WASHINGTON - In a solemn ceremony on August 21 in Khartoum, Sudan, 11 people placed their hands on Korans to be sworn in to lead the country.
The group, known as the sovereign council, will guide Sudan during a transitional period following 30 years of autocratic rule by Omar al-Bashir. The moment was historic for many reasons, including the group’s composition — the council includes two women.
The representation raises expectations that women will be granted additional rights and minority groups of all types will be given a voice in a new Sudan.
“The Sovereign Council is the culmination of the people’s quest for equality and justice,” said Ayesha Musa Saeed, a member of the council, following the ceremony.
In an interview with VOA’s South Sudan in Focus, Raja Nicola Issa Abdul-Masseh, a member of the sovereign council and a member of Sudan’s Christian minority, said the process will be slow but the new leaders are determined.
“We shall try to rebuild our country, we shall try to rebuild our economy, we shall begin to stop all the armed movements and work for peace and justice for all Sudanese on an equal basis regardless of race or religion or any political opinion or any affiliation,” she said. “What happened in 30 years cannot be rebuilt in three years. But we shall try our best to do whatever we could.”
A long history
Women have long played a role in Sudanese politics and protest movements. During the country’s 1964 revolution, when students stood up to a military regime, women were among those protesting on the frontlines.
“For their participation in that revolution, they were really a small minority at that time as far as the politicized elements, and low and behold, the revolution that we sought was limited or confined from changing the government from military to civilian proved to be a social revolution,” said Abdullahi Ibrahim, professor emeritus at the University of Missouri.
Ibrahim participated in the 1960s revolution and ran for president against Bashir in 2010. He said the revolution in the 60s was the earliest movement that guaranteed basic rights. “Women were given the vote for the first time. Young people, 18 years of age, were given the vote for the first time. Before it was 22 and above.”
In subsequent years, women joined the judicial system and were given the right to vote. In 1965, Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim became the first woman elected to parliament in Sudan and one of the first on the African continent.
“There are many, many women in the Sudan who have been very prominent. They played a very important role,” said Abdullahi Gallab, a professor from Arizona State University originally from Sudan. “Actually, one of the very important things was that women established [was] a union, Women’s Union, a long time ago. I think one of the earliest in the Middle East and Africa. So there is a history in Sudan of prominent women assuming very important positions.”
But over the decades of Bashir’s rule, women’s rights eroded in some areas and did not advance in others. Laws restricted women’s dress and required them to seek approval from a male relative to marry. Although one-quarter of the parliament was reserved for female members, they were often viewed as being tokens with little power.
A new era
In December 2018, when protests against Bashir’s rule began, women were at the forefront. The protests were organized by the Sudanese Professionals Association, a group of doctors, health workers and lawyers. But the symbol of the revolution became a young woman, Alaa Salah, who stood on top of a vehicle, leading chants.
“People insisted and they encouraged each other to continue, led by the Sudanese Professional Association and the umbrella of freedom and change forces — the will of the Sudanese people themselves,” said Nuha Zein, a Sudanese visiting professor at Rice University, speaking to VOA’s Africa News Tonight. “They really are now very aware of their rights, about their strength to change their destiny in Sudan.”
Today, hopes are resting with women such as Ayesha Musa Saeed, an educator and longtime women’s rights activist named to be one of six civilians on the sovereign council.
“She’s a highly respected lady, and she has been — she devoted all her life in activism including women and actually she closed her opening speech … after the sermon by saying that ‘I represent all the women of Sudan.’” Gallab said. “So that is Ayesha. She has been always devoting her own time and energy for women’s issues and for education.”
The other woman on the council, Raja Nicola Issa Abdul-Masseh, is a Coptic Christian. Some observers hope she can be a voice for the many ethnic and religious minorities who were persecuted under Bashir.
“This is a new phase of Sudan’s history,” Dr. Farah Ibrahim Mohamed Alagar, chair of the Blue Nile Forum, told VOA’s Daybreak Africa. “With the nomination of this lady, Sudan is respecting the diversity — Muslims, Christians, non religions — they’re all Sudanese components and have a right to participate.”