In Sudan‘s capital Khartoum, a hip-hop producer who had his equipment seized during anti-government protests last year is now free to mix tracks in his studio.
Across town, an all-female troupe in pink T-shirts and white jeans practice rhythmic dance routines late in the evening in a dimly-lit car park.
The overthrow of Omar al-Bashir‘s Islamist regime last April and the melting away of its morality police have led to an easing of onerous social constraints, allowing women to dress more freely and opening up more space for cultural activities.
The opening started with an artistic and musical outburst around the protests that helped topple Bashir, though as Sudan transitions towards democracy, many see the social changes as shallow. Restrictive laws remain on the statute books and women are still under-represented after an uprising they helped lead.
“We understand that change won’t happen tomorrow because of the revolution,” said Somia Abd Elhay, a 23-year-old student practicing the flute at Khartoum’s music college.
“It will take time, but what’s new after the revolution is that there is hope and that things can change, and it is in our hands to change the things we see as wrong.”
Bashir’s three decades in power were marked by stringent social and religious rules along with international isolation and economic sanctions. Women’s public behavior was strictly regimented – wearing trousers was punishable by flogging.
Bashir’s fall, after months of street protests in which women played a prominent role and dozens were killed in security crackdowns, brought a change of direction. In November, authorities repealed a notorious public order law used to impose conservative Islamic social codes.
“Before the revolution, our shows were inside specific, appropriate places,” said Anita Saimon, a young dancer with the Voice of Nuba troupe, after an impromptu roadside rehearsal under a giant billboard for a recently opened Kentucky Fried Chicken branch.
“Now that there’s freedom we’re practicing in parking lots, we’ve started to work normally without any restrictions.”
Mohamed Abdulaziz, a music producer who had his sound systems confiscated and was repeatedly questioned by police during anti-Bashir demonstrations, said the uprising had resulted in a flourishing of music such as hip-hop and rap that were previously considered subversive.
“All the musical themes and products were dealing with the revolution, change, freedom, and our rights and duties towards the country,” he said.
Bashir’s deep-rooted Isla mist network is on the back foot, but some moves, including calls by a southern rebel group for a secular state, have created a backlash on social media. A well-known ultra-conservative preacher, Abdulhay Yousif, denounced the female sports and youth minister, Walaa Elboushi, for organizing the women’s football league.
Activists say progress is uncertain under a power-sharing deal between the military and civilian groups due to last until late 2022.
They complain that legislation underlying the public order law has yet to be repealed and that women are not protected from sexual harassment or rape.
Too few women get political jobs, said Nahid Gabralla, director of Seema, a children’s and women’s rights group. Just two of the 11 members of the ruling sovereign council are women.
“What has been accomplished does not match the role or scope of women’s involvement in making revolution and change, and that’s evident to us from the weak presence of women in governing bodies,” she said.