On June 27, Sudanese activists and the global human rights community declared victory when a 19-year old Sudanese woman, Noura Hussein, was spared the death penalty. She was instead sentenced to a five-year prison sentence for murdering her husband in self-defense, as he tried to rape her when she was 16 years old.
After news of the court’s initial decision for the death penalty broke in early May, Sudanese activists quickly took to Twitter and Facebook with the hashtags #SaveNoura and #JusticeforNoura. Within a week, the story caught the attention of major international organizations like UN Women, Amnesty International and the European Union, who all issued statements against the ruling. A Sudanese diaspora blogger inspired a Change.org petition that received close to 1.7 million signatures worldwide. Celebrities like Rose McGowan, Emma Watson, Naomi Campbell and former Australian Prime Minister Julia Guillard also used their platforms to speak out.
Within a few weeks, a higher Sudanese court repealed the death sentence to a still-shocking five-year prison sentence. Sudan’s prisons are known for their brutality and instances of unbridled torture.
The subsequent headlines from international media outlets described the win as a triumph of the international human rights community and the #MeToo movement over a waning Sudanese regime that has repressed its people for almost 30 years, eager to appease Western governments. Assuming the case was closed, international attention turned to other horrors.
Unfortunately, the case isn’t closed. It reemerged last week — registering only a blip on the international radar — when a government prosecutor filed an appeal to have Noura’s death penalty sentence reinstated. What’s more, Noura isn’t an isolated case. Wini Omer, a high profile women’s rights activist in Sudan who campaigned on behalf of Noura, was jailed for over a week around the time of Noura’s sentencing. A police officer arrested her because he simply “didn’t like the way she walked,” which led to charges of prostitution and crimes against the state. She now potentially faces capital punishment.
While the attention #MeToo brought to Noura’s case led to a positive outcome, the notion of “saving a life” without giving light to the structural causes that enabled her oppression in the first place must be called into question. “All of the assumptions [of Westerners] about women in the East and Africa accidentally played a positive role in Noura’s case,” said Amgad Fareid Eltayeb, an activist with Sudan Change Now, the group that raised the profile of the initial sentencing. “Noura had a genuine cause, and the campaign had a victory. But what the campaign achieved is a small thing in the scales of [the abuses] that are actually happening,” he continued.
The Western human rights legal approach generally takes the horrors and injustices of the Nouras of the world case by case, with some harmful assumptions that create an “us” and “them” dynamic. Yet, there is far more interplay and collusion between Western governments and oppressive regimes like the Sudanese government than face value might suggest. For example, the European Union has funneled millions of dollars into Sudan for “border security” in order to stop the flow of African migrants into Europe. These funds have gone directly to the Rapid Support Forces, formerly known as the Janjaweed, which are the same militias that carried out ethnic cleansing campaigns in Darfur (in western Sudan) and who systematically use rape as a weapon of war.
The flash-in-the-pan activism of Noura’s case also begs some questions around the #MeToo movement’s ability to support long-term change and to truly challenge entrenched systems of racism, colonialism and patriarchy, especially when it comes to women in the Global South. While activism has become increasingly in vogue in the West, there is a danger that this mode of change simply replicates the same white (or Western) savior complex as the charity-driven humanitarianism that preceded it.
Western countries have flourished because of the violence and destruction they carried out to build their societies, and they continue to be complicit by failing to take responsibility for this past. “The white man’s burden should not be the motivation to act,” Eltayeb said. “It should be the culpability of 400 years of colonization that stopped the progress of the civilizations in the Global South that led to the situation in our countries now.” Action driven by guilt can be fleeting, but action driven by a sense of conviction and obligation can put societies on much more equal footing.
“Sudanese activists, themselves raising the profile of this case, is what [got the attention of] international circles … Without them, Noura would not be here today,” Eltayeb continued. “Public opinion has begun to shift and recognize that, at least for cases like Noura, it was a clear act of self-defense. This creates openings for more debate, but no laws or policies changed as a result of Noura’s case.”
Noura’s victory indicates that Sudanese activists are having some success changing the understanding of women’s rights domestically in a way that could enable more systemic change to take hold. The fact that Noura’s story spread so quickly on social and independent media outlets in Sudan is a testament to the effective, decentralized organizing of Sudanese activists, especially women.
Noura’s case became known because an audacious female journalist, Tahani Abbas, quietly followed her legal proceedings from the onset through the death penalty sentencing — interviewing her, visiting her in prison and risking her own safety to do so. The “No Oppression for Women” movement in Sudan stood ready to push out news of Noura’s case once the court made its ruling. The day of her death penalty sentencing, this women’s group also staged a sit-in in front of the court.
Other activist groups like Sudan Change Now helped amplify and spread the #SaveNoura and #JusticeforNoura messages. Opinion editorials, media articles and petitions followed, ultimately reaching an international audience. This in turn helped expose new strategic openings for the domestic movement. “One of the lessons learned from this campaign is the regime’s growing concern of their image in the West. We can use this leverage in the future,” explained Fatima, who was active in Noura’s campaign (and whose name has been changed for security).
But rather than coincidentally playing off each other, Sudanese and outside activists alike could coordinate more intentionally in the future. One place to start is recognizing that it is not simply an act of good will but an obligation to support and work in partnership with Noura, Tahani, Wini, Fatima and the other Sudanese women on the frontlines. Their names should be known outside of Sudan so they can continue to be uplifted and recognized as heroes in the global #MeToo movement. They continue to risk their lives far after international attention deflects to other atrocities.
At the same time, Westerners are responsible for holding their governments accountable for perpetuating a system that allows these atrocities to happen. Otherwise, there will continue to be more Nouras of the world than social media can work to “save.” This will enable us to root our work, connect our struggles and pave a path towards more authentic solidarity.
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