“The people are now conscious” is the reoccurring reply from protesters, here in Sudan, when asked about their reasons for demonstrating. “We will not retire,” they stress.
This statement rings true at the heart of the revolution, a sentiment shared by most taking part in the demonstrations. This revolution has not only shed light on some of the previous government’s corrupt enterprises and practices, but also how certain social norms allowed for these practices to continue unchecked. Though, respectively, it is probably more accurate to say that the people were always aware of these oppressive institutions and practices, through the protests they have found an avenue to express their discontent freely, without authoritarian crackdown.
Some of these draconian practices come in the form of manufacturing famine and scarcity of necessities such as wheat by purchasing from suppliers and halting sales, driving people to pursue unorthodox means of purchase in order to inflate prices. Then, the product is slowly reintroduced with the new price. In order for a plan on this scale to be carried out successfully, there needs to be many conspiring and benefitting.
Here is where social norms became an indispensable tool for the previous regime. There are virtues and vices to a collectivist society such as Sudan; companionship versus tribalism, the previous regime exploited the latter. Through years of nepotism and bribery, the previous government was able to place spineless ministers and corrupt officials in strategic places, colluding with the regime and its Orwellian secret services in order to fill their coffers.
With most recruiting and hiring done through blind favouritism, the consequences were economic disparity between ethnicities. Perhaps two overt examples of this can be seen in the fact that occupants of the more affluent neighbourhoods in Sudan share similar backgrounds. The second, and more worrying consequence, is the establishment of an ethno-classist political class. Today in Sudan, whether it’s opposition member or military leaders, most share similar ethnic backgrounds, creating a lack of representation and disenfranchisement of certain ethnicities.
Beyond nepotism, this revolution revealed certain traditions that proved to be to the detriment of society – namely, sexism. Women are routinely targeted by harassment; even competing with their male counterparts for jobs, women have to exert more effort. These oppressive measures are part of customs to ensure there not be “estrangement” from norms. They are also reinforced with laws, such as those laws that seek to control what women wear.
Perhaps, tradition was not able to keep up with modernity, in the sense that historically the norm may have been that women were expected to act and wear certain things while the arrival of globalisation brought a completely new possibility of being.
The guards of old saw this as challenging their way of life, and so to maintain tradition they sought to contain these possibilities within the boundaries of appropriate societal ethics: vilifying and tabooing dress codes and attitudes, giving rise to misogyny. “If they dress this way, they have trespassed beyond appropriateness and deserve to be harassed,” were a few words said to me by a member of the Sudanese secret service.
Furthermore, the guards saw fit to cement these ideas using pseudo-religious and pseudo-spiritual propaganda, perpetuated by “religion merchants”, insisting on distorted religious views that try to maintain the status quo. This gave way to apathy towards not just tradition but also religion; mosques became emptier and family detachment rose. This apathy quickly turned in indignation during the revolution, perimeters were crossed more frequently and courageously questioned.
This is not to overlook the positive effect collectivism has on society. Collectivism gave us free healthcare through altruistic action, it gave us solidarity and vicarious suffering that moved the people to revolt, and much more. However, there needs to be a progressive, inclusive frame of reference in which the old decorum can draw upon and mend its attitude to suit the new generation, and new Sudan. The questioning of these perimeters is an important first step, the next, I would assume, is inclusive discussions to ensure there not be any marginalisation.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.