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Sudan’s women’s leather revolution

by Alex Cizmic –

The first historic women’s championship in a league with 21 teams was awarded, marking the redemption of the Sudanese women: ‘This is how we are able to make our voice heard against injustice’.

On 3 June 2019, an offensive by the Sudanese Rapid Support Forces, a paramilitary group under the government, ripped through the skies of Khartoum. Gunfire rained down, dyeing the Nile red. At the point where the White and Blue tributaries of the great river of Egyptian civilisation converge, dozens of the 400 or so victims of the massacre floated lifeless. The sit-in that had been voicing the demands of the population from the centre of the Sudanese capital for a couple of months had been silenced. There were also dozens of rapes recorded that Tuesday and in the following days against men and women. That raid took on the appearance of the end. The end of the revolutionary drive and society’s struggles for a more democratic and inclusive Sudan. But the ancien régime and the most conservative section of society had not reckoned with the disruptive force of the movement, led mainly by women.

In September 2019, an agreement was reached with the army: a three-year transitional democratic government, two-thirds civilian and one-third military. A decisive role in the agreement was played by the Sudanese, the real driving force behind the revolution that broke out in December 2018 and put an end to Omar Al-Bashir’s regime. ‘I was raped, but I am not ashamed of it,’ shouted many on the streets of Khartoum in the days following the massacre. Sudanese women did not allow the government to once again use their bodies to silence them. They quickly united in a collective cry of grief, putting their anger at the service of the great battle for gender equality, and with a huge spirit of solidarity they got the protest movement moving again. And they have done so by also taking possession of those spaces historically considered the exclusive property of men. Above all, football, an area in which something had already been moving for some time.

‘By playing football we enter the world of men and assert our right to expression,’ says Merfat Hussein, president of the women’s football association, a branch of the Sudanese football federation. On 30 September, a few weeks after the formation of the new government, the first women’s football championship in the history of Sudan kicked off. On the pitch for the first match were Difâa and Al-Tahadi, the first Sudanese women’s football club founded in 2003.

From the name, one can see how those who founded the club were aware of the obstacles women would have to overcome in order to express their passion for the sport. Literally tahadi means ‘challenge’, a term that adequately describes today’s struggle of Sudanese women. First and foremost, the cultural challenge, which is destined to extend over time. While the youth is ready and open to change, it has not been and will not be easy to break through the wall of patriarchy of the older generations, which is intertwined with the most rigid and conservative interpretation of the Islamic religion and is fuelled by constant discrimination and demonstrations against women footballers.

Most recently last Sunday on the streets of Wad Medani in Gezira State, where a handful of Islamic militants chanted slogans such as ‘My sister should not play football’, followed by the most boorish insults against women who go against this precept. ‘To those who criticise us, we respond by continuing to play football and laying a solid foundation for the future,’ says Hussein, the first woman to join the federation’s board.

Secondly, the organisational challenge. Initially there were only two clubs willing to participate. There were no tournaments to draw from. In order to set up the league, therefore, a letter was sent to the 47 local federations that make up the Sudanese football mosaic informing them of the desire to set up the first women’s league and the need to create teams.

The capital Khartoum and the main cities in the south accepted the invitation and pandered to the wishes of the newly founded association, which now has 420 registered girls. The more closed and conservative deep north has not contributed, so much so that of the 21 teams participating in the first edition, none came from the northern regions. ‘In the north they are convinced that girls should not play football. We sent them videos and explanatory messages, including through some female footballers. We hope we can change the mentality,’ Hussein continues.

Once the newly founded teams had signed up and received the support of the new government in the person of Sports Minister Essam Al-Boushi, the championship could be held regularly. The economic contribution of the main sponsors, the national airline Tarco Aviation and Bank Al-Amal, and of private donors compensating for the federation’s mysterious failure to redistribute FIFA subsidies, was crucial.

Also noteworthy was the visibility offered by the – now freer – media, which gave extensive coverage to the tournament. On 21 December, the final was played between the two clubs that had cut the ribbon of the first edition a few months earlier. If on that 30 September a draw was contemplated – the match ended 0-0 – the final had to elect a winner: Difâa won 1-0 and took the first national title. The next day, the first list of players was announced for the national team, which was invited by the Tunisian federation to play two friendly matches in January. ‘Football is a school of life for us, it makes us more self-confident. It is time for women to change the mentality of this country and build a new Sudan,’ Merfat Hussein concludes.

The tear in the sky in Khartoum seems to have patched up. The blood red that stained the bed of the Nile in June 2019 has been given another hue. That of the passion of hundreds of women who love football and are determined to take their lives into their own hands.