The White House Won’t Empower Women. Sudan’s Protests Will.
From Khartoum to Warsaw, demonstrators are demanding basic equality while the Trump administration wages a war on women’s rights.
This month, Ivanka Trump was in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, to promote America’s global women’s empowerment program. The first daughter wore a blue dress and smiled for the cameras as she spoke about her plan to “boost 50 million women in developing countries by 2025.” Meanwhile, in neighboring Sudan, women were boosting themselves: standing on cars and stages and chanting a peaceful revolution into existence. In a week in which Sudanese women led the charge in toppling a dictator and accused war criminal, the United States seemed remarkably out of touch with what women around the world wanted and needed.
The White House global economic program for women hopes to promote business opportunities. Indeed, it echoes a wider focus within the Trump administration on job creation and economic development, rather than on human rights, good governance, and other traditional staples of U.S. foreign policy. And while the focus on jobs has some merits, the Trump administration has—in a gesture to its evangelical support base—doubled down on the global gag rule, which denies U.S. government funding to organizations that provide abortions outside the United States. Many of these groups also support family planning, HIV treatment, primary health care, and nutrition programs—none of which can be funded if they provide abortions, even if using another donor’s money.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s focus on growth rather than human rights presents a false dichotomy. As unfolding events in Sudan and other places have shown, the desire for democratic change is intrinsically tied to rising food prices and deepening poverty and inequality. The Sudanese uprising began in Atbara and Port Sudan last December, when the price of bread increased by 300 percent virtually overnight.
The protests spread to Khartoum and other cities because a brutal dictator had been in place for decades. In other words, the spark for revolution was economic, but the matches and the tinder were related to the shocking human rights and governance crisis that had festered for so long in Sudan.
Although efforts to stop the genocide in Darfur had been ongoing for many years, and President Omar al-Bashir had been wanted by the International Criminal Court for many years, Sudan has largely been ignored by Westerners. These recent protests, however, managed to capture the imagination of people in Europe and the United States.
In part, this was because of a strong novelty factor: Robed African women with gold earrings and beaming faces made for beautiful photos. In addition, the presence of such large numbers of women on the streets in a conservative Muslim country seemed surprising to those who were unfamiliar with the politics of the region. The demonstrations also made clear that the Sudanese crowds using call and response chants and old forms of song and dance to overthrow Bashir were not parroting Western democratic practices. Instead, they were using wholly indigenous modes of protest.
Anyone who has been paying attention to women in pro-democracy movements—not just in Sudan but across Africa, the Middle East, and Latin America—will know there is nothing new or surprising about this. Throughout the 20th century, women from poor countries have occupied public spaces in protest, and many served as key organizers and strategists within pro-democracy movements.
In pre-independence Nigeria, during the Women’s War of 1929, thousands of women protested against the British colonial administration’s imposition of unfair taxes. They did this by “sitting on men”—a long-standing traditional form of protest among a range of Nigerian ethnic groups. In the south of the country, it was customary at that time that an errant or violent man would be followed—or “sat on”—until he changed his behavior. A man who was being sat on would be surrounded by women singing insulting songs and humiliating him until he agreed to change his behavior. They might appear at his home, bang the doors, and chant for days until he capitulated.
It was broadly successful in that the colonial administration became more responsive to the situation of women. More importantly perhaps, the protests were an important building block for the wider women’s movement in Nigeria. By the end of the 1940s women in the southern part of the country were able to vote, while in the northern part of the country women only achieved the franchise in 1979.
In South Africa, during the Women’s March of 1956, 20,000 women took to the streets to protest pass laws, which restricted the movement of black people. The protesters sang, “wathint’ abafazi, wathint’ imbokodo, uzofa” (you strike a woman, you strike a rock, you will die), helping to politicize a generation of women who were central to the anti-apartheid struggle. The phrase remains a rallying cry for women today who are involved in the fight against gender-based violence.
By the early 1980s, women’s movements were becoming adept at using symbolism in public to get their messages across. In Argentina, the Madres of the Plaza de Mayo protested the disappearances of their children, many of whom had been abducted and killed by the military dictatorship of Jorge Rafael Videla, by wearing white head scarves.
At a time when free speech was heavily muzzled, the women managed to appropriate a symbol of traditional domestic womanhood in a predominantly Catholic country in which propriety mattered. Their efforts to locate their missing children were a first and important part of the resistance that eventually led to the demise of the military junta in 1983.
In Argentina, as in many other countries in the 1980s and 1990s, women were not necessarily on the front lines fighting for gender equality. Instead, they were marching in order to bring the price of bread down or to ensure their children had better quality schools or, in the case of the Madres, so they could be reunited with their children.
The sociologist Maxine Molyneux developed a framework in the 1980s for understanding how and why women got involved in political change processes. She argued that gender inequality often made it more urgent for women’s practical interests to be addressed than men’s practical needs. In Sudan, for example, fuel shortages hit women hard because they were responsible for preparing evening meals. Women have a practical gender need related to keeping the cost of paraffin and gas low.
Molyneux suggested that while practical needs were important, another set of demands often emerged once women had begun to organize. She called these demands “strategic gender interests.” Molyneux argued that as women mobilized to advance a basic set of rights, they were more likely to develop a political worldview and analysis that was more feminist in its orientation—addressing issues that involved women’s bodily autonomy and social and political independence. When women began to advocate for the right to own property or to access abortions, they were pushing for strategic gender interests.
In Molyneux’s view, there was an important interplay between practical needs, which were often the entry point for women’s activism, and strategic interests. Sometimes, she argued, it was easier for societies to accede to demands for women’s practical needs—such a new well or a better school—than to address the structural barriers that kept women locked out of power. Molyneux’s work was influential in defining the way aid programs in the 1980s and 1990s were designed, including those supported by the U.S. government.
Using this lens, it is immediately obvious that, for the most part, women engaged in protest in the last decade have espoused explicitly feminist objectives. Protesters who were likely to speak of practical gender needs in the past are now far clearer about their strategic gender interests: the need for equality with men and the desire for greater autonomy and independence.
There is no better evidence of this shift from practical needs to strategic ones than in Argentina. Last year, close to 1 million people turned up for pro-abortion rights protests aimed at convincing the parliament to pass a law that would have legalized abortion. The daughters of the revolution—those whose mothers or grandmothers might have protested in Plaza de Mayo—have come of age.
In the same country where women once wore headscarves in order to maintain a façade of subservience, a new generation gave a nod to the activists who came before them: They wore festive green bandanas in order to push for what is arguably the most controversial and strategic of all gender interests—the right to determine if and when to have children.
Although the bill made it through Argentina’s lower house of parliament, it was defeated in the Senate late last year. Still, in a country where the Catholic Church once wielded so much power, the massive show of support for an explicitly feminist agenda is a sign that the women’s movement is coming of age.
Despite this progress, there are still debates and divisions in countries where women have played a central role in social protests. In part, this is because women’s protests typically inspire a backlash. In South Africa, for example, despite the strong role women played in advocating for the end of apartheid, the number of women in politics has dropped in recent years. In addition, rates of violence against women are high. On the one hand, these are part of the legacy of the brutality of apartheid. On the other hand, there is some evidence that men perceive women as having too many rights and seek to punish them as a result.
In Poland, the backlash against women’s perceived gains has been significant. In October 2016, tens of thousands of protesters took on the government directly after it attempted to ban abortions. Women already had only very tightly restricted access to reproductive health services. Yet the right-wing government sought to impose a complete ban on abortions across the country. Women rose up and insisted that this strategic interest would not be blocked.
The protests were effective, and the parliament rejected the attempt to ban abortion. In the last year, however, the government has exerted extraordinary pressure on the women’s movement. Many groups have lost government funding; others have been raided by the police. The situation in Poland is critical, in large part because EU member states have remained silent. As a researcher at Human Rights Watch noted, “Allowing this to happen sends a dangerous message that women can’t count on the EU’s commitment to protect them.”
In Argentina, where so much progress was made in 2018, there was recently a shocking case in which an 11-year-old girl who was raped by a man in his 60s was denied access to an abortion. She was finally granted permission to terminate the pregnancy when she was 23 weeks pregnant—well beyond the legal limit. Doctors were forced to carry out a caesarean section because they claimed an abortion would have risked the girl’s life. Women’s rights organizations deemed the procedure to be “torture.”
Some women continue to believe that they have certain roles as mothers and wives and that they should not push for changes that alter the parameters of what they believe is the natural place of women. This attitude is most fully developed in places where religious fundamentalism is ascendant.
Women intent on addressing only practical gender needs tend to operate best within democracies drifting toward authoritarianism and under the influence of religious conservatives, such as in Turkey. In a country once known for its embrace of women’s rights and progressive values, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has pushed harder and harder against democratic principles, including women’s rights. (He has called abortion “murder.”)
Indeed, much like Ivanka Trump, Erdogan’s daughter Sumeyye runs a civic organization, KADEM, that is dedicated to cultivating so-called traditional values among Turkish women. KADEM is focused almost exclusively on countering feminism and on exploring the differences between women and men.
This approach is vanishingly rare however among women’s organizations that support democratic movements; those groups push instead for greater autonomy for women to make choices about their bodies and their futures.
As women around the world focus on the toughest and most strategic issues for women—abortion, gender violence, and family planning—the U.S. government is unfortunately advocating an agenda similar to Erdogan’s by underwriting programs that barely address the practical needs of women in poor countries while using the global gag rule to undermine their access to essential services.
It’s a strange irony that the so-called leader of the free world—and his polite and polished daughter who pays lip service to women’s rights while working for an administration that undermines them—seems intent on pushing women in the United States and abroad backward even as their Sudanese sisters protest, sing, and chant their way to freedom.