Women were at the forefront of popular uprisings that ousted the 30-year regime of Omar al-Bashir in Sudan in 2019, so you might expect that they could openly assert their rights, says Ilaf Nasreldin.
On the contrary, she says women’s rights activists in Sudan face social stigma — sometimes within their own families. The stigmatization can go so far as to endanger their lives and limit their freedom of movement.
They are constantly challenged by the conservative culture and radical religious groups who persist in casting equality for women as a threat to society.
“Young women activists are usually demonized and labelled as people who want to westernize the culture or are trying to ruin the society and plant seeds of moral destruction within it,” she said in an interview. “That makes it a very challenging situation for women especially to be engaged in any kind of advocacy work.”
Ilaf, 25, is co-founder and chief operating officer of AMNA, an organization that advocates for the elimination of violence against women in Sudan. Amna means “safe” in Arabic.
When a request was posted on a social media platform asking women to share stories of violence the response was significant. A backlash came from people alleging the stories were invented, but then an outpouring of young people asking how they could help inspired the creation of AMNA in 2017.
AMNA works at a grassroots youth level facilitating workshops and dialogue, as well as data gathering and content creation. They were unable to find data on violence against women and gender-based violence in Sudan when AMNA began and the few reports produced by the United Nations were not in Arabic. The reports they have produced so far are in English and Arabic. This inspired AMNA’s approach to increase online content and data on violence against women in Sudan, and to guide community interventions that are evidence-based.
Based in the Sudanese capital Khartoum, Ilaf works also at the Sudanese Organization for Research and Development as a Project Coordinator on the project Supporting Feminist Transformative Peace and Democracy in Sudan. She is also pursuing a master’s degree in Gender, Peace, and Development Studies at Ahfad University for Women.
On top of time management to avoid burnout, what are the challenges of your work?
What can be challenging sometimes is dealing with survivors of gender-based violence. Often, we have women reaching out to us seeking help. Unfortunately, in Sudan there are not a lot of service providers for victims, and we end up not being able to accommodate their needs. Or sometimes we try to seek legal action and then the governmental bodies that are concerned with these issues are not reacting and it’s just a very frustrating position to be in.
Another thing that deeply influences the work is the social stigma that comes with the kind of work that we do and the kind of ideals that we stand for. Because in Sudan being a feminist or being an activist for women’s rights comes with a lot of negative connotations.
Why don’t women have the freedom to assert their rights in Sudan?
The context behind that is the regime that ruled Sudan for 30 years was an Islamist radical regime. What they did is they made the Sudanese culture, which was already patriarchal, more misogynist and used religion to justify the control of women’s lives.
We’re constantly clashing with what we view as radical extremist explanations of religion and when we do that, we’re challenging something that society deeply believes to be of one truth and so there is no room for external interpretation, let alone if that interpretation is coming from a woman.
You would think that post-revolution with growing freedoms we would have the ability to advocate more openly. But even though people have more freedom to speak more frankly, you also have supporters of the previous regime from radical Islamists groups trying to gain back a place in society by appealing to the Sudanese conservative culture, and what better way to do that than use women as a moral scapegoat. By saying Sudanese women have been made immodest because of the revolution and the transition to democracy, they’re finding a way back into the society that has shunned them for supporting the fallen regime, and for asserting the revolution as negative political change.
What keeps you going?
I have a very strong conviction that we as women deserve to live a better life, and to guide a life that is truly our own. More importantly, we deserve to have agency over the choices that we make.
It’s very empowering to look around and see that through the work you did you were able to empower other women, you were able to challenge a specific idea that was deeply rooted in someone’s mind or within a specific community, that you were able to start conversations on the topic and you were able to communicate in a way that resonates with them.
Our advocacy as young women activists aims to make society better for everyone, not just for women. Women achieving their rights and living as completely equal to men is good for the entire society, and this is something we were able to constantly reflect on after the revolution because participation of women in the revolution was on a large scale. It was reported that the protests were 60-70 per cent women. That’s because the women of Sudan have had to endure so much indignity, so many violations from the previous regime, that it drove them out to the streets in overwhelming numbers. It’s clear that our participation has been an integral part of ending dictatorship and starting a transition towards democracy.
What drove you to activism?
As a student studying architecture, I was constantly engaged in activism in a variety of areas of social justice … poverty reduction, education, humanitarian aid, health services. Something that was obvious to me was that within all these different issues, women tend to suffer more than their male partners. It just stood out to me.
It was very important to me that the kind of work that I engage in has a social impact and I was not able to do that through the architecture industry in Sudan that is led by corporations.
What advice have you received that really influenced you?
Something that I frequently look back at is something that a younger colleague told me — to constantly learn, unlearn, and relearn. The kind of society that we were brought up in doesn’t just discriminate against us, but it also teaches us to discriminate against others. Being conscious that we have internalized prejudice and bigotry towards other people and towards other groups, also means we need to take the responsibility to unlearn these negative notions.
What advice do you have for other young women activists?
I would put an emphasis on how resilience and self-care is a very powerful tool for young women to gain access to their rights. When we allow ourselves to have some space and to breathe and to take care of ourselves, we’re doing the people we’re working with a favour. The patriarchy does not want us to take care of ourselves … we are going to be able to challenge it in a more efficient way. This is why our well-being as young feminists should be prioritized.
Ilaf Nasreldin and Manal Shqair are featured guests in the podcast series When Feminists Rule the Word - Season Three: Let's Talk About Power.
The Power of a Shared Dream.
Host Martha Chaves says “Wow!” frequently in episode five. That’s her reaction to the stirring answers from Manal Shqair and Ilaf Nasreldin when they are asked to imagine what a feminist utopian world would look like.
Manal is a Palestinian whose utopia is liberation from Israeli occupation. Ilaf is Sudanese and her utopia is freedom from the strict restraints on women that begin at home.
“I will go to work without bothering to wait at one of Israel's 593 military checkpoints and roadblocks, where I always wait sometimes for hours with Israeli soldiers staring at my body in a disturbing way and holding their guns with their fingers on them, ready to shoot me,” says Manal.
“For starters I will feel safe,” says Ilaf. She imagines waking up and deciding what to wear, where to go and what to do without fearing reprisals or harassment because she is a woman.
If there’s a common thread in the idea of a feminist utopia, perhaps it is dignity – something, as Ilaf says, that everyone deserves.
Between November 25 and December 10th Nobel Women’s Initiative will be showcasing the work of young feminist leaders and women human rights defenders from around the world during the 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence, sharing the torch of their experiences, insight, and advice. To read the profiles of the other activists featured in this year's campaign click here.
Ilaf Nasreldin LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/ilaf-nasreldin-44b359149/