Sudan: Activists face rape, one fights back

Women Under Siege Project

In many regards, Safiya Ishaq is an unremarkable 25-year-old. She is excellent at braiding hair but terrible at being on time. She studied fine arts at Khartoum University in Sudan. Not unusual for a student, Ishaq became involved with politics. She joined Girifna, a pro-democracy movement formed in 2009 on the eve of Sudan’s first multiparty elections in more than two decades aimed at mobilizing citizens to vote. Conducting mass voter registration drives, it quickly evolved into a socio-political movement demanding change in Sudan.

Girifna firmly opposes the ruling NCP party, headed by Sudanese President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Bashir, wanted by the ICC on charges that include genocide, retains social and political control by imposing a misrepresentation of Islamic law. Sudan’s notorious “public order” laws claim to guide the morality of Sudan’s citizens. In reality, the government uses them to clamp down on freedom of speech and to justify the arrest, detention, and torture—sexualized and otherwise—of many Sudanese who attempt to exercise their democratic rights. They are most notably used against women. A recent report by SIHA Network, a Kampala-based regional women’s rights organization, stated that “the repressive public order laws still remain the greatest challenge for women as an arbitrary tool to police and oppress women.”

In January 2011, inspired by the Arab Spring, activists began organizing protests in Khartoum. Ishaq attended one of the rallies. She also handed out flyers on campus, calling for democracy in Sudan. A couple weeks later, Ishaq was kidnapped by National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) agents and taken to a house, she said. She described being tortured and gang raped multiple times. In between rapes and beatings, they told her they knew she had attended the rallies of January 30 and handed out flyers, she said.

This horrific, brutal attack on Ishaq was neither random nor purposeless. The NISS agents deliberately mentioned they knew of her activities. Her rape and torture was meant as a punishment for her and a message to others. In a statement after news of Ishaq’s ordeal became public, the underground activist group No to Women Oppression Coalition declared: “The Sudanese regime is continuing to declare war against the people of Sudan, particularly against the women by intensifying their use of rape and sexual assault to punish women who express dissent.”

But Ishaq, in her way, rose to meet the battle: With extraordinary courage, she sat down in front of a video recorder and described her ordeal in painstaking detail. The camera never leaves her face as she speaks, her voice cracking at certain details—“I tried to resist so he hit me and I passed out”—but continuing nonetheless. She says she hesitated to say what happened to her publicly but in the end chose to do so to inspire girls “so they can speak out of their experience with courage.”

Direct link to the video:

This appears to be the first time a Sudanese woman has spoken publicly about being raped. Shocking a conservative society and risking the wrath of the government, Ishaq was subsequently forced to flee Sudan for her own safety.

Those who remain, however, are targets. In February, a civil society organization called Sudan Democracy First described a number of recent sexual assaults of women activists, including a handful of women who reported having security officers tear at their clothes and headscarves and verbally humiliate them.

Sudanese activist, blogger, and feminist Maha El-Sanosi says that over the past few months in Sudan, “we have witnessed severe crackdowns on female activists.” She describes how they have been dragged from their homes in the middle of the night without a change of clothes, or kidnapped and held in NISS custody without the knowledge of their families. Others have had their homes raided and equipment confiscated. There are probably many incidents that go unreported, she said.

“For the NISS, the females are an easy prey, and the security organ's intimidation tactics have proven effective,” El-Sanosi said. But, she added: “When Ishaq spoke up against the sexual abuse she faced last year, she tore down an enormous fear barrier.”

There was no Arab Spring in Sudan. Conditions in the country are deteriorating rapidly, according to multiple human rights groups. The economy is faltering and conflict is flaring in Darfur and South Kordofan. A humanitarian disaster threatens the impoverished region of eastern Sudan, exacerbated by the recent expulsion of several major NGOs. Relations with its newly independent neighbor, South Sudan, are diminishing and threatening to morph into a full-fledged war. Journalists and activists such as Najila Sidahmed and Faisal Mohammed Saleh are continuously harassed, arrested, and prevented from working. In March, the public order police shot dead Awdeia Ajabana, a Nuba peace activist, on her doorstep. Last month, a young woman in Khartoum was sentenced to stoning for “adultery.”

Against such an unstable backdrop and terrifying threats, women activists are somehow refusing to be deterred and are still working in great numbers.

“Activism under a repressive regime is always a risk, and Sudanese activists are well aware of that,” El-Sanosi said.

Ishaq, on the surface a normal 25-year-old, has shown immense bravery through her forthrightness. She wants now to live in the country she grew up in surrounded by family and friends, rather than in exile, while struggling to come to terms with what happened to her. So-called “ordinary” women like her are strong and resolute, which is why the Sudanese regime fears them. Through its security apparatus and proxies, it may have strategically raped thousands of women in Darfur, South Kordofan, and across the whole of Sudan. We know this because bold women like Ishaq are telling us. We just have to listen.

Louise Hogan is associate project coordinator at Justice Africa, a London-based advocacy organization and research institute that campaigns for human rights and social justice across Africa. A student of Human Rights, Politics and History at the Irish Centre for Human Rights, Louise has previously worked with Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) Network in Kampala, Uganda. Her primary interests include women and peacebuilding, conflict transformation, genocide studies, and mass atrocity response operations.