“Even if it’s civilian it’s going to be patriarchy, it’s going to be sexism,” she says. “Even after a coup, nothing actually changes. It’s the same monster, like a dragon with several heads that are only picking on each other”
Age 24, Ounaysa has already lived through three coup attempts in Sudan, a hallmark, she says, of immature, unethical and immoral political practices.
In the latest coup, October 25, 2021, the army ousted the prime minister but reinstated him after a month of sustained street demonstrations calling for civilian rule. That did not stop the protests. A popular uprising in 2018-2019 had toppled Omar al-Bashir after 30 years of authoritarian rule.
Like some other feminist activists in Sudan, Ounaysa says women were at the forefront of the 2018-2019 uprising but were never given an equal voice in the post-dictatorship transition, implementation of the Juba peace agreement and other spheres of influence.
The women’s rights agenda was used by authorities only as “a political commodity” to win support within Sudan and from the international community but was never implemented.
“They never actually talk to us or give us the space to be heard,” she said in an interview.
Ounaysa is a full-time student and a journalist for the English section of Al Taghyeer, an online newspaper which has the first female editor in chief in Sudan, Rasha Awad.
She founded the NOON movement for feminists during the 2018-2019 uprising. She spearheaded a women’s protest, featuring a feminist manifesto, in Khartoum April 8, 2021, against domestic and gender-based violence.
What drove you into activism?
I owe the younger me a lot.
I think I was a feminist from age 13. I was always very rebellious. When I hit puberty, I was forced to wear a hijab when I didn’t want to. I would skip morning assembly at school. I would have unusual hair styles. In 2011 I shaved my head.
The book, The Creation of Patriarchy by Gerda Lerner, transformed my life. This is one of the books that inspired me to study politics and sociology. I also study anthropology.
I earned the title of an activist in 2016 because I was one of the people who organized the university protests opposing the system.
You were a born rebel. Has your family tolerated you?
I’m telling you they didn’t. It was a road that is full of punishments and deprivation. It was a tough road. But I’m content with whatever I am now. I don’t regret anything.
Who has inspired you?
I was always a fan of strong women (in the way that men would describe a strong women). I remember when I was a child, about four years old, I was very, very sick and this woman visited our house. She was a military officer in a high rank, the only woman at that rank. My father was also a military officer, high rank. I remember the guards standing outside my house and the officers in our house all stood and saluted her. She just casually walked among them; she simply broke a stereotype.
It's something I remember vividly to this day.
When I was a child, I thought she was venerable. Growing up with this memory, I had emotional ups and downs towards her, even despising her for working in the military. Now I don’t despise her. I know despite her socioeconomic privileges she’s been through a lot of misogyny and sexism to get where she got. She was able to do it.
Have you ever received advice that stays with you?
I remember a friend advised me to weaponize my privilege. I know I have access to a lot of things and a lot of basic rights that other people don’t have. I’ve also had the privilege of experiences that gave me an understanding of Islamist and leftist perceptions of women and human rights.
It gave me a deep consciousness that this fight is inevitable between the left and the right, not only in Sudan but around the world. There will always be people who think God is the saviour and there will forever be people who believe in secular rule.
What are the big changes you would like to see in your society?
I would want women’s voices to be at least as equal to men. I’m talking about the very minimum.
I would want civil society and women’s groups to be aware of our one and only enemy, the patriarchy.
I would want us to have ethical political practices at all levels. I know that more blood is going to be shed. As I am talking to you now there is a bloodbath in the West of the country and politicians are commodifying this because they just don’t have the necessary morals.
Would you identify a success story from your activism? What keeps you motivated?
Not to brag, but I’ve done good things for the feminist movement. Only yesterday I was looking at my direct messages on Twitter and someone I don’t know thanked me and prayed for me. She said you’ve been there for a dear friend when nobody was. I am grateful that I can impact someone’s life directly this way.
Even though I appear to be a very cold person I have a very kind heart and I have this tiny part of me that is selfless. Being selfish is human but this tiny part of me that is selfless is doing a good job.
What advice do you have for other young feminists?
You cannot copy the experience of others like #MeToo, suffragettes, civil rights, and Black Panthers in the 70s. These experiences had the right momentum, and the right momentum is created by contexts - political, social, and economic. An experience is like a fingerprint. You cannot just create it. You cannot just copy it.
Knowledge is power and we have a good inheritance from feminists all around the world whether it's in sociology, anthropology, economics, politics, or language science. We have a marvelous inheritance we can benefit from to work for our agenda all around the world.
Whoever said that knowledge is power is right. Knowledge is power. You don’t have to be right. You don’t have to be angry. You don’t have to yell and shout. You don’t have to be rebellious. Just be calm and assert yourself in a firm way. Just be you and your beliefs. Let your beliefs, your principles, move you, not anything else.
Ounaysa Arabi and Musu Diamond Kamara are featured guests in the podcast series When Feminists Rule the Word - Season Three: Let's Talk About Power.
Ounaysa Arabi was among the women on the front lines of the 2019 revolution in Sudan. But the post-conflict promise of gender justice was merely a slogan used by men in power to attract international funds, she says. "They just want the money and they just put it into their pockets."
No matter how difficult, Musu Diamond Kamara of Liberia urges other young women to "rise up in spite of the challenges, in spite of the abuses, the social sanctions, the harmful traditional gender norms."
Both women counsel that change takes time. Witnessing, in your own life, the change that you are working for would be awesome, says Ounaysa, but it's okay if you won't.
Martha found her guests so strong and determined that "I wouldn't like to be your enemy."
Click here to listen to their bold and inspiring voices.