When Samah Idrees read about a woman being raped by a mob of armed men in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum, she was horrified but not surprised. Most shocking was the banality of the violence: it reminded her of all the other news she had read about all the other rapes in her country.
Yet this one, involving one woman being attacked by 20 men on a busy street earlier this month, was particularly hard to stomach for the 16-year-old student.
“I just couldn’t stay silent about a woman being raped by 20 men. It’s terrifying to think that anyone can be the next victim,” she says.
This time, she decided to act on her anger. As local media articles and Instagram posts about the attack spread, with a group of friends Idrees launched two hashtags: #itsnotokay and نحنا_معاكي# (‘We are with you’ in Arabic).
The group wanted to show their support to the survivor of the brutal attack, and to lift women who are often blamed for their own assaults in the East African country, where activists say sexual and domestic violence are on the rise.
“We’re trying to raise awareness because people always discuss what the victim was wearing, what time she was out, why she was alone. If we blame the victims, rapists are walking free while the victims are traumatised for life,” Idrees says.
We launched the hashtag #itsnotokay, because an event occurred that is not unique in Sudan nor is it the first time that girls have been raped.
A girl was raped by twenty armed men at dawn on New Year's Day,
We launched this hashtag to help all women face their fears and accuse
— Razaz🇸🇩 (@razazyall) January 4, 2021
The hashtags quickly went viral on Sudanese Twitter, as thousands rallied in support, in an online campaign some have likened to the global #MeToo movement against sexual harassment.
Groups of women wearing Covid masks protested on Monday in front of courts in Khartoum and in the Darfur region against the violence. Their signs read: “Silence does not mean consent,” and “Don’t rape”. Many featured the campaign’s hashtags.
Initially, it was not clear whether the online reports of the gang rape were true, as no evidence had been published and no arrests made. Since then, women’s rights groups have been investigating the incident.
“We have confirmation that the incident happened but not many details on the victim or the perpetrators,” explains Yosra Akasha, a programme co-ordinator at the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA) in Sudan. Several other groups confirmed the attack to The Telegraph.
“A group of mobs were attacking and harassing women who passed by in that area. This woman was brutally attacked, beaten, stabbed and her clothes were taken off, she was gang raped in the street. She was then put into a car by a couple of men who took her to hospital,” says Akasha.
لو في زول سواء بنت او ولد عاوز يتكلم ولا عاوزني انزل ليهو حاجة من دون ما اظهر اسمو ولا حتى يفضفض ساي حتى لو ما دارني ارد My DMs are open
.You can really trust me and it’s a safe platform around here🤍#itsnotokay #نحنا_معاكي https://t.co/PQoFquI6DR
— سِتّ شُمُوس الْكَوْن (@juiceadill) January 4, 2021
Violence against women has been steadily rising, fuelled by a perfect storm of political instability, economic crisis, Covid and natural disasters, according to women’s rights campaigners in Sudan. More than 500 cases of sexual abuse on children, mostly girls, were reported last year.
Sudanese strongman Omar al-Bashir was ousted by the military in 2019 after months of mass protests for democracy and better economic conditions, in which women were a driving force. Hundreds of civilians were killed in the demonstrations, including in a deadly crackdown by security forces on June 3 2019 in which at least 60 women reported being raped, according to several groups working with survivors. One told The Telegraph as many as 150 women were thought to have been raped on that day.
In the western Darfur region, where rebels have been at war with the Sudanese government since 2003 and Bashir is suspected of committing genocide, rape has long been used as a weapon of war.
Last month, the violence reached a peak as hate speech against women going out in public spaces spread online. SIHA, Akasha’s women’s initiative, addressed a letter to the ministry of interior asking for the police to protect women on New Year’s Eve.
“Women now are dressing freely in public spaces, so people, especially Islamist groups, are assuming this role of policing women in public spaces,” Akasha says.
“A group […] said they were going to beat up every woman they find on the street during the holiday time, especially if they are not properly dressed or wearing the hijab. All the signs were there that women would be attacked on New Year’s Eve.”
The law offers little protection to survivors: perpetrators are rarely brought to justice and in some cases, women who report rape have been convicted themselves for adultery or “indecent acts.”
In 2018, the case of teenager Noura Hussein made headlines as she was sentenced to death for killing her husband in self-defense during an attempted rape. She is still in a women’s prison and her sentence has been reduced to five-years following an appeal.
Following her successful campaign, Samah Idrees plans to create more permanent social media pages to collect women's testimonies and reach a wider audience with her message against sexual violence.
But she knows there is a long way to go until women can walk freely on the streets of Sudan. “It doesn’t feel comfortable to be alone in some places, in public places,” she says. “There are going to be more victims.”