Understanding the debate around that viral photo of a woman protesting in Sudan

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Moya Crockett
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It’s a beautiful and powerful image. But there’s much more to it than that. 

By now, you’ve probably seen it: a striking photo of a young woman addressing a crowd of protesters from the roof of a car. She is dressed in a white robe and a black headscarf, one hand raised to the sky, the dusky evening contrasting with the gold earrings glinting on her ears and the streetlights in the background. Around her, dozens of people hold their smartphones aloft.

The photo was taken on Monday 8 April in the Sudanese capital of Khartoum. Since then, it has gone viral, drawing many people’s attention to the anti-government protests in the northeast African country for the first time.

But while it is clearly a powerful photo, there’s much more to it than that. Below, we unpack the story behind the image. 

What’s actually happening in the photo? 

The image shows 22-year-old engineering and architecture student Alaa Salah at a protest in Khartoum. She is surrounded by a crowd of demonstrators, most of them women, holding their phones aloft.

Salah told The Guardian that she was reading a “revolutionary poem” that “makes people very enthusiastic”.

The poem in question features a line that has been popular with protesters in Sudan for at least five years: “The bullet doesn’t kill. What kills is the silence of people.”

“In the beginning I found a group of about six women and I started singing, and they started singing with me, then the gathering became really big,” Salah said. 

Who took the picture? 

The viral photo of the Sudanese protester was taken by Lana Haroun, a female photographer also based in Khartoum. 

Why are people protesting in Sudan? 

Alaa Salah at protest in Khartoum, Sudan
Alaa Salah addresses protesters in front of the Sudanese military headquarters in Khartoum, two days after Lana Haroun’s photo went viral 

The current wave of protests has been ongoing in cities across Sudan since 19 December 2018, due in part to skyrocketing living costs and other economic concerns. Al Jazeera reports that the first protests were triggered by the government’s decision to raise bread prices from one Sudanese pound (£0.016) to three Sudanese pounds (£0.048).

However, anger has also been growing in Sudan for some time over other economic issues such as rising fuel costs, spiralling inflation and limits on bank withdrawals. Since the first demonstrations in December, the protesters’ focus has changed from expressing anger at the country’s economic situation to demanding that President Omar al-Bashir step down.

Bashir has controlled Sudan since 1989, when he seized power in a military coup. On 11 April, news reports indicated that he had been removed from power. CNN reported that dozens of officials had also been arrested, including Prime Minister Mohamed Taher Ayala and Ahmed Haroun, the head of the ruling National Congress Party.

What have people said about the photo? 

The Washington Post described it as “a stunning image”. Hala al-Karib, a Sudanese women’s rights activist with the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa, told the newspaper that the photo sums up “this moment we have been waiting for for the past 30 years”.

Karih speculated that Salah may have been inspired by celebrated heroines from Sudanese history, such as the poet and warrior Mihera bint Abboud, who led men in a fight against a Turkish-Egyptian invasion in the early 19th century.

The Sydney Morning Herald compared the photo to the Statue of Liberty, while the New York Times’ fashion director and chief fashion critic Vanessa Friedman described it as a photo “that so viscerally frames the human story in a time of social or political paroxysm that it becomes a symbol”. 

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The image was also widely praised on Twitter. Hind Makki, a Sudanese-American interfaith educator based in Chicago, posted a long thread dissecting Salah’s outfit and explaining its significance. At the time of writing, the thread had been liked over 43,000 times.

In the photo, Salah is wearing a white thobe – a traditional Sudanese dress – and gold moon earrings. The white thobe “is worn by working women in offices,” Makki wrote, and can be linked with cotton, a major export of Sudan. “So it represents women working as professionals in cities or in the agricultural sector in rural areas.”

“Her entire outfit is also a callback to the clothing worn by our mothers and grandmothers in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties who dressed like this during while they marched the streets demonstrating against previous military dictatorships,” Makki said. 

Why do some people have reservations about the photo going viral? 

The image of Salah is undeniably powerful. But some have questioned why it took a beautiful photo of a young female protester for the wider world to pay attention to the unrest in Sudan.

Anti-government protests in Sudan are now almost in their fourth month. It has been six weeks since Bashir declared a national state of emergency and dissolved the country’s state and central governments, replacing them with military officials. The state of emergency gave Sudan’s security forces free rein to crack down on protesters, and placed harsher restrictions on the press and opposition parties.

BBC News reports that between 45 and 60 people have already been killed by government forces firing on demonstrators – despite the fact that the rallies have largely been nonviolent. Human Rights Watch has put the death toll at 51 from December to the end of January alone.

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Hundreds more protesters have been arrested, and a report by the US-based NGO Physicians for Human Rights said the Sudanese authorities had used “unnecessary and disproportionate force against … citizens, illegally attacked medical responders and facilities, and tortured detainees”.

On Twitter, Dr Arthur Asseraf, a history lecturer at Cambridge University, questioned why many Western media outlets were only covering the Sudanese uprisings “because there was a picture of a woman leading it”. 

“Using images of women to represent the nation is very common, from France to Egypt, and I see how this works for a Sudanese public to call this woman كنداكة and identify her with Nubian queens in their protest,” he wrote.

“But why is it only this image that reaches through the thick cloud of western audiences ignoring Sudan to make its way onto the digital front page?”

However, Dr Asseraf also recognised that viral images like this one can have a hugely positive impact. 

Others expressed concerns that Western media outlets will treat the photo as an exciting anomaly, mistakenly assuming that women do not generally play a role in political activism in Sudan, a majority Muslim country. 

What does the woman in the photo think? 

Alaa Salah told The Guardian that she was pleased the photo had been seen by so many people.

“I’m very glad that my photo let people around the world know about the revolution in Sudan,” she said.

Salah also noted the symbolic significance of the dress she was wearing in the photo.

“The thobe has a kind of power and it reminds us of the Kandakas,” she said, referring to the queens of the ancient kingdom of Kush, which ruled much of what is now Sudan and Egypt between 785 BC and 350 AD. 

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Salah does not come from a political background, she said, but is determined to fight for a better future for her country.

“Since the beginning of the uprising I have been going out every day and participating in the demonstrations because my parents raised me to love our home… Our country is above any political parties and any sectarian divisions.”

And what has the photographer said about it?

In the wake of her image going viral, Lana Haroun posted a video on Twitter in which she addressed her feelings about the situation.

While she was pleased that so many people had been moved by her picture, Haroun said she hoped it would prompt the world at large to pay more attention to events in Sudan – rather than simply admiring one photo and moving on.

“It’s complicated,” she said. “I’m proud to be from the people who tried to make [Sudanese] history by capturing this photo and sharing it. But we have a situation here and … there is protesting everywhere in Sudan.”

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Overall, Haroun said, there had been very little Western media on the ground in Sudan covering the protests.

“No media stands with Sudanese people. Because of this, we try to make our history ourselves,” she said. “There’s no journalists here in the protesting places, and there is not a lot of cameras.” Carrying a camera “isn’t easy” when security forces are cracking down on the press and protesters, she added, so she took the photo of Salah on her phone.

Haroun would only be happy when the protesters achieve their goals, she continued. She added that she wanted “everybody in the world” to share photos of the demonstrations.

“Try to share our story,” she said. “Tell our story for everyone in the world. And pray for us to be in a better Sudan, in a better place.”

Images: Getty Images 


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Moya Crockett

Moya is Contributing Women’s Editor at and Deputy Editor of Stylist Loves, Stylist's daily email newsletter.