HEROINE: Meet 22-Year-Old Alaa Salah, Who Ignited A Revolution That Removed Her Country’s President From Office

An iconic picture of a young Sudanese woman protesting in the country’s capital, Khartoum, began to go viral this week, bringing the world’s attention to the volatile political situation in the northeast African country.

The striking photo of 22-year-old engineering and architecture student Alaa Salah, pictured on Monday standing above the crowd atop a car, pointing to the sky and dressed in white, has become a symbol of hope for many women and girls in Sudan, a country known for state repression of women’s rights.

A video of Salah leading protesters in songs and chants also went viral on social media. It shows Salah calling out, “In the name of religion, they killed us,” with the crowd responding, “Revolution!”

Her toub (the white fabric she’s wearing), and those worn by other women protesters, have become a symbol of freedom, strength, and solidarity in a country that has been suffering from a state of turmoil, oppression, and instability for decades under Al-Bashir’s rule.

Salah and the thousands of other women who have been leading and participating in the protests are being referred to as “Kandaka”  the Nubian title for “queen.” They’ve become both the face of the movement to oust al-Bashir and a symbol of the struggle for women’s rights in Sudan. Local photographer who captured Salah’s image, Lana Haroun told the Guardian:

“[Salah] was trying to give everyone hope and positive energy and she did it. She was representing all Sudanese women and girls and she inspired every woman and girl at the sit-in. She was telling the story of Sudanese women … she was perfect.”

Haroun knew she had captured the zeitgeist when she saw the image on her phone, she continued:

“I immediately thought: this is my revolution and we are the future.”

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Following the massive protest, Sudan’s military overthrown the country’s longtime president, Omar al-Bashir, reports say.

It’s a huge win for the hundreds of thousands of the protesters who have taken to the streets for months calling for his ouster — and for the brave women who have been a driving force in the protest movement.

Sudan’s Defense Minister Awad Mohamed Ahmed Ibn Auf announced Thursday that al-Bashir, who has been indicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) on charges of committing genocide and crimes against humanity in Sudan’s Darfur region, had been taken into military custody.

While it’s unclear if the military plans to turn al-Bashir over to the ICC for prosecution, it’s pretty clear that his brutal 30-year reign has come to a definitive end.

Much of the credit for al-Bashir’s removal goes to the women who have played a prominent role in the uprising that has swept the country and who have become the faces of the largely peaceful movement to topple the regime.

Despite the threats that Sudanese women continually face, ranging from child marriage to domestic violence, sexual harassment, and rape, few policies have been put in place to protect women and girls in Sudan.

Sudan’s public order laws, which control women’s freedom of dress, behavior, association, and education, have led to the oppression and punishment of Sudanese women for years and enabled a patriarchal system to thrive.

Girls as young as 10 years old are legally allowed to marry, and girls are frequently forced into marriages with much older men without their consent. Marital rape is also legal in the country.

What’s motivating the protestors?

The first wave of non-violent protests against President Bashir began four months ago, on December 19, after the government trebled the price of bread.The discord has escalated and spread in recent weeks, with Salah and an increasing number of other female activists urging the president, who took power in a coup in June 1989, to stand down. Despite the almost entirely peaceful nature of the demonstrations, between 45 and 60 people have been killed by the government and hundreds arrested, some of them tortured, the BBC reports.

What role have women played in the movement?

Young women have been instrumental in calling for the president’s resignation, often comprising the majority of the crowds, and as a result around 150 female activists were detained following the initial wave of protests in December.According to the international NGO Human Rights Watch, national security services make particular efforts to target women during crackdowns.

They are frequently arrested by the country’s “public order police” for their clothing choices or exposing their hair, and subjected to flogging, stoning and other corporal punishment for “morality crimes”, including adultery.

Under Bashir in 2016, some 15,000 women were reportedly sentenced to flogging.”For many women this regime is synonymous with all types of repression,” said Jehanne Henry, from Human Rights Watch. “It is not surprising that they are seeing this as an opportunity to change things that matters to them.”

What does Salah make of her sudden fame?

For a start, she’s happy about the global attention the picture has brought to the chaos in her country. “I’m very glad that my photo let people around the world know about the revolution in Sudan.

Since the beginning of the uprising, I have been going out every day and participating in the demonstrations because my parents raised me to love our home,” Salah told the Guardian on Wednesday, adding that she is not motivated by politics or sectarian divisions, but by a love for Sudan.

“The day they took the photo, I went to 10 different gatherings and read a revolutionary poem. It makes people very enthusiastic. In the beginning I found a group of about six women and I started singing, and they started singing with me, then the gathering became really big.”

Salah’s apparent ease with public speaking is a result of a lot of practising while at university, but that didn’t stop her from getting a sore throat from all the chanting, she added.

Photo credit: Lana Haroun

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