Women of Sudan’s diaspora channel ancient mothers to keep the fires of revolution burning

13 mins read

Sudan’s interim military council attempts to sequester communication of protesters calling for the end of military rule. Across the globe, the country’s diasporans keep the world watching Sudanese fight for change.

It’s a quarter past 9 p.m. in Jersey City, but the Daar cultural center percolates with activity from almost two dozen women from the Sudan diaspora. Since six o’clock, they have been trickling into a meeting room on the top floor of a community-owned space dedicated to celebrate and maintain their heritage.

Lively is the Daar on this early summer night. Attendees are mostly millennials, their mothers and community aunts with a few children running between the groups. Chitchatting in Arabic and English or a combination of both, the women share an assortment of sweet and savory snacks and Dunkin’ Donuts coffee. Some prefer to pour a traditional preference—black tea infused with cloves from a vintage, Arabic-styled thermos. 

Albeit, pleasantries pass between guests, this is no crochet night. These women are here to talk politics. Specifically speaking, they come ready to discuss revolution. 

“Usually when we meet here, the mothers teach us about our culture and history,” says Amjad Saeed, a pharmacist who lives and practices in northern New Jersey.  

She continues. “Tonight I’m doing a presentation that talks about the events leading up to the revolution and the major people involved. We need more events like these to educate those of us who were not raised in Sudan or live away from home; especially, younger people like me.”

With her sisters, Enas and Elaf Saeed, Amjad organized tonight’s gathering called, Kandaka Conversations. The discussion brings together women in the New York City area to talk about current affairs in Sudan that are often left out of mainstream media channels.

Amjad Saeed goes over facts about Sudan’s current revolution.
Mai Eltahir speaks with Elaf Saeed at Kandak Conversations in Jersey City on June 19, 2019.

Currently, Sudan is experiencing another political upheaval. So far, it has led to the resignation of the country’s leader, Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir. However, the opposition’s encounters with military are bloody and ongoing.

Ankara, Turkey: September 7, 2018. Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed (R), Sudan’s President Omar Hassan Ahmad al-Bashir (C) and President of Zambia Edgar Chagwa Lungu (L) during Erdogan`s Inauguration.

An interim administration has replaced al-Bashir, but in early June, after military ambushed then destroyed a campsite of demonstrators in Khartoum, an internet blackout was put into effect, causing the shutdown of social media and most communication. As a result, the Sudanese diaspora and its supportive networks spanning across the world, work to tell a narrative outside of the government’s official statements.

“They say that the blackout is for national security,” comments Enas Saeed in a sarcastic tone. She goes on. “They don’t want the world to know what’s going on and what they’re doing. Organizations [against the government] rely heavily on social media.”

Elaf Saeed chimes in, “Most of the information we receive is from social media and WhatsApp. That’s how the revolution made its way across the world and now people know what they’re doing. They cannot lie.”

“Those of us in the diaspora are the ones who have to keep the revolution alive,” comments Amjad.

Still recuperating from 22 years of civil war, the liberation efforts in Sudan show people who are determined to define themselves absent of military dictatorship. Streaming online are supporters who use the color blue as a symbol of solidarity. On tee shirts and social media posts, the transmission of the revolution’s slogan, “freedom, peace, justice,”  generates in many languages, but frequently in Arabic. Through the efforts of diasporans and allies, millions have been mobilized. Now, the world watches.

London, England – June 30, 2019: Sudanese renew protest and demand civilian rule. Protesters unified themselves across the world for the ‘Millions march’ to demand civilian rule in Sudan. Photo credit: Yahya Aitabi
Washington DC – March 17, 2019: Protesters at the White House seeking the ouster of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir and demanding a peaceful democratic transformation. Photo credit: Phil Pasquini
Marseille, France – December 29, 2018 : Peaceful demonstration in support of the mobilization against the dictatorship of Al-Bashir in Sudan. Photo credit: Gerard Bottino

Before feminism there were the Kandakas

The last of the women make it to Kandaka Conversations within the hour the group chat starts. Quickly, they grab snacks, make their rounds hugging everyone seated in the circle then find the few remaining chairs left. 

On the east side of the room, sits younger generations detailing news from activists and organizers in Sudan and the diaspora. Amongst them are heavily networked community members who have almost real time updates, as well as, researchers, newly minted graduates and students providing analyses regarding the current state of the country.

On the west side are senior mothers and aunts—women born in Sudan who have lived through multiple governments. From housewives to professionals, they provide cultural, political and historical context to the discussion.

Although Amjad assures that the presentation would be brief, it lasts over two hours due to the interjections made when various parts of the revolution emerge. As information pings from one woman to the next, Enas and others apologize for the outpour of facts that are hard to understand if one is unfamiliar with the specifics of Sudan’s long, nuanced history.

“There is so much that people outside of Sudan do not know about what’s going on and what led up to it,” explains Enas. “We finally have this moment to talk about our country and move toward a civilian government.”

At the meeting, all attendees have been impacted by Sudan’s state of affairs in some way. Either, with the latest iteration of an administration they describe as repressive and exploitative of resources, or of governments decades ago, that were run by foreign imposition and Sudanese leadership handpicked by outsiders.

Every detail about Sudan—from its history to the recent massacre of protestors in Khartoum—brings a flurry of reports from friends and family, and the women’s in depth knowledge of a country with complicated, sanguine politics.

“We have family who are being harassed and belittled by militia. My family told me that they are building barricades in the middle of the night to protect themselves,” tells Mowda Fadl about her family who live in a suburb of Khartoum. “You’re just waiting and waiting for someone to call you from home. When you call, sometimes the phone rings and rings. Other times, you have to wait days for a call.”

Hanan Sanhouri (ieft) and participant of another senior mother talks at Kandaka Conversations.
Participant holds protest sign at Kandaka Conversations event to talk about the Sudan
Imtithal Mohamed, one of the mothers speaks at Kandaka conversations.

“Doctors are being killed in the hospitals. Women doctors are being raped then shot. Now they have to travel without their equipment so that the military won’t kill them,” adds Enas who will soon work on a master’s in Psychology.

“Professionals who they think are part of the uprising are being killed,” says Amjad.

“These are thugs running the government,” argues Elaf, a dental student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Dental Medicine.

The women refer to the bloodshed occurring less than a month after al-Bashir agreed to step down. In a surprise raid on June 8, the Janjaweed, a private for-hire militia led by Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo stormed into a camp where about 5,000 demonstrators slept.

The women’s stories explicate a sense of urgency for change. The way in which they vocalize the atrocities and organize their communities, show how critical women have been in the current insurrection.

“Sudanese women are known for being outspoken,” explains Amjad. “Women were also a huge part of the Sudanese uprising.”

“They were the ones who kept the camp going. They cooked. They cleaned and did laundry, but they also organized and strategized,” tells Enas. “They were referred to as Kandaka.”

Like the Saeeds, the women at the meeting trace their lineage to a civilization rooted in the world’s antiquities. Kandaka was the title given to a line of ancient female rulers, women who governed the great city of Meroe during the Kushite empire. Today, the term signifies women who are vocal in the public sphere and emerge as indomitable figures and leaders.

“We’re all Kandaka,” Amjad adds. The room sounds off in an uproar with the older women singing in ululations to express agreement and pride of a heritage never told of African-Muslim women ardent participation in the public sphere.

During the revolution, Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old engineering and architecture student was captured by video, leading thousands in protest songs. Whereas, Salah became known as the Kandaka of today’s campaign, one of the elders reminds tonight’s assembly of another female leader.

“Mihera [bint Abboud] fought against the Egyptians,” interjects Sanhouri. Mihera was a popular poet who led soldiers to fight against the invasion of Turkish-Egyptian colonizers in the early 1800s. Eventually, Sudan regained its sovereignty, but colonial authorities already established a pipeline where Sudanese were kidnapped then sold into an Arabic slave trade that still exists today.

Enas chimes in. “Sudan is known for a lot of women serving in the government in comparison to other African countries.”

Enas wears a white cotton thobe, a head-to-ankle loose white cloth wrapped around the body. “This is what the market women wear. It is the dress of the working class woman in Sudan,” tells Enas who also says that the white thobe is a symbol of the origins of the most recent uprising.

Enas Saeed in white thobe.

Similar to the thobe worn by Salah who stood on the car singing to a swelling crowds of demonstrators at the height of the revolution. “This is what the market women wear. It is the dress of the working class woman in Sudan,” tells Enas who also says that the white thobe is a symbol of the origins of the most recent uprising.

The thobe bears a larger representation beyond women. It symbolizes the joint efforts of working and professional classes in the city, but it also captures the large disconnect of those in the rural areas. 

“The problem is that there is so much ignorance in Sudan. Many Sudanese are nomads raising cattle. They are illiterate and are not informed . . . [al-]Bashir took advantage of that and that’s what Hemeti is doing,” surmises Hanan Sanhouri, a veterinarian who practiced in rural Sudan for years.

“Hemeti recruits boys from these villages to go fight for Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates,” snaps Imtithal Mohamed who left Sudan in the 1980s with her husband to raise their family in Saudi Arabia then in the United States.

“Boys are sold in the Libyan slave trade for these armies,” Enas explains.

The women bring up a village-to-militia pipleline where the families of boys in rural areas are paid small amounts for their services in armed forces for MiddleEastern Arab countries without militaries. Some are even stolen. The pipeline has existed for well over a century, thus tying Sudan to a larger economic and power bloc.

“Europe is quiet because they don’t want Sudan to become a civilian government because it will disrupt their interests. Nor does UAB or Saudi Arabia or Egypt,” adds Enash. 

Sanhouri surmises. “So much of our resources are extracted by [UAB, Saudi Arabia and Egypt] that if we had control of our resources, we’d be able to provide meat to all of Africa with our cattle alone.”

The Arab Spring’s last revolution

Since the blackout, protesters continue to push for an entirely civilian government in a series of marches and work stoppages. In turn, demonstrators clash with military forces in a series of confrontations in which armed forces have violently attempted to quell dissenters. 

Last week, the military ruling council announced that it put down a coup attempt as it works to create a military-civilian team to transition the country. Now, efforts seem to come at a standstill.

Recently, Elaf got engaged. Her fiance is in Sudan. “It’s nerve-wracking . . . but one of the leaders said that they will not stop until Sudan is under civilian-rule. They said there’s already been so much bloodshed that if we stop, it’ll all be for nothing. So we have to continue too.”

Out of Tunisia’s 2010 revolution, multiple muslim-majority African countries fought for better governance in what is called, the Arab Spring. Like other nations, Sudanese followed that wave of change. For almost a decade, citizens have repeatedly worked for a totally, civilian-led government and an end to military dictatorship under the rule of al-Bashir, who had been in power since 1989.

“After Tunisia, we tried, but it was dismantled by Bashir . . . until last December,” explains Enas.

In December 2018, the government removed wheat subsidies causing a sharp spike in prices where bread is a main staple. The inflation triggered the already growing discontent in a country experiencing another economic downward spiral.

“We have fertile land in Khartoum, but Sudan sold it to the Chinese and other countries to produce their own agriculture. Now it just sits unattended,” says Hanan Sanhouri, a veterinarian who practiced in rural Sudan.

“The people are starving and there’s land right there to feed everyone,” exclaims Mohamed.

In response to the spike, citizens in Atbara, a town north of Khartoum, burned the offices of the National Congress Party, the ruling political party of al-Bashir. This sparked today’s national revolt.

“People want to place the revolution in Khartoum, but the revolution started in Atbara, a working class town in the north,” says Mai Eltahir. “In all [of Sudan’s] revolutions, the working class have led or been a big part of revolt,” she adds.

From there, demonstrations popped up around the country. Simultaneously, a growing collective called, the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) began mobilizing protestors and their demands. The SPA are a group of doctors, lawyers, professors, bankers and other business professionals who were banned from organizing years ago under the al-Bashir regime.

“At first, the SPA members were anonymous in fear of persecution, but as the revolution grew, leaders came forward with demands to negotiate and be a part of the transition to a new government,” accounts Enas.

Photo of members Sudanese Professional Association sent through WhatsApp. SPA members often hide their identity to avoid persecution.

“Pockets of marches emerged all over the country then converged in Khartoum. They said they would not leave until they had a civilian government,” tells Enas.

“They said it was a million people or close to it [that rallied in Khartoum],” Mohamed retells in the accounts she received from family in Sudan.

Estimates say that the first large swell was in the high hundreds of thousands; however, protestors kept the promise of camping outside of the capital until a civilian government was voted in. 

After al-Bashir stepped down, officials announced that an election would take place in nine months and a full two-year-transition was needed. In the meantime, an interim administration would be appointed. As a result, the Transitional Military Council (TMC) was birthed. It is co-headed by Abdel Fattah al-Burhan and Mohamed Hamdan “Hemeti” Dagolo, a military leader with a history of being charged with war crimes and genocide by the International Criminal Court in Hague, Switzerland.

Mecca – June 20, 2012 : Saudi Arabia’s foreign-hired soldiers waiting for kaaba cleaning ceremony. The ceremony takes place roughly one month before the start of Ramadan and one month before the start of Hajj.

While awaiting civilian elections, civilians continued placing pressure for a fair and democratic election. Some expressed doubt that Dagolo could oversee a transition to a type of government that is the antithesis of his military career. Their concerns proved correct. In a surprise raid on June 8, in Khartoum, the Janjaweed now rebranded as Rapid Support Forces (RSF), stormed into the camp where about 5,000 demonstrators slept. Led by Dagola, the RSF is a private for-hire militia now embedded into Sudan’s armed forces.

Describes Enas. “The camp is right by what you would call the shady district. It’s like a street or two with people smoking weed or partying. But, everything was fine, there were no problems. Early in the morning when most people were sleeping, the military surrounded the area then snuck in and began shooting.”

Fadl’s husband who is a former military officer, left the Sudan right before the uprising says, “There were military who supported the revolution, but they were killed. They were friends of my husband. They got rounded up and killed.”

The women spoke of bodies thrown in the nearby Nile River. Charred and mangled corpses strewn about at the once vibrant grounds where demonstrators held peaceful marches.

“At first, it seemed like Hemeti was moving towards progress. Then he went to Egypt, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates and came back different,” says Amjad. 

Includes Eltahir, a researcher. “They do not want Sudan to be sovereign. They want to control the resources.”

Eltahir and Amjad speak of a terse relationship between the Arab countries spanning back centuries. By the early 1700s, the Islamization of Sudan was largely underway. To ensure Arabic control, in the 1800s, Egypt invaded Sudan with Turkish forces. A slave traded ensued by the then Ottoman of Egypt, Muhammad Ali who also began extracting Sudanese males for armies of the MiddleEast by force.

| Read African slave trade in Libya is old busines in Arab world |

At the turn of the 19th century, the British seized control over Sudan, but ceded to a British-Egypt shadow government until the mid-1900s. When Sudan won their independence 1956, Arab and European powers kept its strong influence.

“It’s like he is doing their bidding to keep the military in power in Sudan, so he keeps it chaotic divisive,” exclaims Enas.

“The US also has a huge hand it,” asserts Eltahir who points out that Sudan was placed on the no fly list by Trump then removed. “Much of the UAB and Saudi Arabia’s armies are made up of Sudanese.”

Through the dialogue, the women thread more of the story together, as they weave a story of resistance and power, as shown through women.

“Women are the backbone of revolutions and we continue to speak out,” says Eltahir.

Fadl details. “During this time the art and the songs that came from the revolution are some of the most beautiful in the Arab Spring. Women were a part of it and will continue to fight.”

Kaia Shivers covers diaspora, news and features.

[give_form id=”7786″]

Ark Republic is an independent media company that provides a platform for free-thinking folk to tell stories as complex and colorful as possible. We need your help to keep the wheels churning and the stories flowing. Please become and member or donate to an organization dedicated to giving you stories that keep you informed.

[give_form id=”545″]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Previous Story

Los Angeles starts summer with carnival, shows the city’s blooming culture and communities

Next Story

Deciding to have an abortion was the right decision and a difficult one | The Man Project

Latest from Africa & the Diaspora