Since the end of 2018, Sudan’s streets have been filled with protesters fighting for their basic human rights, united by their belief that the change they all want to see is not just possible, but imminent. Here, we commissioned photographer Philipp Raheem and writer Chanté Joseph to capture the situation in Sudan over the past year and speak to four women whose lives have been irrevocably changed, but whose desire to be creative shows no bounds.
Between June 9 and June 15 2019, “Sudan” was typed into Google more than any other time in search history data. This landlocked country with a turbulent past was suddenly propelled onto the world stage via a wave of thousands of ocean-blue Instagram profile pictures. 26-year-old engineer Mohammad Mattar had been killed while trying to protect two women from paramilitary and had become a martyr. The soft shade of blue of his Instagram profile picture became a symbol of global unity with the Sudanese people who were trying to topple an armed and oppressive regime.
Sudan’s former President Omar Al-Bashir came to power in a military coup in 1989 and, until 2011, ruled Africa’s largest country with an unshakeable iron fist. During his harsh Islamist regime, he oversaw the great departure of millions of Sudanese people alongside genocide, war crimes and torture. He is one of the International Criminal Court’s longest-running fugitives, and it was his long-standing autocratic premiership that catalysed a viral movement in Sudan.
“I’m a musician, songwriter, singer, composer and sometimes a photographer,” Lana Haroun tells me as we prepare her for her photoshoot. Lana rose to prominence during the revolution when a photo she took on her phone of Alaa Salah leading chants went viral. “I wasn’t too concerned about the photo, at that time things were not good for us,” she says of that moment. “I was in the sit-in place full time and it was very tough.”
32-year-old Lana has been protesting in Sudan since 2013 when the government lifted fuel and gas subsidies to balance their budget. “They killed a lot of people at that time,” she tells me, referring to the 50 or so protesters killed by police. “After this, a lot of people were afraid to go out, it was too difficult to do anything. Whenever I went out by myself, I felt that maybe I would be next because there were guns shooting everywhere.”
This recent movement felt different to Lana. “September 25 was the first time I took to the street to protest,” she says. “When I saw how many people were in the street [doing the same], I realized that this time we would make it. From that point on, I didn’t choose to stay at home again.” During this revolution, Lana spent time working shifts in the sit-in place, helping to cook and take care of protestors. “Before the sit-in place, we didn't know much about our own country,” she recounts. ‘“Sudanese people are all different; we have different cultures, but in the [sit-in] place we were united, we were one.”
One of Lana’s main issues with the government was their strict restrictions on women’s freedom. “I’m an artist and it was difficult for me to make my work as a woman under the regime,” She tells me.‘“To sing outside is too difficult and you cannot come back home too late as it is shameful.” Lana’s passion and creativity were not just about creating music for music’s sake, she had a bigger mission in mind. “Through my art I can help people, because this is what I know,” she explains. “But we have suffered too much.” This fear and shame is the reason she decided to quit music until this most recent revolution began.
Lana and her friends penned For My Country, the first official song of the revolution. The song dives deep into the issue behind the troubles and describes the agony of protestors. “Because we demanded our rights/ They are hurting and shooting us,” the lyrics exclaim. “When we made our song, because it was against the main government, we didn't put our names on it,” Lana continues. “Everybody was too scared.”
The future for Lana and her not-yet-named band is bright. “We are working on a project, it will be huge,’” she shares. “We don't have a huge library of music here in Sudan. I was singing songs in English, but I realized I must focus on Sudanese songs and our culture.” There is a cautious hope in Lana about the future of Sudan. “Our civilian government is good,” she comments. “We know the situation will get better, but not yet. It will take a long time. Everyone now believes in themselves. They believe they can make a change and this is the most important thing we have learned from this revolution.”
Though the protests started in December 2018, the issue really dates back to 2011, when 99% of South Sudanese people voted to secede from the north, gaining independence and taking the majority of Sudanese oil and wealth with it. This triggered an economic crisis in the north; lines for banks went on for miles as people were unable to take out money due to restrictions on withdrawals. The country was simultaneously dealing with a significant bread shortage. In order to cope with this, Al-Bashir’s government tripled the prices of bread which then sparked the initial protests in Atbara before slowly spreading across the country and consuming the capital of Khartoum. What started as a protest about living conditions and economic survival morphed into a wider movement to remove Al-Bashir from office. His desire to quash protests through curfews and emergency state laws only served to fuel the anger.
Months of protesting reached a peak when demonstrators took the fight to the military’s headquarters in Khartoum on April 6 2019. They occupied the square directly in front of the headquarters, refusing to leave until the army removed Al-Bashir. Just five days later the military announced the president had been overthrown, which seemed like a win until a council of military generals, led by Lt-Gen Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, formed a Transitional Military Council (TMC) that was unwilling to engage with civil society groups. Protestors believed that a progressive Sudan was not one ruled by the military; especially one so entrenched in Al-Bashir’s hostile regime. Demonstrators were not settling for second best, exhausted but enraged by 30-years of tyrannical rule under Al-Bashir, they were hungry for change, desperate for a brighter future. Peaceful protests continued to bring Sudanese people together despite the familial and tribal alliances that often kept them apart. Things felt hopeful, but hope was only an orchestrated illusion.
“I woke up to gunshots for the first time in my life,” Randa Ahmed the 25-year-old accessory designer tells me. “When I woke up my mom was screaming.” Living close to the sit-in at the military headquarters, Randa and her family were in the midst of the unravelling revolution. “The morning of the massacre was a horrible day for us. Even though we didn’t lose any family members, Alhamdulillah, it was horrible knowing that some people had lost their children.”
Despite knowing the dangers, Randa was insistent on protesting: she had a personal reason to see this revolution through. “In Sudan the healthcare system isn't great, that's what made me protest in the first place,” she explains, holding back tears. “My dad was sick, he had kidney failure and he passed away last January so when I went out on the street I wanted to protest for him.” We pause the interview briefly but she insists on continuing. “Any kickback at the time meant more anger, a lot more people were protesting in the streets because we were fed up. We wanted a better Sudan, and going back wasn't an option.”
Randa runs an accessory brand called Loco with a friend she met in college. “I can't sit behind a chair and just look at a laptop all day,’” she explains. “So I decided to go and do stuff with my hands.” Originally studying accounting, she packed it all in to chase her creative dreams and pursue a career in design. “I didn't think I wanted to work as an accessory designer full-time,” she tells me. “But then one day I woke up and I was like: you know what? Screw this! I want to work as an accessory designer. I'm just going to do it.”
Refusing to study art in Sudan on the advice of friends already in the course, she taught herself everything she knows about accessory design. The lack of resources available to her meant she had to be clever about what she used to create her pieces. “I used to use a nail clipper to cut metal and make my accessories,” she reveals. “That was a long time ago but I loved every minute of it.” Randa has big ambitions, beyond just Sudan. “It is really my dream to one day make jewellery for a high-end name.” I press her on this. “I would love to make jewellery for Dior, I don't think I'm good enough for them yet...yet!” she repeats with emphasis. “But I'm going to make it.”
Echoing Lana’s sentiment, the 25-year-old’s hope for Sudan remains strong. “Sudan has potential, the youth are trying to build it into the Sudan we want, it’s just a very slow process,” she says. “Even if changes don’t happen we're ready to protest again; we will go out again and we will fight. My dad protested at a young age and I really wanted Sudan to move forward for him. Now I want Sudan to move forward for me.”
At 6am on Monday June 3, the paramilitary government forces, known as Rapid Support Forces (RSF), viciously attacked peaceful protestors at the sit-in area with heavy gunfire, teargas and sound bombs. They also opened fire inside the city’s East Nile Hospital, adding to the chaos. This was a cowardly attempt to disperse demonstrators and quash their movement. According to the Sudanese Doctors' Syndicate, over 100 people were killed on or after June 3 and weeks later, bodies with concrete blocks tied to them were being pulled from the Nile. An internet shutdown meant that very little footage from the massacre was available until a month later, but the damage had already been done. The following day, the UN Security Council met to investigate the issue and three days later the African Union suspended all activities with Sudan. Global pressure was mounting and this enthused protestors; the massacre did the exact opposite of its intention, it inspired new and infectious energy for change. #BlueForSudan was trending globally and the world was rooting for Sudanese protestors.
Dalia is a 28-year-old fashion designer born and raised in Sudan. She’s been putting her own twist on traditional Sudanese fashion for nearly five years now. “I actually applied for the London College of Fashion,” she says. “I got in but my dad was like; ‘you better work with the family business,’ so I had to study business administration.” After completing her degree, specialising in marketing, she returned to her father’s airport equipment business for two years before ditching it all to invest fully in fashion.
“I love Dolce & Gabbana and Zuhair Murad, he’s a Lebanese designer,” she says. “So when you see my work, it’s a mix of Middle Eastern and European designs.” This younger wave of new designers in Sudan are establishing modern trends that build on cultural Sudanese dress. “In Sudan the older women prefer floral patterns whereas the younger generation prefer more Versace-style lines,” she explains.
Her inspiration to get into fashion comes from broader Sudanese traditions. “Sudanese people are very close to the traditional stuff,” she says. “For example, a Sudanese wedding is a big thing here, there is a lot that goes into it. I think this is what made me get into fashion growing up.”
Dalia admits she was fortunate and had a family that provided everything for her during her upbringing. “I studied at the best places and I travelled a lot,” she explains. When the troubles in Sudan reached her family, she told her parents she was attending the protests and they encouraged her to go for the sake of the family business. “[Al-bashir’s regime] took over the market and everything, so we couldn't do anything for a long time.”
Dalia admits she wasn’t always a very political person, but this time something shifted in her. She took to the streets to protest alongside her fellow women. “We needed to change,” she says. “We had been stuck in the same place and we didn't move, even the rich guys couldn't afford a lot of stuff, you know? So we had to change this.” The protests brought the country together in a new way, people were seeing their country through new eyes. “I was surprised during the revolution,” Shumeina admits. “There is a lot of hidden talent that I didn't know about in Sudan and it was eye-opening for me to see how the country was pushing for more creativity.”
As a designer, Shumeina is excited for the potential of a new Sudan. “If things go to plan, everything is going to change. We'll be more open to the world and everyone is going to see how beautiful Sudan is. I hope that all of the young people who left are going to come back to their country.”
Sudan is no stranger to revolution. The Sudanese people have an unquenchable thirst for justice and peace. Similar to the revolution of summer 2019, the movements in both 1964 and 1985 were about deposing despotic military rulers. It required a tactical collaboration of opposition parties, professional and trade unions to fight back, reclaim power and institute democracy. However, despite these feats, it took no more than five years – in both cases – for the military to take back control. These anxieties are very present in the conscience of Sudanese protesters, but they are not conceding as of yet. Demonstrators want Al-Bashir’s deep roots in politics weeded out, they want justice for the 250 lives allegedly lost in the conquest for peace and, most importantly, they want accountability.
Zahia Alim was born in Saudi Arabia but moved to Sudan when she was seven. She is now 33-years-old and works as a dentist and an artist. While still a university student in 2006, Zahia worked closely with charity groups helping to transfer aid to Darfur which sparked her initial interest in politics. “When you’re involved in politics and you see bad decisions being made, you have to stand against it,” she says. After witnessing politicians fail to act during the 2013 protests in Sudan, Zahia started to question what she could do to help the people of her country. “I started working with charities and focused more on academic work and public health.”
Zahia looks at a lot of Sudan’s problems through the lens of public health and wants to find artistic ways to solve these issues. “Here in Sudan we have a lot of children who earn money through collecting the recycling in garbage,” she says. “While doing this they don’t have any protection and they’re children so they shouldn’t even be doing this in the first place.” Zahia is passionate about the future of young people in Sudan. “It is a vicious cycle and I want to tackle this problem through art,” she says. I ask her what that would look like. “Awareness and building networks between stakeholders in art, policy and the health sector,” she replies. “We should all collaborate together.”
We speak about the recent protests and she tells me that they had simply run out of options. “It didn’t matter if you had money or not, there was no medication,” she says. Despite the danger and chaos that encompassed the recent revolution, Zahia was determined to be a part of the push for change. “If it wasn’t raping, it was guns. It if wasn't guns it was something else,” she states, referring to the army’s targeting of women.
Zahia spent 10 days at the sit-in drawing murals on the wall that spoke to the peacefulness of the protests. “The protest was my first time drawing in a public place,” she recalls. “People would sit next to me and ask what I was doing. For Zahia, the art of the protest was a means of communication. “[Art] may change something in me, or change something in them potentially.”
The drawings around the military headquarters brought with them a greater sense of community. “People would just come and sing to you, or they’d participate. We had lots of conversations about what's going on,” Zahia recalls. “My drawing was a blue background with bullets of different sizes scattered everywhere and a plant folding, strangling the bullets. It was my expression about the power of peace.”
Zahia’s drawings garnered a lot of attention from not only protesters but also the young teenagers fighting in the militia. “One young soldier asked me about the bullets and said; ‘you shouldn't draw it this way,’ so he went to bring me a bullet,” she says. “This made me wonder, what if there was no war? He might have been an artist; he could have been a machine of life not a machine of death.”
2019’s Sudanese revolution was won by women. They made up nearly 70% of demonstrators while their art, images, songs and general presence made for significant viral moments in the protest. The image of Alaa Salah clad in a white shimmery robe styled as a traditional “toub,” leading chants from the top of a white car, swarmed by a sea of people and flashlights became a defining symbol of the protest. This moment typified the fearless and strong attitudes of women in the movement. More than anyone, Sudanese women yearned for freedom from Al-Bashir and his desire to please ultra-conservative Islamic militias that enforced restrictions on their freedom. Under his rule, the lives of women in Sudan were stringently controlled by the state and little was put in place to protect them. In Sudan, marital rape is legal, girls as young as 10-years-old are legally allowed to marry and women can be prosecuted for wearing certain clothes. In this movement, women were the target of rape and harassment from soldiers, so their desire to overthrowing Bashir and his military cronies was personal.
Despite being a significant part of this protest and the birth of a new Sudan, women are still being disenfranchised at the highest political level. When campaigners and the country’s military began negotiating the future peace of Sudan, women were pushed aside and their contributions belittled once again. This is why our recent trip to Sudan was so important, as the future of Sudan is mapped out, we must continue to remember the voices of women, tell their stories and share their hopes and fears for the future.
- Producer: Abisola Oke
- Stylist: Yasmine Sabri
- MUA: Michelle Leandra
- Set Design: Erin Ogarro