Beyond the headlines: Freedom of religion or belief and women’s rights in Sudan

The political shifts in Sudan from the authoritarian rule of Omar al Bashir to the transitional government (a mix of civilians and the military), has garnered many positive headlines. The welcome changes and relief that there is a reservoir of political will to address the root causes of the country’s conflicts have indeed been positive.

In particular, the pledges of reform, the recent announcement that the government will accede to the Convention for the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), the changing of some public order laws that infringed on the rights of women, especially women from marginalized communities, as well as the removal of apostasy have been warmly received.

However, beneath the headlines are simmering social hostilities which have already generated a series of violations that have not been sufficiently investigated or addressed. These violations threaten to undermine the positive steps taken so far, and both the transitional government and supporters of this new political arrangement in the international community need to note and address them.

Churches attacked

The Sudanese government and the international community cannot rest on their laurels when it comes to the wider situation of human rights in Sudan. The positive steps that have been taken at a high level are yet to permeate through to tangible and lasting change on the ground. In fact, the changes the Sudanese people are wanting will take a generation of sustained support and effort.

There are elements already at work to disrupt the progress that has been made thus far. Even as the transitional government has worked to ensure that aspects of the law that were most obstructive to the full enjoyment of freedom of religion or belief (FoRB) and that were of concern to key international observers such as the United States were addressed, violent attacks on places of worship by unknown individuals have spiked simultaneously.

In December 2019 and January 2020 churches in Blue Nile state were attacked. In Omdurman, one church was razed to the ground on four occasions.  A church in Gezira state was burned in January, and death threats sent to church leaders. In some of these communities, the perpetrators are known and are yet to face justice.

However, it appears that the change from an executive hostile to FoRB and violations perpetrated by the infamous National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS), to a transitional government and cabinet that support human rights, including FoRB, may have distracted international attention from this worrying trend.

Women’s voices silenced

The rise in social hostility is not only visible in relation to FoRB. Women’s rights activists have long raised concerns about gender representation in the transitional government. The presence of women and youth in the peaceful protests that led to the toppling of al Bashir has not resulted in parity of representation.

In May Aisha Musa Sayeed stepped down from her position in the Sovereignty Council, accusing the military elements in the administration of making unilateral decisions and side-lining civilians. Her resignation followed the Sovereignty Council’s decision to remove Chief Justice Neimat Abdallah Mohammed Khair, the first woman to hold that position, without explanation. In addition to the side-lining of civilians and women in the most senior positions in the government, there have also been incidents of women being harassed in public spaces in a manner similar to the defunct religious police, which have resulted in protests by women’s groups.

Most alarming, however, is the fact that in the days after the transitional government announced its intention to accede to CEDAW, albeit with reservations, videos began to surface of violent gang rapes of women. Such traumatizing incidents generally occur in conflict areas.  However, the recording and sharing of these attacks is a new and disturbing escalation.

Many activists interpret this escalation as a reprisal for the advances women appear to be making. For women, it constitutes a direct effort to silence their voices and to stop them from agitating for their rights.

A sounding alarm

Two important areas which remain outstanding in terms of political reform are the establishment of a national assembly and the creation of a constitutional court.

A national assembly is vital for good governance and to hold the executive accountable to the populace. At present there are only a handful of actors involved in the drafting and passing of laws between the transitional government and the Sovereignty Council. The absence of other political voices gives the impression that the progressive steps that are being initiated are accepted across the board.

The government reshuffle in early 2021 to include political elements of armed groups that have signed the Juba peace agreement has brought a broader range of voices into the executive. This has also brought to light challenges for the advancement of human rights for all Sudanese people. For example, the Minister of Finance, Gibril Ibrahim recently made a statement urging religious leaders to ensure that Muslim Personal Status Act is not removed. The Act contains some of the most repressive laws affecting women and for which the Ministry of Justice appointed a committee to reform, but it remains in effect. Additionally, during an official visit to Saudi Arabia the Minister of Guidance and Religious Endowments called for the halting of the spread of Shiism in Sudan and the region.

While the current manner of passing laws may prevent them from being bogged down in stalled parliamentary debate, it also means they lack the popular mandate of a democratically constituted legislative body, highlighting that progress is being made at a speed that is not matched by practical changes on the ground, including changes in societal attitudes and perceptions. Similarly, in the absence of a constitutional court, the ambitious programme of legal reforms is not benefiting from vital judicial oversight or interpretation.

The social hostilities that continue to bubble to the surface are sounding an alarm that appears to be obscured by the enormity of the task facing the transitional administration, including multiple peace agreements, economic reforms, and security challenges.

These subtle but significant societal shifts should serve as a clarion call to all those in the human rights community to assess the extent to which seemingly positive changes are effective on the ground. It would be a travesty, and a betrayal of the sacrifices and aspirations of the Sudanese people, if at the end of the transition period the laws and constitution that govern the country protect the rights of minorities and marginalized communities in theory while the practices of government and political and state affiliated actors across the country continue to violate these rights. Sustainable change will only be achieved by recognizing these hostilities, and working to address them through civic education, training, dialogue, and debate undertaken in tandem with political and legal reform.

By CSW’s Sudan Advocacy Officer