On her daily walks from home to her job at a primary school in the city of Port Sudan, Khalda Saber would urge people to join the protests against the three-decade rule of Sudan’s autocratic President Omar al-Bashir.
At school, she rallied fellow teachers to join the pro-democracy uprising.
“I was telling them that there is nothing to lose, compared with what we have already lost. I was telling them that we have to take to the streets, demonstrate and express our rejection to what’s happening,” she said.
One January morning, two months after the protests erupted, plainclothes security forces snatched Saber off a bus and took her to the feared security and intelligence agency’s local office.
There, she was detained in a newly built wing in a prison in the capital, Khartoum, alongside other protesters. She said security forces beat her and the other new arrivals for several hours.
Saber spent 40 days in detention. She was among many thousands of Sudanese women who risked their lives leading protests that eventually pushed the military to overthrow al-Bashir in April.
Several turbulent months followed as the protesters feared the military would cling to power, before a power-sharing deal in July. An interim, civilian-led government was sworn in last month.
Amid high hopes for a new era, many Sudanese women like Saber are looking for greater freedoms and equality. They seek to overturn many of the restrictive laws based on Islamic jurisprudence, or Sharia, that activists say stifle women’s rights.
“For sure the whole Sudanese people have an interest in this revolution, but we, the women, had a bigger interest and motivation to make it happen,” Saber said.
Al-Bashir came to power in an Islamist-backed military coup in 1989, adopting a harsh interpretation of Islamic law that diminished the ability of women to participate meaningfully in public life, Human Rights Watch said in a 2015 report.
Public order laws imposed an Islamic dress code on women and restricted their ability to move freely or, if unmarried, with male colleagues, said Jehanne Henry, an associate Africa director at the New York-based rights group. Violators faced lashing in public and hefty fines.
But the end of al-Bashir’s rule would lead Saber, who worked with a local NGO on women’s rights issues for years, to flee the country. She spoke to The Associated Press from her home in self-imposed exile in the Egyptian capital, Cairo.
Along with her husband and two daughters, Saber escaped Sudan just two days after al-Bashir’s ouster on April 11.
She says the family was threatened, mainly by the Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group which grew out of the notorious Janjaweed militias that al-Bashir used in the conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region.
Saber had documented the RSF’s rights violations, especially against women, through testimonies before and during the uprising.
“There were threats that they would attack my daughters,” she said.
Following her release in March, she had immediately joined demonstrations at the main sit-in outside the military’s headquarters in Khartoum. “At this time, the threats were increased. I found no way but to leave (the country),” she said.
Saber’s story reflects a wave of violence against women during the protests. A Sudanese rights group, Sudanese Women Action, said in a report released earlier this month that women protesters faced an “unprecedented amount of violence and human rights violations” that amounted to “serious atrocities.” Twelve women and a 7-year-old girl were killed in the protests, it said.
The group said it documented at least 26 cases of rape as security forces broke up the protest camp outside the military headquarters in early June. Dozens more rape cases weren’t reported or documented “due to fears of reprisals or stigma,” the group alleged.
During the uprising, Saber said countless women in both rural and urban areas participated in the demonstrations.
“It was not strange to see so many women at the front in the marches,” she said. “This is because of growing awareness of women’s rights. Women in time realized they have to stick to their demands.”
After five months in Cairo, Saber remains wary. “Fear and dread still exist. It is too early to go back to Sudan,” she said.
Sudan’s democratic transition remains fragile. But the appointment of several women to the interim government — including Sudan’s first female foreign minister, and two women in an 11-member sovereign council — has raised hopes that the role women played in the uprising will lead to change.
Henry, the HRW associate director, said the new government is committed to several legal reforms, including changes needed to achieve gender equality. Family and inheritance laws “clearly discriminate against women, limiting their ability to inherit property equally,” she said.
Wifaq Gurashi, a women’s rights activist in Khartoum, said the government should prioritize annulling all laws that restrict women’s movement and freedoms, and implement policies that offer broader opportunities for women.
“With a little determination, we will be represented fairly,” said Gurashi, who was herself briefly detained during the uprising in February.
But, she said, women face formidable obstacles.
“It’s a long way (to go), especially to get rid of the traditional way of thinking in this masculine and authoritarian society,” Gurashi said.