Article by Zainab Mohammed Salih and Tom Wilson

Jode Tariq, a slight 23-year-old with red hair extensions on her shorn head, has been arrested three times since street protests against Sudan’s strongman leader, Omar al-Bashir, started in December. On one occasion, her arm was broken by security agents, she says. On another, they cut off her hair.

“The first time I was arrested from Khartoum’s downtown, while in the truck before reaching custody, they poured cold water on my back,” Tariq says. “One of them ripped off my headscarf and cut the bun off my head with a razor blade.”

Tariq is one of the thousands of Sudanese women, long repressed by al-Bashir’s Islamist regime, who have appeared in huge numbers at the vanguard of a protest movement calling for him to step down. Sparked by a demonstration in December over the rising price of bread, the protests have become the biggest threat to al-Bashir’s rule since he seized power in a military coup in 1989.

Initially led by mostly male doctors, lawyers and other professionals fed up with economic decline, the movement has since broadened to include more women, youth and political leaders angered by the regime’s corruption and authoritarianism. At least 57 protesters have been killed and hundreds have been arrested since the protests began. Last month al-Bashir declared a state emergency, appointing military and security officials to run Sudan’s 18 states.

Women are now at the forefront of the campaign, often taking to the streets in larger numbers than men, according to Ihsan Fagiri, head of the No to Women’s Oppression Initiative, a rights organization.

Footage of the demonstrations frequently shows hundreds of women chanting anti-government slogans. In some cases, as many as 80 percent of the protesters, Fagiri estimates, have been women. Their participation is a dramatic rebellion against the aging autocrat — still wanted by the International Criminal Court for alleged war crimes in the eastern Darfur region — and the country’s so-called morality laws, which curtailed women’s rights in the 1990s.

Bashir is facing the broadest opposition to his rule in three decades in power, says Rosalind Marsden, a former U.K. ambassador to Khartoum and a Sudan expert at Chatham House. “By going out in such numbers and defying the security forces again and again, women have really become a significant, new political force,” she says.

Sudanese women have a long history of political and social activism. Dr. Khalida Zahir, Sudan’s first female doctor, was arrested and flogged in 1946 for opposing British rule. In 1951, she co-founded the Sudanese Women’s Union, which fought for women’s right to vote and equal pay and played a key role in the street protests that toppled dictatorial governments in 1964 and 1985.

“Women in Sudan are revolutionary and very aware of their rights,” Fagiri said in late March after her release from Omdurman Women’s Prison. She had been jailed for 75 days for participating in the protests. “This government wants to make us second-class citizens and that will not happen,” she said.

After al-Bashir seized power in 1989, his alliance of military leaders and Islamist clerics tightened Islamic laws to win diplomatic support in the Gulf and consolidate its control at home. Under the vaguely defined morality and penal codes, women must cover their heads in public, obtain their male guardian’s consent to marry, and face lashes or even the death penalty for “crimes” such as adultery. Many Sudanese say the laws, which tend to target the poor and marginalized rather than the rich and powerful, are at odds with religious and cultural tolerance of Sudanese society.

“What is happening now is positive and women should be proud of themselves,” says Sara Abdeljaleel, a spokeswoman for the Sudanese Professionals Association, which has led many of the demonstrations. “Despite all the pressure women in Sudan are subjected to, they have showed that their resistance is stronger than the government’s terrorism.”…

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