It’s been nearly a year now since mass protests broke out in Sudan that in April culminated with the ouster of Omar al-Bashir, the longtime dictator accused of war crimes.
Women were at the forefront of these protests — and they didn’t stop pushing for change once Bashir resigned and the military followed by a transitional government took over. After 30 years of Bashir’s repressive rule based on an extreme interpretation of Islam, Sudanese women have more grievances than days in the year to demonstrate.
On Thursday night, the transitional government took a significant step in addressing Sudan’s troubled past by repealing a public order law that had granted police far-reaching powers to arrest people for a litany of infractions, including women who were found dancing, wearing trousers, vending on the streets or mixing with men who weren’t their relatives. Punishments included flogging, fines and, in rare cases, stoning and execution, according to the BBC.
Taken together, these laws were a tool to repress women’s rights and freedoms of all kinds, from what they wore, where they went, who they associated with, what they studied and where they worked. The power of these laws also came from their vagueness and arbitrariness, which allowed police and judges to apply them in just about any way they wanted.
“The normal lay policeman could decide he doesn’t like the dress a woman’s wearing and immediately take her to court,” where she could be flogged, said Sara Abouh, a former member of parliament and now a professor at Khartoum University. “The law doesn’t respect women at all.”
Sudan’s transitional prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, praised the move, saying he paid “tribute to the women and youth of my country who have endured the atrocities that resulted from the implementation of this law. … This law is notorious for being used as a tool of exploitation, humiliation & violation of rights.”
The sentiment was shared by activists who had long campaigned for the law’s repeal.
The laws were designed to intentionally oppress women, Khartoum-based women’s rights activist Yosra Fuad told the Guardian. “Abolishing them means a step forward for the revolution in which masses of women have participated. It’s a very victorious moment for all of us.”
Sudan’s uprising began last December after Bashir imposed austerity measures that raised the price of basics like bread. But once the floodgates opened, people stood their ground and demanded that Bashir and his whole regime had to go.
Twenty-two-year-old Alaa Salah became an icon of the revolution, and the power of women in making it happen, after the scene of her rallying a crowd in Khartoum went viral.
The economic grievances that sparked the protests also underscored the deep class, social and geographic divides that had grown under decades of dictatorship. “The way the [public order] law was applied underlined the divisions and tensions within Sudanese society,” wrote James Copnall, a BBC reporter and Sudan analyst. “In recent years it was common to see rich Khartoum women wearing trousers in public — while those targeted by the morality police were often poorer women from the marginalized areas.”
Despite the progress, other laws remain that restrict what women can wear and allow for flogging. Amnesty International praised the law’s repeal but called on the government to amend other restrictive laws.
Abouh called on leaders to change family status laws, which, based on an extreme interpretation of religious law, limit women’s rights in marriage, divorce and child custody.