Khartoum: Nine years after a Sudanese judge oversaw her flogging, Halima Abdalla remains broken and bitter, accusing even her family of rejecting her when it mattered most.
“Flogging breaks you from inside,” said Abdalla, 41, her voice choking and tears rolling down her cheeks as she narrated an ordeal that remains forensically imprinted on her mind.
“Since that incident, I have become violent myself… I get angry easily and I break things… all these changes in me happened because I’m a victim of violence.”
Nearly a year after a nationwide protest movement erupted against autocrat Omar al-Bashir — and more than seven months since his three-decade tenure was terminated by the army — women like Abdalla dare to hope for a violence-free future.
Abdalla, who holds a master’s degree in gender studies, says she received more than 100 lashes after Bashir’s security forces snatched her at night from outside her friend’s apartment in Khartoum in 2010.
She was charged under Sudan’s controversial public order law for drinking alcohol, which is banned in the northeast African country.
Under Bashir, authorities implemented a strict moral code that activists note primarily targeted women, using harsh interpretations of Islamic sharia law.
Abdalla, who prefered not to reveal her real name, initially thought she would be punished with 40 lashes for her offence.
But she was in for a shock.
The judge — provoked by her confident demeanour, cropped hair and Western clothes — ordered 100 lashes, she said, adding that he insisted every stroke that was not audible be repeated.
“In my case, the judge was determined to see the flogging,” Abdalla said, wiping tears from behind her spectacles.
– ‘I represent God’ –
The judge ordered the court to empty and then directed a policewoman to whip Abdalla hard, she said, showing an AFP correspondent the order.
“The judge told me in court ‘Right now, here, I represent God,'” said Abdalla.
“The judge had a personal problem with me, with the way I looked… He even said ‘We (Islamists) have been in power for more than 20 years and there are still girls who look like this?'”
Bashir had come to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989 and since then, the role of women in Sudanese society has been severely restricted.
According to activists, thousands of women were flogged and handed hefty fines under the public order law for “indecent dressing” or consuming alcohol during his rule.
For Suleima Sharif, who heads a government committee combatting violence against women, “we have a lot of systemic violence against women aimed at limiting their participation in political and social life.”
“We have laws that encourage violence against women… law enforcers commit violence against women and not criminals,” said Sharif, who took part in the protest movement that led to Bashir’s ouster.
When the uprising erupted against Bashir in December 2018, tens of thousands of angry women demonstrators were at the forefront.
After the army deposed him in April, tense and protracted negotiations between protest leaders and the military council that initially seized power eventually resulted in a transitional authority comprised of civilian and military figures.
This power-sharing arrangement — reached in August as a prelude to full civilian rule — has triggered hope that laws encouraging violence against women could be scrapped.
– ‘Revolution belongs to women’ –
Yet Abdalla says it is not just the flogging under the old regime that has made her bitter, but society’s enduring attitude towards women, including that of her own family who refused to stand by her at the time.
“What hurt me is that my family and friends didn’t understand me… they prefer to love us only on their terms,” she said, fighting back her tears.
Since she was flogged, Abdalla has largely lived outside Sudan. She returned to Khartoum just before the anti-Bashir uprising erupted.
She has now opened a centre for women’s rights and wants Sudan to be part of all international conventions and to scrap laws that abuse women.
But as Monday marks the 19th International day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, activists in Sudan say the road ahead remains rocky, even as the new government led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has vowed to uphold women’s rights as part of a promise for a new Sudan.
Khartoum’s renowned tea seller Awadiya Mahmoud Kuku, a campaigner for the rights of female tea vendors, said local police continue to harass her peers on the capital’s streets.
“Why is this still happening? These problems are deep rooted and have to be completely uprooted,” said Kuku, who was among a dozen “women of courage” from across the world honoured by the US State Department in 2016.
“This revolution belongs to us, we women.”