinions and sometimes it would be dropped altogether due to political sensitivities. The women’s groups inside the coalition continue to be tied to political parties and this has made agreeing on a common agenda almost impossible.
Although MANSAM’s public statement noted that the situation inside MANSAM became tense after the coup due to the policy of directed violence against protestors to repress dissent, and the wide-scale insecurity and economic deprivation, it still failed to ask the most significant question to SRF women: what did the SRF women’s coalition gain from supporting their parties throughout the transitional period and the coup? Institutionally, MANSAM failed to centre women’s issues and continued to be a stepping stone for female members of political groups interested in consolidating state power.
The October 2021 coup, as with all previous renegades on democratic processes, led to a backlash on women’s rights, particularly as sexual and gender based violence increased with the overall widespread violence. This made it all the more disappointing to witness women politicians give up platforms such as MANSAM that, despite its shortcomings, still managed to bring women together to align themselves over political parties and coalitions. These outfits had, despite the history of women’s struggle and contribution, viewed women only as bookkeepers under the pretence that society remains unprepared for women leadership.
The turn came for the younger generation, as women activists stood their ground resisting the usual urge to be absorbed into male dominated political agendas that only serve the delight of male politicians who have shown nothing short of contempt towards women and their political priorities.
At some point, there was a clear message from many young women who are the backbone of women’s revolutionary mobilization: they would not stand under the sun for hours to protest for women’s equal participation in front of political parties and government buildings only to serve women who don’t fight for them and stop answering their calls after they secure a much-coveted position under the banner of women’s political participation. The older women who were part of other defunct coalitions were frustrated, but the younger women who came out of the 2019 revolution and social movement fearless and more hopeful felt very much betrayed and used. In the streets, they were dealing with state-sponsored violence, insecurity and the legacy of Al-Bashir’s government at great personal and societal cost in the form of stigma and pressures from their families while within political party and organizational hierarchies, they had to confront the failures of the women’s movement historically exploited by political parties and official committees. In fact, some women politicians would use women’s groups to secure political futures they couldn’t access through their male dominated political parties.
Men fight, women break-up
This splintering incident surrounding the SRF’s women wing was nothing short of traumatizing for many women in the coalition. There were moments when MANSAM proved to be a great avenue for women from different backgrounds and regions and a platform for women from political parties to access opportunities that were denied them by their parties. For example, hundreds of women politicians were profiled and dozens of them were suggested as potential members in the transitional legislative council which never materialized. The same exclusivist behaviour transpired when political parties failed to nominate adequate women in ministerial and other leadership positions during the two-year short-lived tenure of the transitional government.
The struggle for women’s rights in Sudan shouldn’t be underestimated. Women are fighting to be present in a political arena that excludes women because they are not a viable currency in the heavily militarized and very traditional political sphere which continues to favour ethno-centric politics and masculine loyalties. Conservative social norms that are enforced by political and communal leaders, and insecurities and economic impoverishment caused by the militarization of socio-economic avenues, continue to push women out of decision-making positions. Women don’t stand a chance to change their lived realities and push for reformative legislation if they don’t work together and build an organic women’s movement that is independent of patriarchal political processes, parties included. This independent and decentralized women’s movement that is visible on the ground in different places in Sudan and that allows women from all backgrounds to put their priorities on the table could eventually delegitimize the political marketplace because they represent the largest and most sustained component of Sudan’s revolutionary infrastructure.