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The audacity to reclaim our Sudanese-ness

Source: http://www.un.org/africarenewal/magazine/july-2007/taking-violence-against-women-africa

“She can’t be Sudanese! If she were truly Sudanese she would not have had the audacity to speak out in public and in such details!” reads one of the comments under a YouTube video in which Safia Ishaq, a peace activist, speaks of her rape. Reading this comment and others, I am overcome with immense frustration and anger. I keep asking myself so many questions. Why can she not be Sudanese? What is it about being Sudanese that makes us want to suffer in silence? How are we different from anyone else? Why can’t sexual assault perpetrated against Sudanese women seen as what it truly is: a crime?

As I seek answers to these questions, I keep coming back to this video. Regardless of the gender of the commenters, the violation and disrespect of Safia reflects a pattern of cultural norms that disregards rape as a serious issue. When Safia was raped two years ago, the incident became the driving force behind my work in helping survivors. As a Sudanese woman, I am affected by the same circumstances and ideologies that resulted in Safia’s rape, and its subsequent justification. As a result, I seek to define perceptions of my own reality, womanhood, identity and “Sudanese-ness.”

Sudanese society takes tremendous pride in cultural values. An example of such values is the social solidarity and support that we give even to strangers. However, it puzzles me how such support and solidarity turn into social exclusion and alienation when it comes to survivors of rape. As I begin to think about why this is the case, one term comes to mind: cultural chauvinism, or the view of one’s cultural superiority.

With the positive values inherent in my own culture comes a pride so extreme that it becomes impossible to acknowledge negative social aspects. From this chauvinistic view of our culture, a view of the virtuous woman emerges, making Sudanese women the sacrificial lambs of cultural pride and arrogance. With this extreme pride comes a dangerous denial of rape, a denial that maintains the shame and stigma survivors continue to experience, making Sudanese society blind to the needs of survivors of rape.

It is important to note that when it comes to sexual crimes—rape in particular—there is an alarming absence of statistics. Sundus Alarabi, a gender specialist with the Sudanese nonprofit organization Social And Human Development Consultative Group (SAHDCG), spoke to me about the apparent lack of reports and statistics regarding rape in Sudan. When I spoke with Sundus about the seemingly absent reports on rape, it became apparent that such an absence of much-needed statistics is a causality of the outlook toward rape that alienates survivors and pushes them to the brink of uncounseled silence.

Sundus says it is hard for people to speak about rape. “This is very important especially for survivors of rape in conflict zones, where there are many incidents that are glossed over and not talked about” she said. “It is very important to make people aware of it.” As Sundus describes, it is difficult to find statistics for rape for several reasons: topic sensitivity, socio-cultural structure, views on rape, lack of people’s responsiveness to the issue and a lack of proper legal systems, all of which create constraints in finding proper statistics and survivor outreach.

One of the things that results from cultural denial, and consequently, negligence toward rape, is how it can be used to oppress women under the rule of the National Congress Party in Sudan. Women in Sudan are socially and culturally molded through oppressive laws to fit the bill of the government’s Civilizational Project agenda. This project is a failed one; while it was created to lead the Sudanese people into what the government perceives as a virtuous society, it spawned a series of contradictions that can no longer be ignored in Sudanese society. Amidst such contradictions, women are constantly fighting for their identity and self-determination between the hammer of culture and anvil of the government.

For instance, while female genital mutilation (FGM) is considered a form of violence against women around the world, it is still not perceived as such in many parts of Sudan because it is in line with the “virtuosity bill” that the National Congress Party seeks to prove. As a result, many government-sympathizing Sudanese religious scholars came out in opposition to campaigns that seek to end this harmful practice, demonstrating the unholy union between ideology, and oppression.

On the other hand, if you look closely at the rape which is systematically perpetrated against women in war torn areas, as well as against activists—as is seen in Safia’s case—you can see that survivors of rape “fall from grace” are labeled as “whores” by society, and stripped of their “Sudanese-ness.” Women are made to carry the weight of proving cultural worth and integrity through their bodies, yet they are punished when the political systems—enabled by cultural norms—perpetrate sexual violence against them.

And while the government seeks to create its own version of “saints” and “sinners”, the failure of the Civilizational Project is further exemplified through laws and legal systems each day, as they fail to bring justice to survivors. It is also putting Sudanese women in the cross fires between culture and politics, where the political is allowed to be propagated at the expense of the personal.

Unlike sexual assault, the statistics of female genital mutilation are readily available, and the public is more responsive to it. According to Sundus, this is because female genital mutilation is seen as intrinsic to the culture, and in some cases religion. Thus, it is easy to gather more information about it. In other words, female genital mutilation is seen as a culturally appropriate form of violence, as opposed to sexual assault. This is indeed a paradox, which deeply affects Sudanese women. The biased treatment of sexual assault stands as a testimony not only to the failure of the Civilizational Project, but a grave failure in Sudan’s ability to see them both as forms of violence against women.

Cultural chauvinism relates to the misguided perception of such forms of violence , where the dichotomy of “virgin/whore” dominates in the cultural background. It is interesting to note that cultural chauvinism relates to the Civilizational Project instigated by the Sudanese government, as it fits perfectly in their toolbox of tactics in swaying the Sudanese public into favoring their stay in power, thus substantiating their rule and justifying it through women.Cultural chauvinism is the perfect accessory for the government to prolong its rule by justifying it through striking the chords of patriarchy, and the oppression of women. Thus the Civilizational Project and cultural chauvinism are part in parcel with each other: a combination that works to the detriment of survivors of sexual assaults, and the women who are deeply affected by the lack of proper response to violence perpetrated against them.

Safia’s so-called audacity is one of inspiring courage. Like me, she dreamed of a better homeland for her people. Unfortunately she paid a price she had not imagined she would pay. Safia could have been a sister, or a friend and even me. Through her courage she became an inspiration for me to work on the issue of changing the cultural mindset that alienates survivors of sexual assault. While it is easier said than done, regime change will bring an end to a political structure, however, it will not change the deeply rooted cultural mindset through which the regime operates and feeds.
Thus, regime change can only come when the misguided mindset on which it leans is removed so that it no longer finds a nest for its oppressive ideology. I see a glimpse of hope: advocacy and raising awareness, both of which are needed to exact positive change in the face of culture and politics that intersect to isolate survivors. Rape needs to be seen as what it truly is: a heinous crime, not a deserved punishment or corrective act.

While punishment of perpetrators is far from reach because of the impunity they enjoy through the political and cultural climate, I can still offer a voice that echoes with the demands for change, for an end to using our bodies and spirits as vehicles for political agendas and proof of cultural worth. As Sundus stated, we have not reached the level where rape can openly be discussed, and where women are aware of their right to seek comfort and justice.
Therefore, the lack of awareness and knowledge about this issue needs to be the new battleground for equality and justice for women. Through advocacy for survivors, rape will be confronted and brought out from the darkness in which it lurks to shine a brighter light for women in Sudan.

While the road towards punishing the perpetrators is far ahead due to lacking laws, raising our voice about this issue will lead us in the right direction to provide comfort and support for survivors of sexual assault, and with that we have won half the battle. The other half will be won when positive change occurs at the social and political levels. With this we will claim our bodies, our identities and the audacity to decide what makes us Sudanese women.

This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.

Comments

This is a wonderful article! Well-stated, great form and flow, ending with a positive direction. You have covered all aspects of this topic from testimony, law, opinion, facts, and giving a powerful conclusion. I raise my voice with yours. If there are any steps we can take together to facilitate change at the political level, please let us know. You could start a campaign even!

I hope that others who read this know they CAN claim their bodies as their own, can join efforts with you, and rise as proud, Sudanese women of power!

Thank you for all your work to research and write this amazing entry. Keep on keeping on!

Let us Hope together-
Michelle
aka: Cali gal

Listener
Sister-Mentor
@CaliGalMichelle
facebook.com/caligalmichelle

anab87j9's picture

Thank you Cali gal! I am

Thank you Cali gal! I am happy that you liked it. It was difficult to put together and weave and thread the themes but I am glad it conveyed what I wanted to say.

XOXO

Anab

joy Spencer's picture

WOW!

This a powerful article. There is so much in here that I want to talk about and I think I'm going to have to read it again. Thank you for talking about such an important topic--rape and the horrible culture of silence that all societies build up around it to shame the survivors instead of the perpetrators.

anab87j9's picture

Hello Joy! I was fighting a

Hello Joy! I was fighting a myriad of feelings as I was writing this. It is overwhelming how culture and politics affect women throughout the world. Then you add ideologies and dogma, and you have a big disaster. I am happy to talk to you about anything, and feel free to ask me anything!

Much love,

Anab

Precious M's picture

Salient points!

Your article has made a lot of revelations.
It is heartbreaking to not that while other societies are seeking to eliminate FGM, some parts of Sudan are seeking to approve it.
Great article!

Precious

My pen speaks

anab87j9's picture

Yes. People are still using

Yes. People are still using to oppress women, and when religious scholars come out in support it is awful! Culture lends an ear to politics and this is not a good sign. It means that women will be in peril. And we are in Sudan.

Thank you for reading.

Much love,

Anab

Great piece Anab.
Changing cultural habits, and mindsets will definitely take time in the process many people will be sacrificed without them getting justice.
However, as you have said we need to take steps now, no matter how small, to make a difference down the line.
Raising a persistence voice against atrocities will definitely make a difference.

Salaam
Aminah

anab87j9's picture

Thank you dearest

Thank you dearest Aminah,

Inshallah things will change to the better. ;-)

Love,

Anab

Y's picture

We turn away in horror from

We turn away in horror from that which we most fear. Safia is very brave to put her face on one of the Sudanese female's greatest fears.

Too many women continue to believe that men must be prone to violence in order to protect society. Rape is an act of aggression to dis-empower the mothers of the conquered nations and other women. Women must continue to educate and empower women who, in turn, educate their husbands sons. This is the only hope I see on the horizon.

Rape is not only an act of violence against women, but also against the potential children produced through these acts. Perhaps if we can re-frame sexual violence against women as violence against the unwanted children and provide conception control freely in war-torn areas, we would get more ears hearing the message. In cases of impregnation, providing DNA testing a prosecution of non-supportive fathers may change things, including women's willingness to report the rapes in a timely manner. Also, I believe that DNA can be matched in some STD infections. Prosecuting the rapist in civil court to supply support for medical damages may also make for significant changes.

Clearly, your article has provoked much thought in me, Anab.

Blessing to you.
Yvette

Y

anab87j9's picture

Hello Yvette, Yes! You

Hello Yvette,

Yes! You captured the essence of my piece! The problem is that prosecuting the rapist is so hard because of victim blaming which gives them freedom. This is in addition to the poorly written laws that do no differentiate between adultery and rape. They just assume that rape is a deserved punishment for dress, going out, etc. Too much heartache!!
I am glad that I am here and I will not stop speaking out about it. I feel empowered by all of you, and for that I am thankful!

Anab

Zoepiliafas's picture

Powerful piece!!

Your final paragraph got me charged! Tremendous job finishing strong.

You write "Cultural chauvinism relates to the misguided perception of such forms of violence , where the dichotomy of “virgin/whore” dominates in the cultural background." - I am so impressed with HOW MUCH this one sentence says!

You write "Therefore, the lack of awareness and knowledge about this issue needs to be the new battleground for equality and justice for women. Through advocacy for survivors, rape will be confronted and brought out from the darkness in which it lurks to shine a brighter light for women in Sudan." I appreciate you acknowledging the tiered steps to changing this and calling out this as one of the 1st.

How do you think this might happen? Who in Sudan needs to listen? Who outside of Sudan?

Thank you for your beautifully written piece on such an urgent topic.

Regards,

Zoe

Zoe Piliafas

Voices of Our Future Community Manager
World Pulse

anab87j9's picture

Thank you so much Zoe! I

Thank you so much Zoe!
I think that if we start by socially reconstructing Sudanese society through outreach, education, and awareness campaigns, people will come to realize the gravity of the situation we are in: a society that alienates women is an incomplete one and will not move forward. Women deserve to be respected and honored for what they did, and continue to do. They are the mothers, sisters, and aunts.
While there are several organizations like the center I have mentioned, and others that work on this issue, they continue to suffer the harassment from the government. Yesterday for instance, a seminar about "Patterns of VAWS" was not allowed to proceed and was prevented from happening by the National Intelligence and Security Services. This seminar was an event arranged by "Men Against VAW" and sponsored by AlShorooq Cultural Forum. I want people to know that women are in peril, and I want all Civil Society Organizations to know what we are up against, so we can work together to pressure the government to allow such activities to take place.

Maura Bogue's picture

Powerful

The way you use the video and Safia to shed light on a bigger issue is powerful and efficient. Starting with that dramatic quote grabs me as a reader. Try using more quotes like this throughout the article to make the piece more vivid.

anab87j9's picture

Thank you Maura! I will

Thank you Maura! I will definitely keep this in mind for my future writings!

Much love,

Anab

Hello Anab,

It is lovely to meet you. I was taken by your article. Two point really resonate with me.

"As a Sudanese woman, I am affected by the same circumstances and ideologies that resulted in Safia’s rape, and its subsequent justification. As a result, I seek to define perceptions of my own reality, womanhood, identity and “Sudanese-ness.”

I believe that your choice to "define your perceptions of your own reality" shows the seeds of your connection to who YOU are. The more focus you put on these seed, the greater they will grow and define the woman that you want to be! I have a program that you might find helpful on my website, Define Your Spirit.com If you're interested, you can start with the DEFINE YOUR SPIRIT CHALLENGE at http://defineyourspirit.com/challenge-one/.

This is the first step where we connect with our inner spirit and uncover our personal values. Not the values of our family, culture or government.

I have been suppressed and pressured in my life, and I know how it feels to loose a part of yourself. You are a leader for me and every woman in our global community here on World Pulse. We have to get rooted in our true nature and stand up for what we believe.

With love, Amanda
http://defineyourspirit.com/my-business

Christine.Dahl's picture

beautifully written!

This powerful essay presents a compelling analysis of the challenge faced by women and girls in Sudan. It was eye-opening to read about the disparate treatment of rape compared to genital mutilation. I am glad you have been inspired to raise your voice in support of Sudanese women. If even one of us is enslaved by hatred, then none of us is free.

Please keep writing these powerful essays! Sending you big doses of courage!

Christine

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