The Woyingi Blog

Safia Ishag and Sudan’s Girifna Movement

One of my Facebook friends invited me to a demonstration on March 8th on Parliament Hill. It was to protest the assault and rape of 25-year-old Sudanese artist Safia Ishag (On a side note, Sudan has a great tradition of painting having produced such artists as Ibrahim el Salahi and Ottawa’s own Hamid Ayoub). Allegedly, Safia was raped and beaten because she was seen attending rallies and handing out leaflets criticizing the Sudanese government. I was shocked by this story and by the video of Safia Ishag describing her abduction and rape at the hands of men who accused her of being a communist. I ended up attending the demonstration which was organized by Sudanese political exiles in Ottawa. In the early 90s, this community became the focus of international media attention when one of their members, an exiled Sufi Karate Champion Hashim Mohamed, attacked Hassan al Turabi at the Ottawa airport. That’s the interesting thing about Ottawa where 1 in 4 immigrants is a refugee…you can find political exiles from almost every country.

While trying to collect information about Safia Ishag I came upon the blog The Beauty of Islam by a Sudanese American International Relations and Gender Studies Major named Riham. Riham wrote the following post about Safia on February 24th 2011:

As a human being, let alone a Sudanese woman, I am speechless after hearing Safia Ishag’s rape story. She is tremendously brave for coming out and publicly telling her story of what happened to her on that horrible day when she was raped and tortured by three Sudanese government personnel in Khartoum. Having been raised in America on the concept of freedom of speech, I can hardly imagine someone being punished for participating in a peaceful protest. I’m disgusted by the Sudanese government! They have killed, raped, and tortured far too many people and have gotten away with it. Spread her story, so that people everywhere are aware of what is going on within Hassan Al Bashir’s regime. InshAllah, through awareness we can all participate in ending this corrupt regime and putting to justice those that were involved in this inhuman crime.

I share Riham’s sentiments. The following is a translated transcript of the video Safia Ishag has made about her attack. The video of Safia’s testimonial, uploaded on February 23rd 2011, is available with subtitles in English on Youtube. Please be advised that the content may be disturbing for some readers.

I am Safia Ishag Mohamed. I am 25 years old. I graduated from the Fine Arts College of the University of Sudan. I graduated from the painting department last October, 2010. I had my bachelor degree exhibit and it was about the role of women. All the paintings were about women and their role in society. I have a mission through my art to show that other than the spoken word you can spread your message through painting and it can be a powerful message. I participated in the Youth Forum for Social Peace and we showed how to reject ethnic discrimination. I participated in the rallies of January 30 and I was a member of Girifna.

After the rallies of Jan 30 I felt that I was being watched and I even told my friends that there are people watching me. On Sunday 13 February I left the University to get some things from the bookstore on Hurriya Street. I went out to get some papers and paints. When I bought them and came back two men found me and told me: you girl wait! I tried to run away from them but they caught me. I tried to scream so they covered my mouth so I can’t scream. They put me in a small white car. They were hitting me inside the car. Until I started paying attention, in the car I wasn’t paying attention to the road but I noticed we got on the Bahri Bridge. They took me next to Shandi’s station, to a building where the car when inside. After that I came down from the car and they were still hitting me. Two people came from inside a room. They started hitting me too. Two holding me and two hitting me. I went into the room. They threw me on the ground. They were hitting me while asking me if I was a communist and what is your relationship with Girifna. They told me: we saw you handing out flyers and you are one of the participants of the rallies of Jan 30. They were verbally insulting me with bad insults. I feel too embarrassed to speak those insults. The beating continued for a long time. After that one of them…I wear my hair short…with the beating my headscarf fell from my head…so one of them told me: your hair is cut short, this is the style of the communist girls and you are not a decent girl. He asked me: have you ever had sex before. I told him no. He said: you are a liar. I want to see if you had or had not. I tried to resist as he wanted to remove my skirt. I resisted him removing my skirt. I tried to resist so he hit me and I passed out. When I awoke I found two holding my legs and a third penetrating me. I was in a lot of pain. They were 3 taking turns on me. They tied my hands with my headscarf. They removed my skirt and underwear. And they were taking turns. They would leave me for a little bit then they would hold me again and repeat the process. Three of them were involved. During this process they were hitting me. After that they told me to leave: but if we found you again the issue would escalate. They had hit me on my leg and I was not able to walk on it. I left with difficulty, I was scared. Fear made me walk a long distance. Until I found transportation and went to Souq al Arabi. I wasn’t paying attention where I was going as I was scared they would find me and repeat what I went through. I went back home. I was scared. I was very scared. I got on public transportation and got home. My mother asked me why are you late. It was 11pm. So I told her we had an exhibit, I couldn’t tell her what happened.

My leg is still suffering from the beating and I cannot walk well. I was not strong enough to say what happened to me but there were people around me. They took away some of the pain I went through. That is why I wanted to be an inspiration to other girls so they could speak out of their experience with courage. So they can out these people. These are not people. So we can out these beasts. Because seriously this is not humane. I want to send a message to any girl that got tortured. I want to tell her to be strong, to stand for the struggle. To change the situation we have to sacrifice. Things are not easy but people need to be patient. And with my art I am going to send a message. I will paint and have exhibitions about the issues important to women. I thank all the people who stood next to me and I will be strong so that things become better. I went on the rallies and handed out flyers and worked because I know that there are women being raped in Darfur and in Khartoum. They don’t have the courage to come out because this is a difficult subject for families. So I want to be courageous and show them that…that change will happen. That the situation will not continue like this.

The use of rape as a weapon of political violence is all too common around the world. The perpetrators hope that the shame of being raped will silence the activists and send a message to fellow activists that “You could be next.” What the perpetrators don’t expect is for these women to come forward with their story of rape and use it as their own political weapon. This is what Safia Ishag has done with her story; instead of taking the shame on to herself, she is putting it where it belongs, on her attackers and their supporters both in Sudan and internationally (This story has been covered both in Sudan and the Middle East). I am always inspired by the bravery of women activists in the so-called “developing” world. We have so much to learn from their strength, perseverance and ingenuity. Particularly when it comes to resisting sexual violence as a weapon of political oppression. Safia’s defiance by publicly telling her story reminds me of the “naked protests” by mothers in the state of Manipur, India in retaliation for the alleged rape and murder of an alleged member of a rebel group by the Indian Army. By protesting naked, these women were saying “You can’t use sexual violence to shame us. We have no shame!” This is very powerful.

At this point, let me explain just what Girifna is, as far as I can tell. Girifna can best be described as a pro-democracy movement, led mostly by students and based in Khartoum. Girifna means “We are Fed Up” in Arabic. They started being active leading up to the Sudanese election in April 2010 (The first multi-party election since 1986). Although Sudan has a long history of political oppression that even pre-dates Bashir’s time, they also have a long history of resistance; 25 years ago they got rid of a dictator by peaceful mass uprisings (much like what we have seen recently in Tunisia and Egypt). In a 2010 interview with a Girifna activist Amjed Farid, Enough Project member Maggie Fick describes this history:

In early 1985, popular discontent with President Jaafar Nimeiri’s regime led to a coup by a group of military officers. However, Farid argued that this significant political and military change was precipitated by civil society, “not by political parties.” After the medical doctor’s union in Khartoum began a strike, their efforts were multiplied by demonstrations by university students in Khartoum and then by a public strike by some of the powerful trade unions. After people gathered in the streets, the army came to support this effort and to remove President Nimeiri from power and install a civilian government to hold elections; this sequence of events, which occurred in March and April 1985, came to be known as “the Popular Uprisings.” Farid seemed to cite this example to illustrate that when citizens get fed up and have had enough of their government, it is often the students and the young activists who build momentum at the grassroots to take action and generate change.

Girifna members started organizing with a focus on voter education in order to ensure that people got registered to vote and knew their rights. They set up a Facebook Group, a Website, a Youtube Channel and an online radio station. Text messaging and Skype help them coordinate their activities across the country. Then they moved on to election monitoring. They don’t support any one opposition party but they are vocally against the country’s ruling party. The group is supported internationally by Sudanese activists and exiles living abroad who offer financial support and technical expertise. Many of these groups key organizers are women.

Right now is a critical point in Sudan’s history as Southern Sudanese have voted to secede this past January. Then the Egyptian protests inspired young Sudanese, led by Girifna, to rally against their dictatorship (Sudan’s Bashir and Egypt’s Mubarak, although both dictators, famously loathed one another). The regime is feeling more threatened than ever before so it is no surprise that it is cracking down on organized resistance. According to Amnesty International’s Sudan researcher, there have been several rapes and reports of torture while in detention (Hassan al Turabi as well as his daughter are among those who have been detained).

It is important that we become better informed about our own governments’ involvement with Sudan and the activism of the Sudanese people so that we can support this resistance to political oppression.

I pray for Safia Ishag and the activists in Sudan.

As I left the protest for Safia on Parliament Hill, one of the older male protesters began shouting “We are all Safia Ishag”.

To give readers a glimpse of the spirit and dynamism of Sudan’s people, I am including a link to the amazing song and video B Sotak (With Your Vote) aimed at getting the April 2010 vote out. Produced by NasJota Records as part of the Sudan Votes Music Hopes Initiative and rapped in 3 languages (Arabic, Dinka and English) it shows the ethno-cultural diversity of Sudan, celebrates it, and encourages the Sudanese people to come together across religious, ethnic, and tribal lines. It is beautiful. Check out the video on Link TV. You can also learn more about the making of this video and the public education videos Girifna has made in this post on Inter-Muse’s World Music site.

Further Reading: 

On the Girifna Movement in Sudan

SUDAN: Rights groups criticize Khartoum crackdowns (2011 article available online)

In challenge to Sudanese ruling party, student activists rally for democracy by R. Hamilton (2010 article available online)

Interview (2010) with Girifna activist Amjed Farid by Maggie Fick with The Enough Project available online

Girifna’s Website

B Sotak Video available on Link TV (Amazing!!!)

Sudanese Elections: Music & the Vote with NasJota and Girifna (video on Inter-Muse World Music site)

Sudan Votes Music Hopes Website

Human Rights Watch Report: It’s an Every Day Battle: Censorship and Harassment of Journalists and Human Rights Defenders in Sudan (February 18, 2009) This 21-page report documents the government’s efforts to repress those who seek to report on issues it considers sensitive, including human rights, the conflict in Darfur, and the ICC’s investigation.

On Women’s Protests against rape in Manipur State, India

Women Rage Against ‘Rape’ in Northeast India by S. Z. Hussain (2004 article available online)

Interview (2008) with Manipuri Protester avaiable online

India’s Intifada by Satya Sagar (2004 article available online)