Editor’s Note: CNN is committed to covering gender inequality wherever it occurs in the world. This story is part of As Equals, an ongoing series
Khartoum, Sudan — Weeks into the protests that would eventually topple Sudan’s dictator, the government realized it had an unprecedented problem on its hands: the number of women in the streets calling for change far outnumbered the men.
So the regime’s top brass sent a chilling message down to its officers on the ground: “Break the girls, because if you break the girls, you break the men.”
What followed, several officials told CNN, was a systematic attempt to target the women at the heart of the biggest anti-government protests in decades.
In the early months of the uprising, soldiers began to arrest women on the front lines in the capital Khartoum and, activists say, take them to secret detention sites, where they were photographed naked and threatened with sexual violence.
But as Omar al-Bashir’s 30-year grip on power began to slip, soldiers began to make good on their threats. Some women were beaten senseless by police in public. Others were dragged into the vehicles of security forces and raped, the activists said.
The orders from the regime were clear, according to one intelligence officer. “We all know what it means to break a girl,” he told CNN.
The assaults set off a ripple-effect of abuse – husbands began to divorce their wives out of shame, and fathers beat their daughters into submission, in an attempt to keep them at home.
But time and time again, the women returned to the streets, throwing tear gas canisters back at the military, climbing atop car roofs to urge the protesters on, and manning food and drink stalls to help in any way they could.
While their fearlessness and sheer numbers – by some estimates women accounted for up to 70% of demonstrators – made them a target, they were beaten, but not broken.
Bashir was finally forced out last month, but the military-led transitional council that replaced him is refusing to hand over power to civilians. The protests haven’t stopped and the fight for democracy is far from over, but the women who played a key role in the dictator’s downfall have already paid a heavy price for their bravery.
The Sudanese government has not responded to multiple requests for comment.
The recent wave of anti-government demonstrations in Sudan began late last year over the rising cost of living, but quickly escalated into nationwide calls for Bashir’s removal.
In the early days of the protests in Khartoum, security forces attempted to intimidate female activists by threatening to ruin their reputations.
Officers warned them that their whole neighborhood would know they were “loose” when they were being dropped off in police cars late at night, according to protester Wifaq Quraishi.
Before long, the verbal insults turned into psychological abuse, with officers forcing women into compromising positions and then documenting it.
Quraishi told CNN she was “subjected to many detentions” during her three-month involvement in the uprising, each of them different.
A detention could involve “blackmail,” “taking photographs of you naked,” or “the threat of rape,” she said.
Quraishi said during body searches she was made to strip naked in front of a camera. “Photographs were taken of me when I was getting undressed – I was told that it was a search over which I had no authority,” the 27-year-old added.
Quraishi had “no idea” where the photos would end up, but said she heard stories of women being threatened by the compromising images.
“In reality these pictures may not even exist,” she said. “But that is blackmail.”
As the protests escalated, so did the violence. One day, Quraishi said she was attacked by a security official at Khartoum University, her alma mater and a place she’d previously considered safe. The man hit her with the butt of his rifle so hard that he “dislocated my jaw, and my eye was full of blood.”
Another protester, Rifga Abdelrahman, said her friends were “beaten up, their hair shaved off, insulted, treated in a way that no Sudanese girl should be treated.”
This week, during a resurgence of violence in the capital, activist Nidal Ahmed was filming security forces firing on protesters when she was set upon by a group of soldiers. They hit her with batons and sticks as they attempted to take her camera, which captured the incident.
“As soon as I could gain my strength and stand, they beat me on my backside and said ‘run!’ This happened to all the girls – they hit them and told them to run,” she said. “This was a very painful thing.”
The last scene of Ahmed’s footage shows a soldier leaning over her body on the ground, his outstretched palm covering the camera lens.
In some cases, the abuse went even further. At least 15 women have reported being raped during the uprising, according to Nahed Jabrallah, one of the demonstrators and the founder of SEEMA, a charity tackling violence against women and child marriage.
Some of the assaults involved “raping the victim anally or vaginally,” and some of them took place in the “presence of more than one person,” Jabrallah said. Given the stigma associated with sexual abuse in Sudan, the true number is likely to be much higher.
Quraishi didn’t see or tell her family about the incident at the university for a month for fear of repercussions “worse than being beaten up by police.” And despite her family’s attempts to prevent her from protesting, she was back on the streets within days.
“We have a saying,” Quraishi said. “The oppression is what moves you, meaning that it motivates you.
“We are oppressed at home, oppressed on the street, at university, at work, on public transport,” she said. “All of these things made the girls go out to demonstrate on the street.”
Khartoum became the epicenter of the protests, and by the spring, mass rallies and sit-ins outside the presidential compound and army headquarters were held almost daily.
Abdelrahman was arrested five times, managing to escape detention each time so that she could “go back on the street again and throw back tear gas grenades.”
“I wasn’t intimidated by their threats or by the way they treated us,” said the 18-year-old.
The bravery of the female protesters took their male counterparts by surprise. During one rally in Khartoum, the men attempted to surround the women to protect them from the police truncheons and tear gas. But the women broke free and insisted on standing on the front line, Quraishi said.
“In their minds they thought that women didn’t run, and it wasn’t a very good thing,” she explained. But “we stood firmly in the square, so that they had to as well.”
In rally after rally, demonstrators sang “rise up, the revolution is a woman.” During one sit-in in April, a young woman clad in a white robe and wearing gold earrings clambered up onto the roof of a car to address the crowd. Images of the scene quickly came to symbolize the energy of the protests, and women’s role in them.
The woman, 22-year-old journalist and activist Alaa Salah, told CNN that she “wanted to speak on behalf of the youth … I wanted to come out and say that Sudan is for all.”
Salah’s outfit was a nod to the proud history of female activists in Sudan, long before Islamists took power. The thobe, as it is called in Sudan, is a throwback to “the clothing worn by our mothers and grandmothers in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s” while demonstrating against previous military dictatorships, said Sudanese social commentator Hind Makki.
People across the country began referring to female protesters as “Kandaka” – the title given to the “Nubian queens of ancient Sudan, whose gift to their descendants is a legacy of empowered women who fight hard for their country and their rights,” Makki said.
In early April, when security forces attempted to break up a sit-in outside the presidential compound in Khartoum, some soldiers stepped in to defend them. It was a sign that Bashir’s days were numbered.
Several army officers told CNN that the abuse of women protesters was what ultimately changed their minds about defending the regime. Some stayed home to avoid following orders, while others sided with the protesters.
“I didn’t join the army to become that kind of man,” said one.
Another former regime officer expressed shame over the conduct of the military during the uprising. “You have to understand we were told to make it stop,” he said. “These girls were out there every day, provoking us, chanting that they weren’t afraid.”
Bashir was deposed by his own generals on April 11 and has since been charged over the deaths of protesters, dozens of whom were killed during the uprising. He is now being held in the maximum-security Kober prison, notorious for holding political prisoners during his 30-year dictatorship.
But the fight is far from over. The military, which dissolved the government after Bashir’s removal, has said it will remain in power for up to two years, despite continuing protests against their rule.
“Although Bashir has resigned, the roots of his regime are still in place. The old regime, the old government, the old system of violence, of beating people and provocation, is still in place,” Rifga Abdelrahman said.
“We want a system that belongs to us,” she added.
Qusay Abdullah and Oscar Featherstone contributed to this report.