ByZeinab Mohammed Salih
Woman have been at the forefront of the fight for justice and media freedom in Sudan in recent weeks
Social media activist Samar Margani is now facing her second week of uncertainty; novelist and columnist Rania Mamoun is also unsure of her future. The two women are both facing prosecution by the Sudanese police because of their association with recent anti-government demonstrations. They are just two of the growing number of women making their political voice heard in Sudan and suffering as a result.
There has been rioting in Khartoum and other cities in Sudan since mid-September following the lifting of fuel subsides and doubling of the price of petrol and cooking gas. The clashes have often been violent with activists claiming that over 210 protestors have been killed. Samar Margani was arrested as she was filming the shooting of a demonstrator which she planned to post online.
“They threw me into a police vehicle with other protesters, beat me and threatened to rape me when I resisted,” Samar told Doha Centre for Media Freedom (DCMF). “Some of the men were in police uniforms while others were in civilian clothes but I believe they were all members of the National Intelligence Security Services (NISS).
A regular Facebook blogger, Samar openly described her treatment by the security forces on Saudi TV but what she is charged with remains less clear. “Samar was particular badly treated because she is a young girl,” says Rasha Awad of the campaign group ‘The Initiative for Non-Violence against Women.’ “By targeting women and subjecting them to sexual harassment they hope the shame will make their families put pressure on them to no longer participate in protest activities.”
Security forces and the threat against women
Abdelhahman Al -Mahdi, whose wife, Dalia Elroubi was taken from their home after she had taken part in demonstrations knows all about the security forces’ coercion.
“The NISS is very angry about women activists and believe that women should stay at home and take care of their children and husbands,” he said.
“They abused me when I went to police station to visit my wife. They asked why I let my wife be an activist and said it will have an effect on my manhood.”
Rania Mamoun’s fame as a novelist and a columnist on ‘Al Doha Magazine‘ didn’t give her any preferential treatment. “They grabbed me from the streets, beat me, molested me and threatened me with gang rape,” she noted. She has been charged with ‘crimes against the state’, which carries a punishment from 10 years in prison to the death penalty. Meanwhile her articles, like many foreign publications critical of the Sudanese government, have been stopped at the border.
Journalist Amal Habbani is another female member of the press now having to look over her shoulder, fearful that she could be again detained at any time. She was grabbed by police after attending the funeral of Salah Sanhory, the most prominent victim of police shootings, and thrown into a police van and badly beaten. She was kept in solitary confinement for four days before being released without charge. During interrogations, she was condemned for ‘following a Western agenda’ in her newspaper column.
Female journalists have been prominent in protests because of what they see as the gradual take-over of the media by the state. “We have participated both on the ground with the protesters and individually on social media,” explained journalist Rishan Oshi, a columnist at ‘Al Hura’, “because the NISS has prevented us from writing freely in our own newspapers by giving orders to the editors-in-chief to stop publishing news items about the demonstrations.”
Inequality in the eye of the law
“Once they have been arrested many women have been sexually abused, but they can’t bring cases against the police or security forces because of their weakness in Sudanese law,” according to human rights lawyer Mohamed Moneinm. “There is a real problem in the law in terms of women’s rights because the laws here in Sudan are based on Sharia Law which doesn’t recognise women’s rights.”
“The police forces act with impunity, irrespective of any arrest warrants and ordinary people are powerless to stop them. Women have been sexually abused whether they were arrested at demonstrations or not,” he continued. “When women go to court to get justice they are required to produce four witnesses of the sexual harassment. Clearly, that’s impossible and so it often comes down to the word of the victim against the offender.”
“Getting women’s rights is not going to be easy…”
Dr Mahasin Elabbas, professor of Gender Studies at Ahfad Women’s University in Khartoum, thinks that when women are arrested they have no guarantee of humane treatment: “Noone knows anything about the detention for women. They face sexual abuses and sometimes are raped. Getting women’s rights is not going to be easy; women have to pay for their rights in order to have equal society.”
Two years ago, the activist and artist Safia Ishaq allegedly that she has been raped by the security forces in their office in Bahri, in east Khartoum while last year a video was put on YouTube showing a young woman being sexually harassed in a Khartoum police station.
In court, Samar Margani accused the police of sexual harassment but so far her accusations have been ignored, while the security forces increase their surveillance of her, often trailing her in the street. Rasha Awad believes that Sudanese law has double standards, arguing: “Rather than persecuting woman and non-violent protestors they should prosecute those that have killed peaceful protestors and tortured detainees.”
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