Counterterrorism and Civil Society

Thirty Years of Women’s Activism in Sudan

The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 12, Issue 4, November 2010

By Frank van Lierde*

Asha El-Karib is the former chairwoman and acting board member of the Gender Centre for Research and Training based in Khartoum. The Centre works for women’s equality, peace, democracy, and a better understanding of how women’s unequal status has been exacerbated by longstanding armed conflict in Sudan. Working in partnership with other women’s organizations and pro-democracy groups, the Centre is committed to building a strong social movement able to influence politics and advocate for women’s rights and social inclusion. Asha is also a cofounder and the director of the Sudanese Organisation for Research and Development (SORD).

Three decades of social activism have shaped and marked the life of Asha. “Things look so grim. But I refuse to fall into total despair.”

When she was eleven she went along to turbulent political demonstrations, and at sixteen she gave speeches in small election halls packed with leftist activists. This was in the 1960s; the international Muslim world was in shock following Israel’s Six-Day War. Likewise, this was the case in Sudan, Asha El-Karib’s country of birth. “Sudan had not been independent for long at this time and Nasr, Nkruma, Nehru—the great fighters against colonialism—inspired us as leftist Muslims. As a child, I picked up a lot about the national politics. My father and uncle were members of the National Unionist Party and dreamed of a united, secular Sudanese-Egyptian state. The seventies were a tumultuous period; the first civil war lay behind us, yet there was hope and women could still take to the streets to demonstrate.”

Center and periphery

For more than thirty years Asha El-Karib has fought political, social, and economic oppression in her country. “I stand up for women’s rights, but that does not mean that I only work for women. Working to improve women’s position in society on a political, social, and economical level is also working for a healthier, more democratic society: this is beneficial for everybody. I need to continuously find openings and use them. In my country, putting up a social fight is a matter of navigation and steering a middle course. I must look for openings in a closed state system which continuously strives to keep the power in the center, at the expense of the periphery. And women are in the margins of that periphery. No matter how complex the Sudanese political situation is with the north-south conflict, Darfur, East-Sudan, the core of the conflict is not religious and essentially has nothing to do with religious extremism or terrorism. This conflict is fundamentally due to the marginalization of Sudan outside Khartoum. Religion and security dominate the entire international discourse around Sudan and are also political instruments skillfully used by an elite to keep itself in place.”

Thirty years of conflict have left their mark on Asha. “I am tired, but I haven’t finished fighting yet. Sometimes it crosses my mind to redefine the concept of ‘home’ and to flee abroad. I have been offered asylum enough times. But it hurts just to think about it. Now the election did not bring the desired change we struggled for and it very likely that Sudan will never be the same after the referendum in January 2010. The outcome will definitely affect us in many ways, and I hope I still have energy to continue.”

What impact do the security and anti-terrorism measures have on social organizations and movements in the country of President Omar al-Bashir? How have they determined the work and life of Asha El-Karib? Where does she see the dividing lines between social conflict, armed resistance, and terrorism, between the monitoring of state sovereignty and state terrorism?

Legitimate violence?

Legitimate violence?

“The debate on security and terrorism often concerns two questions which are not essential to me: the lack of a clear definition of what terrorism is and therefore of an international standard to determine who is and who isn’t a terrorist, and the discussion whether certain social or political grounds can justify terrorist actions. In other words, are some forms of violence legitimate to bring about change, or to counteract the undermining of the existing skewed power relations? Is there such a thing as a just war? In my own opinion that discussion quickly reaches its conclusion. Every action which sows fear and puts the lives of people at risk is a terrorist action. Without any exception. For me it is a moral case in the discussion regarding terrorism, never to emphasize the cause of violence, but the result. The end product of violence is horror, never the realization of the dream. Even if it was tempting sometimes to suggest that ‘the end justifies the means,’ the results of violence always annul the greatest political, social, or religious objectives. Whether it concerns domestic violence against women, sexual violence, political violence, terrorism, or state terrorism, the objectives do not offset the fear and destruction which are the results. To me, each one of them is a form of terrorism. That is the starting point of my work and my life as an activist, as a woman, and as a mother. I don’t mean that analysis of political and religious causes of violence should not take place; of course, you must understand violence before you can counteract it. But for me, no feasible political or religious arguments to deploy the tool of fear exist. If you use those arguments, then you are already sowing terror.”

“Armed conflicts and the violence industry and the political culture surrounding them do not limit themselves in time and space purely to the center of physical aggression. They dehumanize people, both victims and perpetrators; they create a dehumanized society, which strictly speaking is not a society but a cage, a system in which the fight against violence is considered as a subversion of the order, as an anomaly. But if you keep your eyes focused on the horrendous result of violence, then you are obliged to invest more in conflict-solving alternatives to violence. You do not even have to be a leftist moral crusader to understand that, thinking in terms of economic benefit is sufficient: nonviolent conflict solutions are more cost-effective than violent ones.”

“I was not born a pacifist. Even at an early age I thought about the legitimacy of violence and power, and as a schoolgirl and student I was convinced that you had to use violence in order to depose corrupt rulers. I have never taken up arms myself; yet I defended violence for good causes by political means. One of the experiences that made me change my ideas forever dates back to 1971. In that year the government executed an entire swath of prominent opposition leaders from the communist and socialist side. The great shock was mainly in the fact that a couple of years earlier these leftist leaders still sang the praises of the revolution, side by side with the figures who ended up in the center of power thanks to that revolution. They were assassinated by the system which they had designed themselves. That is where the logic of terror leads to. Sooner or later, it wipes away the ground from under its own feet.”

Janus face

“In the context of international security Sudan plays a somewhat special role. Since Osama Bin Laden spent time in Sudan at the beginning of the nineties, the country has maintained an ambiguous relationship with the US. Of course, terrorists and security services operate—by definition—in the shadows, where they fight or find each other, but in Sudan the entire politics of security seem to be like a shadow-puppet show in the shade. Within the global war on terror both Sudan and the US play a double role. For some time now, my country has been on the terrorist lists of the US and the UN. It is a so-called country on the wrong side of the dividing line between good and evil, where no political compromises, let alone deals are made. But behind the scenes, American and Sudanese security services cooperate very closely. It’s a form of cooperation that serves to keep the Sudanese government within the GWOT [global war on terror] straitjacket. But there are other interests. The CIA is benefitting from it; there is a dark and fierce fight taking place over oil and raw materials. With the support of the US, Bashir reinforces its security apparatus and therefore its control of critical groups in society—and he stands stronger internationally. The Sudanese government will not breathe a word to this effect in public. That alone speaks for itself. In fact, they shout precisely the opposite from the rooftops. In the official, open discourse, Bashir shows the other side of the Janus face. He portrays the US as a state of evil, a nation of villains and all who side with him are doomed.”

“Despite the hard language of politicians, the use of the terms ‘terrorism’ and ‘fighting terrorism’ is very difficult in my country. Politicians never openly use them. In the first place this is because, as a country, we have been labeled as a terrorist state, but also because the Arab word for ‘terrorist,’ ‘erhab,’ has emotionally charged Islamic connotations. A Muslim is considered to defend his case and that of the Uma, the community of faith, and to gather power and means to do so. That is also a meaning of ‘erhab.’ When terrorism and the suppression of terrorism come up for public discussions, then they use the word ‘amn,’ ‘security.’ That word has also now become so emotionally loaded that it is used with suspicion. At one point a development organization was visited by the security service. The security services demanded total control over the food program. Why? One word in the title of the development program was slightly suspicious: ‘food security program.’ Well, security was of course their field…. It sounds like a joke, but it was a very painful joke. Eventually the government backed down, but only because it concerned an international development organization, which dared to enter the debate with the Sudanese Humanitarian Aid Commission—the HAC, a committee which serves state security more than it steers the humanitarian aid in an effective direction. Every other local organization would have been shut down. In the name of security. In fact in 2009, thirteen international NGOs were expelled from Sudan based on their alleged involvement in threatening the security of the country.”

Born with teeth

“On paper, the 2005 peace treaty between the North and the South and the constitution which originated from it offered sufficient guarantees for a healthy and meaningful independent civil sector in Sudan. Every Sudanese enjoys, on paper, the right to freedom of association, expression of opinion, and movement. But the law which manages the ins and outs of social organizations, the Voluntary Act of 2006, completely removes these rights. It is one of the strongest examples of repressive legislation that I know of. In the first place the government reduced the social sector to the NGO sector. Every social movement, network, or local voluntary organization which is not registered as an NGO is prohibited. And should you be willing and have the possibility to conform to the legal NGO straitjacket, even then the government can investigate, take over or stop any NGO program or project activity without legal procedures. NGOs are expected to provide local voluntary services and emergency aid where necessary, under supervision by and as an extension of the government. Those who find themselves in the politically sensitive areas of human rights, good governance, and democracy are seen as state enemies and face the security services. In 2007 more than forty NGOs had to close their doors for this reason. What is so painful about this is that the Voluntary Act has also been introduced thanks to massive support from the NGOs themselves, and more specifically the so-called GONGOs, the ‘governmental nongovernmental organizations.’ We also call them the NGOs which were born with teeth: they have suddenly appeared out of nowhere with money, infrastructure, and a government civil servant heading them. We have to withstand those NGOs as well. And in Darfur you are not allowed to canvass a penny in funds without these transactions running via the government. The legal, substantive, and financial monitoring of the social sector is, in other words, total and takes place under the guise of security.”

“That security control not only creates an environment of fear, it also leads to absurdities. Due to the 2006 Voluntary Act, in certain states there must be written permission in advance from the HAC for each workshop or meeting to take place. Can you imagine what that would mean for an organization such as Cordaid? You have to state all names and addresses of participants, which the HAC can cross off or add as they please. Last year I examined the impact of decentralized government policy on education, healthcare, and natural resources on women’s rights. We did that in five states, including the Red Sea State. After the investigation we wanted to share the results informally and discuss them with our partners, also in the Red Sea area. We had invited employees of the ministries. In the middle of the discussions we received a call from the HAC asking if we had authorization for the meeting. We had not asked for it, because, in our opinion, it was an informal exchange, not a formal workshop or symposium. Consequence? ACORD, the NGO of which I was the director, was denied access to all rural areas. Whereas I took part in the investigation as a researcher, not as a director of ACORD! I then had the privilege of being shadowed by the head of the Red Sea State security service, someone whom I had already met in the past several times. He waited for me at the airport. He was there, so to speak to welcome friends, but he was in the departure hall…. Our entire research was reviewed; he wanted to know everything about it and criticized our way of working. My explanation that the peace treaty guaranteed us all freedom to act as we had acted gave rise to a heated discussion. It came down to me having to do my lobbying work with a high-rank security agent who, in his turn, tried to intimidate me. I am continuously anxious about this type of ‘coincidental encounter.’ I have learned, however unwillingly, to communicate with these types of people.”

The trampling of the horde

There is a dark cloud of political terror hanging over each important period or change in the life of Asha. And at each change, she and her fellow activists have managed to transform personal fear and anger into amazing forms of resistance and social development, from the bottom up, often underground. One source of hope and resistance, which has not only played a vital role in Asha’s life but has also put a stamp on the entire Sudanese society, is the Sudanese Women’s Union. The story of the women’s movement in Sudan reminds one of the constant bending, disappearing, and reappearing of blades of grass under the trampling of the horde.

“Even before I went to university I joined the Women’s Union. It was an incredibly progressive group of women who had already been standing up for social rights and women’s rights since the forties, and who had had successes. At the beginning of the sixties women here enjoyed the right to vote and to put themselves up as eligible candidates, a first in the Arab and African world! I became a member at a time when women had obtained all these important rights, including the right to equal wages, pensions, and maternity leave. But that tide turned. From the late seventies onwards the democratic achievements eroded and at the start of the dictatorship in 1989 and the reintroduction of the sharia, the union was officially dissolved, just as all forms of political and social association were too. In my time as a student I still put my name forward during union elections, but the Muslim brothers had already taken over the entire control of the union. All members, myself included, were dismissed and expelled from university. Eventually female students were allowed to go back to university, without being able to use the student accommodation, where, in fact, it all happened, and provided that we would not conduct any political activities in the slightest. At that time the Rural Development Association was also set up—an organization of students who, during their holidays, went to help en masse, in the far distant regions and in the countryside, to set up agricultural and health projects. We did this without international support or connections. The women’s movement continued underground, stirred itself as little as possible in public, but continued to brim with hope and resistance.”

When Omar El-Bashir came to power in 1989, Asha was in the United Arab Emirates with her husband who was on a lecture tour. She had to stay there out of necessity, for four years. “I was wanted, risked my life if I returned. All of my brothers and sisters were dismissed at that time. The entire government apparatus—education and justice—was purged. Eighty percent of women lost their jobs and I, an activist well-known to the new rulers, could not do anything else but stay away. In my country, to give an example, not even one female judge has been appointed since 1989. I returned in 1993. In 1997, when the horror of war in the south reached a peak and the torture centers—or haunted houses—increased and talking about human rights was absolutely taboo, I set up, together with five other women, the Gender Centre for Research and Training. These were dark, grim years. We did not want to give up our fight, but the terror of the regime was so enormous. The international women’s conference in Beijing in 1995 gave strength and hope. I wanted to join it but wasn’t allowed. By means of international contacts we were able to make our voices heard there. Beijing was a turning point in the women’s movement. In Sudan too, women have claimed a moral and operational space in the aftermath of it. There were at least ten women’s organizations established during that wave of energy and hope, and all of them claimed a role in the social and civil forefront. Together with six women, who were all blacklisted, we set up the Gender Centre. Because we were listed, we were not allowed to establish an association. We got round the HAC and the Ministry of Humanitarian Affairs by setting up a nonprofit business under the Judiciary. We managed to do that; we even had legal status. Then it was the question of how we could still do the political work that we wanted to do. We succeeded in this through looking, as much as possible, for cooperation with international donor organizations which were locally established. Now, ten years on, we are part of a powerful international network; we promote democracy and good governance throughout Sudan. We’re a large player where women’s rights are concerned. Without exaggerating I can say that the first peace networks originated from the women’s movement and that women, including the Gender Centre, have played a central role in the peace process, in the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, and in the new constitution. That does not alter the fact that we must continuously watch our step. The Centre encounters constant opposition from the security services. Three of our projects have already been stopped through their actions. At one point the Centre was even discontinued by the authorities. That was at a time when the president was in Geneva to speak to the UN about human rights. We then raised the alarm with our Swiss contacts which was heard in UN circles and of course also by the Sudanese delegation. The president found himself in an embarrassing situation, and under international pressure the Centre was able to open its doors again, yet of course not without first having to sign a statement confirming that we would abandon political activities. But we were already used to that all our lives anyway, navigating in a treacherous reef.”

“That women and women’s organizations form coalitions, support each other, nationally and internationally, within a closed, totalitarian regime that places women in the margin of the margin, gives me a feeling of pride and strength. To give yet another example: in 2001 with the Women Solidarity Group, we summoned the government before the constitutional court. A law had just been promulgated which prohibited women from working after sunset, from working in hotels and the catering industry and the oil sector, and which imposed numerous, extreme freedom-restricting measures. Under pressure from popular women’s movement ,that law was then suspended and that has remained the case up to the present day.”

Colonial control

“The question is whether our efforts make a difference in the daily lives of families, women, and young girls, in urban and in rural areas. The peace treaty and the constitution which ended the war between north and south were political successes; I would almost say paper victories. The constitution has not yet been converted into new forms of governance or legislation which changes the lives of people for the better. But against that stream of political unwillingness, we, as a social movement, together with hundreds of NGOs and civil society organizations, have been successful in relieving the daily lives of millions of people. With micro-credits we help women to achieve a better income in the informal sector of small-scale companies; with health and education projects and the construction of water wells in villages and remote locations, we give that little bit of strength and hope that for many means the difference between life and death. Something actually happens, under, alongside, or in spite of the political repression which in fact tries to freeze social progress. We continue to stay on course by working on projects, but in addition to that we want to grow institutionally to join international networks and to gain more political scope as well. We attempt to do this with SORD and with the Gender Centre. In order to be successful in this our relations with international donors are essential. Most of the support we get comes from international donors such as Oxfam, Care, DED, Inter Pares, and also from the Dutch embassy. And from Cordaid. Cordaid is one of the very few aid organizations which has given us the ‘quality money’ to grow as an organization, money to invest according to our own insights and experience in growth and development. Too many donors limit themselves to project financing and refuse to invest in organizations. If that continues, it means that organizations such as the Gender Centre will cease to exist. Furthermore, the civil sector won’t be able to continue its social and political resistance. With regard to the relationship with donors, our capacity to submit project proposals, to follow formats or to comply with reporting requirements, all these requirements aren’t a problem. On a project level, our motor is running fine. What we are looking for, together with the international community and with international donors in the first place, are real, enriching and far-reaching exchanges. We want to discontinue the traditional project-bound and unbalanced donor-NGO relationship and to replace it with a more political coalition which can and dares to contest international power relationships. Instead of this, many donor organizations come with their own agendas to carry through reforms in the aid-receiving countries. Sometimes they justify this by the need to show measurable and visible results which dovetail with the policies and the public opinion of their own country. But in essence they practice a form of colonial pressure and control. If donor organizations feel that they need to combat crooked power relationships, they must then be brave enough to act themselves.”

“It becomes even more difficult when donor organizations and the bilateral aid from separate countries are extensions of international security politics and the war against terrorism. Also, under pressure from the Global War on Terror in which their own states participated, many western donor agencies wanted to impose financial sanctions on Khartoum. But with that they also put Sudanese NGOs and CSOs under duress. They forced a complete civil sector, which already had to contend with the many forms of internal repression, into a simply servile position. The fact that the US, apart from CARE, had already withdrawn its international NGOs from Sudan, had stopped all dollar transactions and suspended all development support, was the direct consequence of the War on Terror. That also applies to the EU and to the aid from the United Kingdom, Germany, and Norway. The development tap was turned off as an important means of pressure in international security politics. The Swedes even froze all their humanitarian emergency aid. For the civil sector in Sudan it virtually meant death by suffocation. Which painfully enough played into the hands of the same regime that the international policy in fact wanted to put under pressure, simply because this lessened internal civil pressure on the regime. A part of the more politically critical CSOs started to provide more neutral emergency aid, in order to run fewer risks.”


“Another consequence of the War on Terror was that all Sudanese people abroad, especially in the US, became terrorist suspects. The culture of security which has arisen in the last decade, and in many countries this culture has shaped formal security policies, has reduced ‘the other,’ and in particular the Islamic or Arabic ‘other,’ to a potential source of danger. For a period we were unable to travel abroad. We couldn’t even get a visa for our neighboring country Uganda—which is, just like Sudan, a member of the Common Market for Eastern and Central Africa (COMECA). I have experienced a lot in my life in Sudan, but my most humanly degrading treatment was not by the Mukhabarat, the secret service in Sudan, or by the HAC, but by security civil servants at the airport in New York. This was in 2005. I had been invited to take part in a conference and had finally been able to get hold of a visa. I was held for nine hours, in a small room at the New York airport. I was treated like a terrorist: fingerprints, photographs from the front and in profile view, the entire visa procedure had to be repeated…. I was robbed of all my freedoms and my dignity. Security servants followed the orders that originated from a very coherent but out of control repressive apparatus.”

You would expect that the control would be aimed at representatives of the Sudanese regime. In practice, as Asha explains, the exact opposite occurs. “The next day, during the conference, I spoke to a Sudanese lady, someone who worked for the government. She came through the security check without any problems…. In other words, freedom activists who risk their lives are considered terrorists whereas people who represent a repressive regime are received with open arms. I know the political and religious violence against women like no one else. Up to 2006 no Sudanese woman was allowed to leave the country without the formal consent of a man, whether it was her husband, her father, or even her son…. I know what I am talking about. But the security experience in New York has touched me deeper than anything else. Here you have a country that feels it has to fight against terrorism and which treats me, a guest incidentally, in a way that is a clear example of dehumanizing terror. Since then I have sworn never to go to the US again, despite the many invitations.”

“The latter unfortunately proves what I said earlier. We, social activists, fight two forms of terrorism—internally that of the regime, and externally that of countries such as the US. And the most painful thing is that those two have found an ally in each other.”

This country of fear

“The future? There are times I nearly feel like giving up, but I will not fall into total despair. Not yet. I have promised my children to continue for another two years in Sudan, until the following elections. Should the current regime remain in the driving seat, then I may have to leave this country of fear, together with my family. But as long as I live here, in my country, I have to continue my work. Staying and not fighting is impossible.”


* Frank van Lierde is a researcher and journalist at Cordaid. A graduate of Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium, he worked as a teacher and translator in Belgium before joining Amnesty International Netherlands as a researcher at the Refugee Desk in Amsterdam. He is the author of Cordaid’s Countering the Politics of Fear, from which this article is excerpted. Cordaid is a Dutch development funding agency that focuses on relief aid, poverty eradication, society building, and policy influencing. Cordaid works hand in hand with organizations in the global south as well as in Europe and the United States for a more just and equitable society.