by Nagla Seed Ahmed
Arrested during December's anti-flogging demonstrations in Sudan, Nagla Seed Ahmed and 49 other detained protesters recorded footage from within the jail walls—despite authorities' attempts to confiscate their cameras.
The first time I watched the video—footage that began circulating in December of a young Sudanese woman being flogged mercilessly in public—I could feel the whip cutting into the young woman’s flesh like a knife. Watching it triggered memories of my own painful experience.
Ten years ago, I was lashed for my participation in a protest. It was my birthday—a time when I should have been joyous and flooded with presents from my head to my feet. Instead I was punished because I refused to remain silent as high school students were sent to war zones in South Sudan to lose their lives for an ideology they had nothing to do with. I will never forget the sound of the whip as it went up and came descending down on my back.
As I saw this same brutality unleashed against another young woman, I knew I had to act. On December 14th I joined around 150 activists in a peaceful protest in Khartoum. Although we were beaten and 50 of us were arrested that day, we remained defiant. Before he was dragged away by security forces, one man exclaimed, “Humiliating a woman is humiliating the whole nation.” This is the reason we were all there.
Women have been subject to flogging under Sudan’s criminal code since 1991. In 2008, the director of police reported that 43,000 women were lashed in that year alone. It has not been determined what specific crime the woman in the YouTube video was accused of, but the officers in the video referenced a section of Sudan's public order law that deals with prostitution.
I believe that the government of Sudan plans to bring women back to the era of the Harem. Sometimes women in my country are beaten for demonstrating against the regime, and at other times they are targeted for wearing “provocative” outfits.
In 2009, the world took notice when journalist Lubna Hussein was arrested, charged with indecency, and threatened a sentence of 40 lashes—for the crime of wearing pants.
Flogging is a human rights abuse, and a specific violation against Article 5 of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, a document that protects individuals from “All forms of exploitation and degradation,” and specifically prohibits “torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.” But the regime ignores this.
Flogging hurts victims physically and psychologically. In Sudan it is difficult for a victim to talk about her experiences because she is often shunned by her community and labeled indecent. She and her family may bear the stigma for the rest of their lives. Even though I have a supportive family, and a husband who paid my fine so that I would not have to serve time in jail, it is still difficult for me to talk about my experience. This is why most victims tend to keep silent.
Early on, I made the choice that I would not stay silent. As a citizen journalist I have taken over 2,000 videos to expose injustices in my society—especially brutality against women. Although this makes me a target, I never leave the house without my cameras.
In 2009, I joined the Women’s Initiative Against Violence (WIAV), which was formed by a group of activists advocating for Lubna Hussein. I helped expose stories like Lubna Hussein's and that of Silva Kashif, a minor from South Sudan who received 50 lashes for wearing a skirt deemed provocative by authorities.
As a result of international pressure, Lubna’s flogging sentence was reduced to a fine. When she refused to pay, the Sudanese Journalists Union paid her fine and secured her release. Lubna Hussein’s story has tossed a stone into a still pond. Her courage in the face of injustice continues to make waves. She has turned the table on the authorities and brought international focus on the situation of women in Sudan.
As I approached the designated meeting place for the protest, I sensed the significance of this historic moment for Sudanese women. I felt adrenaline run through my veins. I resolved to hold my ground and document this moment through any means necessary. Nervous and charged with anger, I firmly clutched the bag where my two cameras were buried. I knew what we were up against.
Immediately after the flogging video was released, WIAV called on political parties, political representatives, civil societies, and women groups for a meeting to plan this action. Ajras al-Hurriya, a daily Arabic newspaper had agreed to host the meeting, but canceled under pressure from the authorities.
Mr. Abdel-Basit Merghani, Director of Al-Fanar Center, a Khartoum-based human rights advocacy group, volunteered to host several meetings. But after two days of interrogation, the National Intelligence and Security Services (NISS) arrested him and barred his family from visiting him. At the time of this writing he remains in custody.
We still managed, through secure telephone calls and word of mouth, to fix the date, hour, and place to assemble.
There was already a heavy presence of security police and forces when we arrived. There were agents in blue uniform and in plain clothes, prepared to strike with batons, hoes, and branches in their hands.
When they ordered us to leave, we explained that we were a peaceful gathering and we were here to deliver a memorandum to the minister of justice. The NISS agents would only permit two women inside to deliver the memo, so the rest of us held our ground in peaceful protest. “Get down women,” we shouted as agents attempted to break up our protest. We all sat down and refused to leave.
I watched a security guard approach an elderly woman and order her to leave. When she refused, he violently took possession of her hands, dragged her to an open vehicle, and threw her into the van, ignoring her screams.
Then the security personnel and the police turned on us, violently attacking us. They first took hold of Ustaza Aziza al- Zaibaq, the head of The Sudanese Women's Union. As if to revenge the pioneering role this organization has played in emancipating the women of Sudan, Aziza was thrown into the open van like a slaughtered goat. Every woman who resisted was beaten and insulted.
Security forces blocked Reuters correspondents from approaching protesters, and I watched them knock a BBC correspondent down to the floor while he attempted to report on the situation. They seized his equipment and deleted all his material before returning it. My camera was also eventually confiscated.
I was among 46 women and four men who were arrested and forced into NISS vans. All the way to the police department we sang national songs and shouted against unjust laws and humiliation. We maintained this attitude throughout our five hour detention.
The authorities opened a number of charges against us: public nuisance, illegal gathering, and threat to security and public safety. Then they released us on bail.
During questioning, investigators tried to impose concepts of tribalism on us and to classify us according to our cultural and ethnic identities. He asked each one of us to name her tribe. We unanimously refused to answer that question and insisted on being Sudanese.
We also refused to sign a commitment pledging not to participate in any future protests or demonstrations against the National Congress Party government.
Instead I told the investigator that I would demonstrate against public order laws that humiliate women, that I would continue to protest against the NCP Government, and that I would spare no effort to have my voice heard—even if that would cost me my life.
Because of my activities I have become a target to authorities. Today my actions are widely monitored and there have been several attempts to intimidate me into silence. I have had two recent break-ins at my house in the middle of the night and each time the intruder stole my laptops and cameras. Out of fear for the safety and well-being of my family I have changed locations. I am worried that as soon as South Sudan declares its independence from my country, the regime will step up enforcement of strict Islamic laws and I will have even more reason to fear.
It is only because of my supportive family that I am able to continue my work. My loving parents have always put me and my four sisters on equal footing with our brothers. I also have a wonderful husband and four children of my own.
Because I come from a family of so many women, I long to see all women, including my daughters, grow up in a healthy environment. They deserve laws that respect their humanity regardless of their gender, tribe, or ethnicity.
In pursuit of this vision, I have not and will not miss a demonstration—even if I am imprisoned many times, fined, and flogged. There is only one thing of which I am truly afraid: to have my children grow up in an atmosphere that suppresses their voices and reinforces gender inequality among them.
Nagla Seed Ahmed
As a citizen journalist, Nagla Seed Ahmed uses her camera to expose human rights abuses in Sudan. She regularly contributes to various Arabic-language blogs and has appeared on the Alhurra channel.