The image is striking: a young woman, alone, standing above the crowd, urging them on with songs of revolution.
Taken on Monday night in the centre of Khartoum, as tens of thousands thronged the roads in front of the heavily guarded complex housing the headquarters of the military and the feared intelligence services, the picture of the woman in white with gold circular earrings has become an icon of a protest.
Lana Haroun told CNN she had taken the picture.
“She was trying to give everyone hope and positive energy and she did it,” she said. “She was representing all Sudanese women and girls and she inspired every woman and girl at the sit-in. She was telling the story of Sudanese women … she was perfect.”
She added: “We have a voice. We can say what we want. We need a better life and to stay in a better place.” She said when she saw the photo on her phone, “I immediately thought: this is my revolution and we are the future.”
That the woman in white has become such a symbol in a country that has long known systematic repression of women by the state has surprised some observers.
But women have played a central role in the demonstrations in Sudan in recent months, with men often in a minority among the crowds calling for president Omar al-Bashir to step down.
Many well-known women activists have been detained since the first wave of protests at the end of last year.
A Human Rights Watch report described how national security services targeted women activists during crackdowns. The “public order police” arrest women and girls for their choice of dress – such as wearing trousers or exposing their hair – or for merely riding in a car with members of the opposite sex. Corporal punishments such as flogging and stoning for “morality crimes” – including adultery – have been used disproportionately on women and girls, the group said.
There is a long tradition of women leading from the front during waves of unrest in Sudan. One observer in Sudan said the unidentified young woman whose image went viral was wearing “the clothing worn by our mothers and grandmothers in the 60s, 70s, and 80s … while they marched the streets demonstrating against previous military dictatorships”.
Sudan adopted sharia law in 1983, but has only ever implemented it haphazardly.
Under Bashir, who came to power with the help of Islamists in 1989, some rules have been tightened. According to Sudanese non-governmental groups, some 15,000 women were sentenced to flogging in 2016.
The protests began in December when the government tripled the price of bread and quickly spread.
Jehanne Henry, who works on Sudan for the international NGO Human Rights Watch, said women had played a significant role historically in political activism in the country, adding that it was difficult to tell if they were more prominent in the current protests than in previous unrest.
“For many women this regime is synonymous with all types of repression … It is not surprising that they are seeing this as an opportunity to change things that matters to them,” she said.
One difference with previous unrest is the role of social media in organising and disseminating images of the protests. This has often highlighted the role of women, who have been beaten, teargassed and attacked. So too has the work of illustrator Alaa Satir, who has portrayed groups of women protestors under the slogan “we are the revolution”.
Nemat Malik, an 80-year-old nurse and a university professor in Khartoum, said she was pleased to see so many women – particularly students – taking part.
“This regime is a lot of harassment and oppression for women especially. Women have suffered a lot. They look at how you dress and they can give you lashes. That’s why we should be very much interested in overthrowing this regime,” she said.
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