The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why this viral photo is becoming a symbol of women’s rights protests in Sudan

Images of a woman at an April 8 protest in Khartoum, Sudan, were shared widely on Sudanese social media. (Video: Storyful)

It’s a stunning image.

A crowd of Sudanese protesters — mainly women — necks craned, phones held up to capture the moment, looks toward a young woman standing on top of a car. Her white thobe a sharp contrast against Khartoum’s evening sky, she raises her right arm as she leads the crowd in a chant, all of them echoing her words back to her.

“Thowra!” the crowd shouts — Arabic for “revolution.”

For Hala Al-Karib, a Sudanese women’s rights activist with the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, the photo, taken by Lana Haroun, sums up “this moment we have been waiting for for the past 30 years.”

The Washington Post could not confirm the woman’s identity, but Al-Karib said her outfit can tell us a lot about the message she was trying to convey. (BuzzFeed and some Arabic-language news outlets have identified her as Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old engineering and architecture student.)

Her thobe, a cotton robe, is traditionally worn by professional Sudanese women in the workforce. Al-Karib said, “It’s a symbol of an identity of a working woman — a Sudanese woman that’s capable of doing anything but still appreciates her culture.”

Her large, circular gold earring is called a fedaya, Al-Karib said. “Those are the traditional earrings that my grandmother has, that all Sudanese women have,” she said. “And they pass them to their daughters.”

Video footage published on social media gives us a clearer vision of the woman’s face, showing that she has an older version of the Sudanese flag painted on her right cheek. Al-Karib speculated that she may have drawn inspiration from celebrated heroines from Sudan’s past, such as Mihera bint Abboud, a poet and warrior who led men in a fight against the Turkish-Egyptian invasion in the early 19th century, she said.

On Twitter, a similar explanation of the significance of the protester’s outfit garnered attention.

Protests have swept through the capital of Sudan in recent months — starting with complaints about the costs of living and food and quickly morphing into calls for President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to step down.

Bashir has held power since 1989, and for years, the International Criminal Court has had a warrant out for his arrest. Charges against him include crimes against humanity and genocide. Protesters are asking the military to stop protecting Bashir, with much of their chanting directed toward soldiers. “Sudan is rising, the army is rising,” crowds called out this week.

The latest round of protests started on a significant date in Sudanese history: April 6, the day former president Jaafar Nimeiri was overthrown in 1985. Bashir later overthrew the government that replaced Nimeiri’s.

Protesters gathered this week outside the presidential palace and the military headquarters, braving tear gas and some clashes with security forces, to call on the president to step down. The protests turned into a sit-in, with many staying overnight.

Women have been at the forefront of the protests in Sudan, where, Al-Karib said, women’s “lives have changed fundamentally” in recent decades as they’ve faced restrictive laws that dictate what they can wear and where they can go.

“They were criminalized for just being themselves, they were criticized for wearing pants, their lives have been threatened,” Al-Karib said.

Haroun, who took the photo, told CNN that the woman on top of the car “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 said. “She was perfect.”

Witnesses said Sudanese security forces fired warning shots into the air to disperse anti-government protesters outside the defense ministry on April 9. (Video: Reuters)

This post has been updated.

Read more:

She fatally stabbed her husband as he allegedly raped her. A Sudanese court sentenced her to death.

Bashir will not budge’: Nationwide protests in Sudan take aim at the president

Omar al-Bashir has ruled Sudan for 30 years. His latest crackdown could be his last.