“I know the young people who were out in the streets against al-Bashir are still there, and they have the energy to stand up for Sudan”
Three Generations of Women from the Same Family Took on Three Dictators over Half a Century
The courageous young women at the forefront of the Sudanese revolution were following in their mothers’ — and grandmothers’ — footsteps
From left: Lina Marwan, her grandmother Buthaina Najela, and aunt Sawsan Elshowaya in Khartoum
November 5, 2019 by Tamerra Griffin
Lina Marwan was tired of sitting at home. It was time to win her country back.
Protesting, after all, is in her blood. At 27, she was ready to do what her mother and aunt had done before her: take to the streets of Sudan and overthrow a dictator. They had been following the lead of their own mother, one of the first girls in the country to go to middle school.
So when Marwan joined the crowds in Khartoum as they demanded the end of the brutal regime of Omar al-Bashir, she had the voices of generations of women to inspire her. She felt bad for her friends whose parents told them they couldn’t go out to marches — because those rules never existed for her.
At the packed meeting point where protesters were gathering, Marwan recognized people from previous demonstrations, but they didn’t greet each other. They all waited in silence.
Marwan was scared. She’d been part of the uprising since it kicked off last year — and had been an activist for even longer. During one protest, she was snatched up by state security forces, taken to jail, and beaten with a stick. Even then, she was one of the lucky ones; others had been killed. The whole thing was traumatizing, and it took a while for her to go to a protest again without feeling anxious.
Marwan couldn’t afford to revisit her feelings now. Not when she was about to take part in one of the biggest protests of her life. Al-Bashir was a brutal dictator, accused of presiding over the first genocide of the 21st century. But it wasn’t international outrage over the hundreds of thousands of people killed in Darfur that presented al-Bashir with the biggest threat to his 30-year rule — it was a student-led protest that began over the price of bread and ATMs running out of cash that had morphed into a nationwide opposition movement. Al-Bashir responded by ordering a brutal crackdown that killed at least 77 demonstrators, and putting in place an internet blackout that sparked global concern about how he might put down the protests.
A sharp cry pierced the silence and made Marwan jump. Within seconds, state security officers lurking in the shadows surrounded the protesters, and Marwan’s mind flashed back to tear gas, beatings, rubber bullets — sometimes even live ones — and threats of rape. She ran down the street toward the military headquarters, the final destination of the march, darting between parked cars as she tried to escape the officers chasing her. Despite the chaos, she was somehow never separated from the coworkers she’d invited.
The main street in front of the imposing military building was teeming with activists and security forces. Marwan braced herself, but there was nowhere else on Earth she would rather be than chanting with her people, knowing all their energy was channeled toward the goal of bringing down a dictator. She watched as one of her best friends, who regularly defied her parents’ rules against going out to protest, bumped into her own father in the street. Rather than punishing her, he just joined in with the chants.
“At that moment, they were fighting for the same thing,” Marwan said. “They weren’t afraid anymore.” Over the crowd’s rallying cries, the union leading the protests declared the area a sit-in and said that people wouldn’t leave until al-Bashir stepped down. That day marked the 34-year anniversary of the resignation of autocratic president Jaafar al-Nimeiri; activists were hoping that history would repeat itself. Five days later, al-Bashir was arrested.
Sudanese demonstrators celebrate the arrest of then-president Omar al-Bashir by the armed forces outside the Defence Ministry in Khartoum, April 11
Before al-Bashir fell, a photo of a student named Alaa Salah leading protest songs on top of a car in Khartoum while wearing a traditional white toub went viral, becoming the iconic image of the Sudanese revolution that captured the raw and contagious passion of young women. Sudan’s post-independence history has been a violent cycle of military coups followed by short-lived democratic hopes, and each time women have been at the forefront of the resistance, harnessing their collective righteous anger and demanding change.
Take Buthaina Najela, Marwan’s 79-year-old grandmother — once a cheeky kid who taught other girls in her village how to read and who joined Sudan’s first women’s union. Sawsan Elshowaya, Najela’s firstborn, is a full-time activist who’s experienced intimidation from the government. Elshowaya's sister, Marwan’s mom, was a fierce lawyer and activist who fled the country to Saudi Arabia to raise her family. Marwan always knew she would return to Sudan to fight for change.
The passing of the baton from one generation of Sudanese women to the next hasn’t always been smooth, though. Marwan and her friends have grappled with the millennial angst of proving to their parents that they’re not entitled, social media–obsessed idealists, that they were about something and could leave their own mark in Sudan’s history. Failing their foremothers just wasn’t an option.
But neither was it straightforward for the new generation to seek guidance from those foremothers. Back in Najela’s day, girls could protest safely in plain sight of police, but 60 years later her granddaughter risks getting shot for chanting in the streets.
Sitting in Najela’s living room, surrounded by cups of tea, Sudanese sweets, and the déjà vu of previous uprisings, three generations of women reflected on their interwoven experiences, recognizing how each fought her own struggle that those coming afterward could build on.
The months that followed al-Bashir’s arrest saw the formation of a transitional military government, continued protests, shocking levels of violence, short-lived negotiations, more violence, and more protests. The pro-democracy coalition and the government eventually reached a landmark peace agreement, and on Sept. 8, four women were sworn into a new cabinet, including Asmaa Abdalla, the first woman foreign minister in Sudanese history. Each generation’s hard-won battle for women’s rights empowered those who came after them to break more rules, dream more ambitiously, and to demand change more loudly than they ever could.
Najela wasn’t a bad kid growing up, per se, but she was sneaky. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, girls were expected to do most of the household chores, but Najela wasn’t having any of that. Once she learned that crying could get her out of them, she routinely turned on the waterworks, earning the nickname “spoiled” from her siblings. For Najela, any time spent not reading felt like a waste, and anything she needed to do to give herself more time with her books was justified. She was that kind of bookworm.
If it hadn’t been for their father, Najela and her sisters would have dropped out of school after they completed the primary level, like all other Sudanese girls. He died when Najela was very young but had always insisted they be able to continue their education for as long as possible. There weren’t any middle schools for girls in their tiny village of Sinja, around 225 miles southeast of Khartoum, which meant Najela had to travel far away to the city of Madani.
School wasn’t just a place where Najela could read all the books she wanted; it was also her gateway into activism. When she was 11, she heard whispers about secret meetings being held by women who wanted to create their own union, and the students wanted in. Najela’s British principal — Sudan was still under colonial rule at that time — had made it clear that there was no place for girls in politics. But Najela was drawn to the idea of a women’s union and started organizing with her classmates. By then, she was used to breaking the rules to get what she wanted.
“We weren’t allowed to do any type of activism, but we were active still,” she said, pouring herself a cup of tea, her daughter and granddaughter settled into plush chairs beside her. “We all pushed for women’s rights, especially the right to education.” When school was out, Najela opened a literacy center back home with her sisters so they could teach women how to read. Najela’s education empowered her. Over time, she noticed adults treating her and her sisters differently, as though they, too, had picked up on their confidence and were feeding off their love of education.
Other changes were more gradual. Her studies came with a condition: Her father had said his daughters could never work, even after they graduated. Volunteering at the reading center was the closest they could get to having a job.
In 1952, the women-led union she’d heard rumors about became the Sudanese Women’s Union, the first organization of its kind. Najela, only 13 years old, was thrilled to join the following year. The union didn’t just want more educated women in Sudan — they wanted them to be able to vote and to work if they wanted to, even if they were married.
The union launched a magazine called Women’s Voice, which became so popular that it sometimes outsold the mainstream newspapers, Najela said. “Some of the ladies from the literacy classes were the writers,” she remembered. “The publication used to tackle very sensitive issues, like education, forced marriages, and women’s rights.”
This didn’t always sit well with some of the older generation of women. “They were accusing us of denying our roots just because we were educated, but we pushed hard nonetheless,” Najela said.
A threat was looming, however. Sudan had been granted self-governance by the British in 1953 but was not yet independent, and it appeared that military rulers were set to take control. Students took to the streets in protest.
“I remember how far we used to march from school, and coming back home with swollen feet because of the long distance,” Najela said.
When Najela protested, she wore a white toub draped over her blue school uniform — the same toub Salah and other young women wore in 2019 to honor the struggle of women like Najela.
Najela’s life changed drastically when she turned 16 and her family pressured her to get married. She pleaded to be able to finish high school, but not even the tears that got her out of chores could save her. She felt a glimmer of hope when her husband let her complete her studies that year, but she was soon pregnant with Elshowaya, Marwan’s aunt. Najela never went back to school, but she kept in touch with her former classmates who went on to graduate and enroll in universities, constantly asking what they were learning.
True to the nickname she was given by her siblings, Najela continued to be “spoiled,” as she put it, as an adult. She was not allowed to work, but her husband was wealthy enough to hire housekeepers as their family grew. Like upper- and middle-class feminists around the world, Najela benefited from the privilege of having help around the house. She was able to reallocate time she would have otherwise spent cooking, cleaning, and taking care of her children — or out of the house, working herself — to feeding her intellectual appetite.
Just as many had feared, Sudan fell under military rule when Ibrahim Abboud, then-commander in chief of the army, took over the country’s democratically elected government in 1958 and became Sudan’s first post-independence president.
Abboud suppressed free speech by banning many independent newspapers, but Women’s Voice lived on, making its presence even more subversive. Najela couldn’t march as often as she did as a student, but she challenged the status quo in other ways, refusing to wear a veil beneath her toub when she attended her Qur’an reading circle, causing tension with other women. Najela’s experiences at the women’s union and the lessons she passed on to her children are the thread that connects the student movement of the ’50s to the streets of Khartoum in 2019.
“I am proud of being part of the Sudanese Women’s Union in its first years,” she said. “I am proud of the fact that I never yielded to society and the Islamist regime’s rules for women, even as I grew more religious with age.”
As Sudanese people became more educated, they grew angrier with the way Abboud was running the country — and more emboldened to speak out against it. Demonstrations against him had become the norm, but when a police officer killed a student protester, activists launched a general strike. Amid constant protests and with Sudan’s economy on its knees, Abboud stepped down.
Elshowaya, Najela’s daughter, was a happy-go-lucky 12-year-old when Jaafar al-Nimeiri, a former military officer, swept to power in another coup in 1969. Without realizing it at the time, Elshowaya grew up enjoying the freedoms that her mother and her union colleagues had fought for. Elshowaya also loved school and took to activism as a college student as if it was embedded in her genes.
Elshowaya remembered things being good then, at least in the beginning. Al-Nimeiri started out as a self-proclaimed socialist who would return the government to the people. He established free, quality higher education throughout Sudan, and relaxed many of the Islamist regulations for how women could dress and behave in public. You can practically see the twinkle in the eyes of older Sudanese people when they look back; it was utopian. Growing up, Elshowaya remembered hearing people chant that al-Nimeiri was their savior.
But it was short-lived. The Muslim Brotherhood, a transnational Islamist group founded in Egypt that practiced some of the most stringent and conservative views in Islam, grew steadily in power and came to eventually control the president. Meanwhile, al-Nimeiri’s economic policies plunged the country into hardship, as the cost of basic goods skyrocketed. Once again, the people took to the streets.
Al-Nimeiri’s regime brought an unprecedented level of violence against activists — criticizing your leader in public could now get you killed.
“Nimeiri became very aggressive,” Elshowaya said. “There were a lot of executions at that time. People were killed for leading any type of movement against the government. He revealed his true colors as a military dictator.”
More than once, Elshowaya came home from school to find her mother sobbing because she’d heard that another one of her friends from the women’s union, or a union member’s husband, had been killed.
The Muslim Brotherhood’s growing power deepened divisions within the union. Some members splintered off to form their own subgroups. Once that happened, al-Nimeiri banned the original union, forcing it to operate underground.
Sudan’s first feminist organization was falling apart, but Elshowaya was undeterred. She enrolled at the University of Khartoum as an economics major and joined the campus Women’s Rights Committee. She protested al-Nimeiri’s rule and topped her economics degree off with a master’s in gender studies, even as she saw al-Nimeiri retaliate against activists outside of school.
“I remember being so mad that day, when al-Nimeiri appeared on TV in his military uniform and announced that he was going to execute Mahmoud,” Elshowaya said. “My husband and I drove to the prison where Mahmoud was detained and saw people already standing outside when we arrived. I was there for the sentencing, when he was hanged to death. I felt so helpless, oppressed beyond words.”
In 1983, al-Nimeiri instituted Sharia law in Sudan. For the first time, Sudanese people were getting their hands cut off for stealing, and women were whipped in public for wearing pants. The introduction of Sharia is said to have fueled the 22-year-long war between the predominantly Muslim north and Christian south of what is now Sudan and South Sudan, in a conflict where up to 2 million people died.
Al-Nimeiri also targeted activists’ livelihoods outside of protesting, ordering them to lose their jobs because it was in the “public interest.” Between that and the failing economy, Sudan’s job market was suffocating.
After a solid week of protests organized by trade unions and university student groups in 1985, Sudan’s defense minister swooped in while al-Nimeiri was visiting the US and seized power.
Elshowaya and Najela were elated, feeling accomplished for their respective acts of resistance that led to al-Nimeiri’s downfall, convinced that whoever came after him couldn’t possibly be worse.
Then, after a four-year transition period, al-Bashir came along in yet another coup d'état and proved them both wrong.
One morning in1991, Elshowaya got a phone call at work. It was Sudan’s secret police, the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS), asking her to report to their headquarters. She was surprised. She hadn’t been engaging in any serious activism lately, but drove over anyway. An officer told her she’d been brought in for questioning, that she should sit and wait to be called.
So Elshowaya sat and waited. And waited. Nobody came to interrogate her. At 6 p.m., when the office closed and she still hadn’t been questioned, she was told to go home and return again at the same time tomorrow. The same thing happened the next day, and it went on like that for the next month.
“I used to take my books with me and read while waiting, but it was never about an actual interrogation,” Elshowaya said. “It was their way of terrorizing me and controlling my life.”
Sometimes, the intimidation was more blatant. Once Elshowaya was driving home with a friend when they realized they were being followed. The driver sped up until they were right next to Elshowaya's car and then tried to run them off the road.
The way Elshowaya told these stories — describing the intense parts in Arabic before switching back to English, pausing to unwrap one of the fun-sized Kit Kats from the bowl sitting on the coffee table, giggling at her own sweet tooth — you’d think she’d never been fazed by the government’s tactics. She poked fun at herself for how much certain parts of her life sounded like an action movie. But then, if you can’t laugh at the things you’ve had to endure, you might never stop crying.
The state surveillance and intimidation hit close to home for Elshowaya. One night, she was home with her husband and two sons one evening when someone banged on the door and barged in.
“It was obvious they were NISS forces. There were six of them.”
Her kids were too young to pick up on what was happening. All they knew was that guests had come to the house, so they did what they normally did: They smiled and greeted them, overflowing with courtesy. Elshowaya was torn — she didn’t want to scare them, but she also had to protect them. As her two little boys watched the soldiers force their way into their house, wrecking their belongings and taking things that were not theirs, they panicked.
Those home invasions were common under al-Bashir, who had picked up where al-Nimeiri left off in targeting activists. “Many people lost precious things during that time and never got them back,” Elshowaya said. “This is why many people in Sudan have problems providing documentation. They took things and sometimes they’d burn them, things they didn’t like or didn’t want other people to see.”
She had a hard time getting a job after that; her political reputation preceded her, and she spent several years making it to the final round of job interviews, only to be rejected.
When she finally was offered a well-paying position, she turned it down, knowing that accepting it would have meant suppressing her political beliefs.
Instead, she pursued a full-time career in activism. The work is still not enough to afford a place of her own; she lives in a guest house above Najela’s home.
Elshowaya's commitment came with another cost. With the exception of one brother, all her siblings are scattered across the US, Canada, and the Gulf states; even her brother still living in Sudan sent his wife and children abroad. The only time Elshowaya's playful personality clouds over is when she reminisces how things used to be, before dictators tore her family apart. When they were younger, she and her sisters used to lock themselves in their room and spend hours gossiping, sometimes even eating dinner there. They loved going to weddings together: In Sudan, even if only one person from a family is invited to a wedding, it’s custom to bring as many people as you can. Now, Elshowaya goes to weddings by herself.
Her siblings in the US try to persuade her to move every time she visits, telling her how easily an educated woman like her could get a job, but she refuses. She wants to finish the work at home.
Few things made Marwan light up like her memories of the sit-in that started just before al-Bashir’s arrest. When she recalled the lively marches or recited the poems from them, she waved her hands around so excitedly that she almost knocked her hoop earrings out of her ears.
But when she was around her aunt and grandmother, Marwan was reserved, almost shy, letting them speak before her. This was done partly out of respect for her elders, but also because she didn’t grow up around them. Marwan’s mother, Elshowaya's sister, was a lawyer and activist in Sudan who opposed al-Nimeiri’s regime along with Marwan’s father, who worked as a judge. Once, her mother was thrown in jail for 17 days. She decided that Sudan was no longer a safe place to raise a family and left for Saudi Arabia. Lina Marwan and her younger sister, Nawar, were born and raised there.
Marwan always wanted to follow in her mother’s footsteps. She and Nawar convinced their parents to let them return to Sudan in 2009. The same year, Marwan entered law at the University of Khartoum. She’s now a junior lawyer at the People’s Legal Aid Center (PLACE), helping activists get out of jail.
She’s not even 30 years old, but she’s seen a lot; she carries that trauma with her when she goes to work every morning and when she marches through the city at night. And her aunt and grandmother have no idea how to comfort her. They both know that she’s going through things far more extreme than they ever experienced.
When Najela marched with her high school classmates in the ’50s, if a police officer wanted to disperse a women-led protest, he’d have to find their parents or teachers and communicate through them. And even Elshowaya, for all the harassment she faced in the ’80s and ’90s, never had to worry about being shot at or teargassed at demonstrations.
“Even though it was a military government and we didn’t have democracy, it wasn’t as bad as these current times,” Najela said. “The level of violence used is unprecedented, and that’s why I worry every time my daughter and granddaughters go out to protests.”
When the clock struck midnight on June 3, about two months after al-Bashir’s arrest, Marwan and dozens of new and old friends at the sit-in broke into song; it was Nawar’s birthday. They ate cake and partied, reveling in the energy of the biggest political movement they’d been a part of to date.
Marwan and Nawar went home around 3 a.m. A few hours later, they heard reports that the Rapid Support Forces (RSF) — the paramilitary force made up of members of the notorious militia accused of committing war crimes in Darfur — had broken up the sit-in by shooting people at random. Then the internet was completely blocked. Marwan and Nawar had no way of knowing whether the people they’d just been sharing birthday cake with were dead or alive.
“The sit-in for us was the safest place in Sudan, the safest zone for two whole months,” Marwan said. “And in just three hours, it turned into the scariest place in the world.”
Marwan was torn when the union leading the protests announced a million man march for June 30. State security officers already had her name in their records from the time she got detained in January, and she was still recovering from the trauma of just a few weeks ago. She prayed on it and woke up that morning with an overwhelming sense of hope. She marched.
Elshowaya also demonstrated that day. She watched with pride as young activists formed a human barricade between the officers and other protesters, making sure they could march safely.
What followed the million-man march were months of back-and-forth between the Transitional Military Council (TMC) and the pro-democracy groups. The violence didn’t stop though. In July, the RSF shot and killed four schoolchildren who’d been protesting the rising cost of bread, dragging the negotiations back several steps. The peacemaking agreement was eventually signed on Sept. 17, and while Marwan, like millions of other Sudanese people, was happy, that feeling was cut short when she realized just how difficult the next battle would be.
Young women like Marwan have risen above the violent responses to their movement with creativity and fierce determination. They transformed private Facebook groups into an intelligence tool of the revolution, exposing the state security officers who were abusing them at protests. And during the internet blackout, an Instagram-famous graffiti artist started painting the capital an iconic blue, letting Sudanese people know that the rest of the world was supporting them.
“The older generations used to call us spoiled, thought that we didn’t know how to read, didn’t know how to act, blah, blah, blah,” Marwan said, a glass of lemonade sweating in her hand. “But they had the environment to read, and they had cinemas and theaters and a lot of other things to do. And there’s no comparison between how I dress and how my mother dressed when she was my age.” Sudan’s legal system is still based upon Sharia, and Marwan has to be more mindful of the clothes she wears in public than her mother and aunt were back in the day.
“I used to feel like this generation was irresponsible, but we really feel astonished by their courage,” said Elshowaya. “We are very proud of them, and they’ve given us so much hope.”
In September, Marwan traveled to Germany for a conference on political Islam and progressivism, and then to Kenya for a training on mediation and peacemaking. She learned a lot and was excited to bring her new skills back home and help rebuild her country, only to discover how much had remained the same.
“On the ground, in the streets, in the grassroots, not much has changed,” she said on the phone from Khartoum late one night. Any sense of pride Marwan may have felt for the new government and political strides for women has been destroyed by the lingering questions over whether or not her fellow revolutionaries who died during the uprising will ever get justice. A week ago, the bodies of three unidentified people who were killed on June 3 were buried in Khartoum; they had been kept inside a morgue since the crackdown. The two military commanders behind the brutal massacre at the sit-in, Mohamed Hamdan "Hemeti" Dagolo and Lieutenant General Abdel Fattah Abdelrahman Burhan, are the two leaders who signed the peace deal, making Marwan worry that justice is a far-fetched dream.
Between the long hours she’s been pulling at the legal center and her own personal experiences, Marwan knows she needs to see a therapist to work through her emotions.
“The truth is I keep delaying it,” she said. “I keep waiting for all of this to be finished so I can go to a shrink and start processing what has happened.”
These days, her only thoughts are about standing up for what matters. “The only thing that can make me optimistic is that I know the young people who were out in the streets against al-Bashir are still there, and they have the energy to stand up for Sudan,” she said. “They have trauma, their friends have been killed and they’re missing them and all these bad things, but they are still here, and we will stand up for Sudan, regardless of what happens.”