Sudan’s women protesters leading the pro-democracy movement

Khartoum, Sudan – It was the image that came to symbolise Sudan’s uprising against former longtime President Omar al-Bashir.

The picture of engineering and architecture student, Alaa Salah, 22, clad in white and standing on top of a car earlier this month leading demonstrators in protest chants against al-Bashir’s near-30-year reign in office.

But for months, Sudanese women have been at the forefront of protests and sit-ins against al-Bashir.

It is just after the evening prayers on a busy corner at a square near the army headquarters in the capital, Khartoum and a long queue of protesters – men, women, young and old – has formed in front of a tent where food is cooking in giant pots on open fires.

A group of female volunteers is working to prepare meals for the protesters.

Since April 6, the day when the sit-in started outside the army headquarters, the team says it has served meals to at least 2,000 demonstrators a day.

Awadia Mahmoud Koko, a grandmother of 13, is in charge of the female volunteers.

“I have been waiting for this moment my whole life,” the 56-year-old told Al Jazeera while taking a break.

“I came here April 6 to protest but when I saw young and old people with no food, tea or water I decided to do something about it,” she added.

Female activists such as Awadia Mahmoud Koko, left, have been serving meals to protesters at the Khartoum sit-in [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

She called a union that represents restaurants and tea sellers in the city of two million people to see if they could donate food. They gave her uncooked food. That did not stop Koko, who called her friends to join her and prepare the food.

‘We want a new Sudan’

The night the sit-in began, they served their first meal and have not looked back since.

“It is the least I can do for my people who have came out to protest and demand their rights. We have suffered a lot. We want a new Sudan and everyone has to take part in creating that new Sudan,” she added as she rushed back to help the other volunteers.

Demonstrations first started in December after the government slashed wheat and fuel subsidies, causing prices to skyrocket.

Security forces cracked down on the demonstrators, killing dozens and arresting hundreds more.

That didn’t deter the protesters, who then starting calling for al-Bashir and his government to resign.

On April 6, thousands marched to the army headquarters and said they would not leave until the president resigned. The army stepped in on April 11 and overthrew al-Bashir, naming a transitional military council to run the country for two years, much to the displeasure of the protesters at the sit-in.

They have vowed not to leave until a civilian authority is installed.

Protesters demand democracy

At a stall about five minutes walk from Koko’s tent, Halima Ishaq is giving an impassioned speech to a group of young protesters, as patriotic music blares from portable speakers nearby.

“Do you want freedom?” She asks the crowd of about 40. They screamed back a unanimous “yes”. She then tells them to bring everyone they know to the sit-in until democracy is installed in the country.

Ishaq is a teacher and an activist from the country’s troubled Darfur region – an area in western Sudan that has witnessed years of deadly violence.

“I’m from a village called Kilin in the Mara mountains. It was burned down by militia and I was forced to live in an IDP camp,” she told Al Jazeera.

“I blame al-Bashir for it. I blame his government. Us women suffered twice as much as the men. The violence and injustice affected us directly. And if it did not affect us directly it was affecting our children,” Ishaq, 34, added.

Halima Ishaq, 34, is a teacher and an activist from Sudan’s troubled Darfur region [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Al-Bashir is wanted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

The charges against the 75-year-old stem from the conflict in Darfur, where fighting broke out in 2003.

Al-Bashir’s government is accused of mobilising the government-linked militia known as the Janjaweed, who are accused of burning villages to the ground, massacring civilians and carrying out mass rapes.

The conflict killed an estimated 300,000 people and displaced some 2.7 million.

‘Women’s participation is essential’

According to the World Bank, 50 percent of the northeast African country’s 40 million population are women.

Female activists are now demanding an equal share of seats in any civilian transitional authority and future parliament.

“We need a fair and just country. We have suffered a lot. More than men in many cases. Women should be in the centre of any government,” Marsiliya Yakub, an activist from the country’s Nuba Mountains region, told Al Jazeera.

When not at the sit-in encouraging protesters not to give up, Yakub coordinates with activists across the country to facilitate travel for women who want to come to the city and take part in the demonstration.

“We are here protesting for our rights and the rights of everyone else that has been oppressed under the old regime,” she added.

Their calls have been heard. One of the demands of the Sudanese Professional Association, the group spearheading the mass protests, is to have 40 percent women in any civilian transitional authority formed to replace the military transitional council.

Analysts say the 40 percent quota should be increased.

“Women’s participation in the transitional government is very essential. They have played a vital role in the revolution. They should have more than 40 percent representation. That is only fair,” Salah Aldoma, a political science professor at the Islamic University of Omdurman, told Al Jazeera.

Koko and the other women at the sit-in say they are going nowhere until they see a new Sudan.

“Until victory is achieved we will be here giving food and support to everyone. It is every Sudanese duty to take part in the revolution,” Koko said.

Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa

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