By Nesrine Malik
24 Apr 2019
It was the image that finally drew the eyes of the world to Sudan’s revolution: a young woman, swaddled in white, standing on top of a car with her hand aloft and a finger raised in rebuke as she addressed protesters gathered around her. A sea of mobile phone cameras beneath her lights up the dusk. The Sudanese had been protesting against the now former president, Omar al-Bashir, for months, demanding the fall of his government, but with little global media attention. Until that image. It cut through. Within hours, the picture had been circulated at dizzying speed. Media outlets rushed to determine who the woman was. What did her outfit signify? Sudanese people on social media provided explanations. She was dressed in homage to a generation of Nubian warrior queens. Her white toab, a Sudanese cloth wrapped round the body and looped over the head, was a nod to the uniform of the Sudanese professional woman: the teacher, the civil servant. The actor Halle Berry posted a picture. The US congresswoman Ilhan Omar tweeted it. The New York Times’s fashion director wrote a feature on the girl wrapped in white. She became an icon of the protest movement and of womanhood on the frontline.
But, like all iconic images, this one simplified a complicated story. At times the details, history and spontaneous goodwill of a revolution need to be collapsed into one overarching narrative that people can understand. The Sudanese were finally standing up to a dictator; there was no space for nuance. Yet perhaps now that the woman in white and her fellow protesters have successfully deposed Bashir, there is time for reflection.
Sudan is a country that has been defined by its ethnic cleavages since independence in 1956. An Arab, Muslim and generally more affluent class has dominated politics and presided over civil wars and conflicts for decades. The Nubian culture, from which the now iconic image borrowed, is geographically limited to the north of the country, and to what later became an Arabised region. There is something tragically ironic about the fact that the defining image of the revolt against a regime whose leadership has been indicted for war crimes and accused of genocide and ethnic cleansing is associated with the very forces that protesters are striving to overthrow.
The white cloth, traditionally worn by professional women in Sudan, should remind us that this kind of woman is the exception, rather than the norm. Of course, revolutions, even ones that spontaneously rise from the grassroots, are often refracted through the lens of the more connected – the bourgeois, the educated and the photogenic. Even I, writing these words, am compromised by the class and ethnic privileges that have given me a voice to speak in western media about a country whose vast poverty, pain and bloodshed I have little direct experience of, other than as a witness.
Now is not the time to argue about these minutiae, some say. It’s just a picture – what’s the harm? But this is a rare and fleeting space between the fall of one regime and the establishment of the next. If we cannot air uncomfortable issues now that remind us that the problem was never really just the government, but the vast swaths of the Sudanese people who tolerated it at the expense of their countrymen, then when can we?
At the same time as this woman was being hailed as the personification of the Sudanese revolution, others involved in the protests were being harassed, fondled and sexually shamed. The woman in white is herself now at the sharp end of a nasty, misogynist harassment campaign from change-averse parts of Sudanese society.
And yet the image also lent itself to another simplified narrative: that women participating in the revolution were somehow an exceptional thing, framing their political activity as if they had just come out of Purdah. In fact, Sudanese women jostle with men in most walks of life in Sudan, in the streets, on public transport, in the fields, and indeed, in previous revolutions. They are visible in the public space while also suffering from all the ways that their visibility can be used against them, as the woman in white has experienced.
Revolutions are not, or should not be, just about political change; they are not simply about replacing a malign group of powerful interests with a benign one. They are about confronting why such malign interests prospered in the first place. It is encouraging that, though Bashir is gone, the protesters continue – determined to bring about civilian rule, no matter what concessions the transitional military government is offering.
We don’t get to choose our icons, but we can use them to learn something about how much class and ethnicity has been leveraged against the weak and disenfranchised in Sudan. The woman in white is a beautiful image – but I look forward to a time when, as an emblem of a diverse Sudanese people, it becomes a relic of the past.
Nesrine Malik is a Guardian columnist