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After Decades Of Islamic Law, Sudan Examines Women's Role In Society

May 16, 2019
Originally published on May 16, 2019 10:09 am
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DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Sudan talks between the ruling generals and leaders of a protest movement collapsed yesterday. This was the protest movement that forced the ouster of President Omar al-Bashir last month, an almost unthinkable development. He had ruled the country with brutal force for nearly 30 years. But another surprising aspect of this uprising was that women are leading protests. They have planned and organized while facing bullets and torture. And now a country that has lived for decades under ultraconservative Islamic laws is asking itself fundamental questions about the role of women in society. NPR's Eyder Peralta reports.

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EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: In the capital of Khartoum, protesters have organized a huge sit-in outside the military headquarters. This is a different place from the old Sudan.

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UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #1: (Chanting in Arabic).

PERALTA: It's an open rebellion against a repressive government and the Islamic law - or Sharia - that has been in place since 1983. Here at night, you can smell marijuana and alcohol. And almost everywhere you look, women are leading protests.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD #2: (Chanting in Arabic).

PERALTA: Banan Salih (ph) is 18, and she has been on the streets since these protests started last year. And when she thinks of the rebellion, she breaks into a huge smile.

BANAN SALIH: My parents were completely against this from December. That's what makes this so exciting because we've been attacked. I was in an area where there were men holding guns and holding all those weaponry. I don't even know what they're called.

PERALTA: Right in front of pictures of the men who died during this uprising, Salih and other women have posted pictures of women manning roadblocks and running through plumes of tear gas. She says it's meant as a reminder that women fought alongside men in this rebellion. But despite that, she says, some men have ripped posters and threatened to burn down this display.

SALIH: We're fighting two regimes. We're fighting male dominance, and we're fighting the regime.

PERALTA: Sudan has long been a bruising place for women. Morality police have been known to publicly flog women for tiny things, like wearing pants. Last September, Weam Shawky got a taste of the system when she confronted an Islamic scholar on national TV. The sheikh endorsed child marriage. He defended female genital mutilation. And he said women asked for harassment with what they chose to wear. Shawky, dressed in Western clothes, took the mic and unloaded.

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WEAM SHAWKY: (Speaking Arabic).

PERALTA: "What I wear respects my humanity in a way that backward and sick traditions that call themselves Sharia do not," she says. The sheikh looks stunned. I meet Weam Shawky at a cafe she owns in Khartoum. Following the show, shopkeepers wouldn't sell to her. Taxis wouldn't give her a lift. And customers at her own cafe called her a prostitute.

SHAWKY: I wanted to say, look, to them. They say, we are just a customer. We have opinion. And you're a prostitute. And we stay here with our money. You cannot say anything. They're right. They stay with their money. I cannot say anything.

PERALTA: Shawky had to flee Sudan. But in December and in exile, she saw protests over the price of bread grow into calls for a revolution. To Shawky, this was hope. She flew home to join the protests, but she did it in a burqa - her face and body fully covered so no one could identify her. But on the streets, she noted a different country. Women were on the frontlines in opposition to a three-decade-old regime. So the day that former President Omar al-Bashir was ousted, she went out on the streets showing her face and her hair.

SHAWKY: And when I stand in the street, a lot of people say, Weam. And I didn't know them. They come hug me. Weam, he's gone now. And I say, OK. Now I am safe. They saw me, and no one hate me anymore.

PERALTA: Sitting next to her at the cafe, her friend Areej Zarrouq says the revolution changed Sudan. How can women continue to be treated differently when they had the courage to confront a genocidal regime?

AREEJ ZARROUQ: What are they going to debate? What is there to debate now? I'm standing out there defending my right to exist. How can you debate with me what I'm going to wear? It's too trivial now.

PERALTA: Since Bashir's ouster, Shawky says many men and women have apologized for how they treated her. Zarrouq says that's because the revolution is holding up a huge mirror to Sudanese society.

ZARROUQ: If this had not happened, there wouldn't have been a set example for people to go back to that's very recent and to realize how brutal they were and how we were manipulated by this government under the name of religion.

PERALTA: A few days later, I meet Zarrouq and her sister at the protest in front of the military headquarters. They're at a little cafe near a guy playing the guitar.

UNIDENTIFIED MUSICAL ARTIST: (Singing in Arabic).

PERALTA: The sisters are both wearing their scarves over their shoulder. Here, says Zarrouq, they feel safer breaking Sudan's morality code because this is a space built from a revolution that they led.

ZARROUQ: I think we're kind of exercising and getting used to the idea that everybody has a right to be who they are. And this is kind of like a practice or a demo for what's going to happen later.

PERALTA: The protest movement has already called for an end to Sharia, but the military says that will not happen. And just as I turn off my recorder, a man berates the women for speaking English. It's a reminder that, even here in what they see as a future Sudan, the fight for equality will not be easy.

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PERALTA: Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Khartoum. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.