*names have been changed for security reasons.
Sarah Adam, a Sudanese LGBT+ activist and filmmaker, was sitting in a public café in Khartoum, Sudan, when she got a call from Tunis. “We won third prize!”, her colleague shouted through the phone. “I went crazy”, she remembers with a smile. “I started jumping”. It was so emotional, I remembered all the challenges that we faced. So, I started crying. We are finally there. Now we have a voice!”.
The documentary, “Queer Voices from Sudan”, tells the stories of three queer persons in Sudan. It was screened in Tunis at the Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival, the first queer film festival in North Africa, and won the 3rd prize. Adam is one of the leading activists of Mesahat, an organization that provides training for LGBT+ activists in Sudan.
“Now we have a voice!”
Adam, who exudes confidence and warmth, recounts the critical conditions for non-normative people in the economically and socio-politically deteriorating situation in Sudan.
Despite the split of Sudan and creation of South-Sudan after a referendum in 2011, the conflict continues, especially in the region of Darfur, Southern Kordofan and the Blue Nile. These regions were part of the rebel movement, lack basic supplies and suffer human rights abuse.
In the country, that currently deals with fast increasing inflation, freedoms of press and expression are compromised, while basic civil and political rights are being violated, according to Human Rights Watch.
The first LGBT+ organisation in Sudan, Bedayaa, was founded in 2010 and, like Mesahat, is working throughout the Nile Valley Area in both Sudan and Egypt. While Mesahat focuses on capacity building of activists, Bedayaa works mainly on LGBT+ rights advocacy and providing assistance, such as legal advice, to LGBT+ individuals. More recently, a new group, Shades of Ebony, which is solely active in Sudan, has been founded.
Criminalized and persecuted
On the backdrop of this conflict situation, the living conditions of queer-identifying individuals are compromised by several laws. Through the application of Sharia (Islamic) law, afab persons (assigned female at birth) are criminalized for “morality crimes,” such as adultery or dress code violations, which would include wearing trousers or not being veiled.
This directly affects trans men, and non-binary people, who cannot express their gender identity without fear of being arrested or attacked in public.
Any form of non-normative dressing is severely punished both by law and society. Same-sex sexual activity is criminalized under article 148 in the Sudanese penal code as “Ǧarimat il-Lowāṭ” (Arabic for “crime of sodomy/homogamy”). Caught once, or twice, the punishment can be 100 lashes or prison for up to 5 years. But convicted for the third time, the offender can face the death penalty.
When Mesahat was founded in 2015, “the idea was that we need more and safer spaces that we can work safely”, Adam explains referring to herself and other LGBT+ activists.
Extremely isolated within the Sudanese civil society, who refuse to work on LGBT+ related issues – especially since the crackdown in Egypt in 2017, which resulted in widespread human rights violations against people suspected of homosexuality, such as detention without trial, torture and “anal testing” – the activists have built on support within their own circles, and on the support of regional and international queer activist networks, such as the Alliance of Queer Egyptian Organizations (AQEO).
Creating safe spaces and conducting security trainings in the context of the already highly precarious situation of queer-identifying persons in Sudanese society has proven to be vital.
Due to the legal situation, organizations working on LGBT+ issues cannot be registered, nor officially rent an office. Thus, activists also cannot provide shelter to persons, who have been thrown out by their families or are pursued by their communities, under the name of the organization.
Filming Against All Odds
Producing the documentary – featuring 3 queer Sudanese stories – was an incredibly risky project for everyone involved. It is forbidden to film anything in public, unless you work for an official media outlet, or have formal authorisation, which was out of question for this project.
“Before starting this project, we had to do digital security trainings for the whole team, as well as how to be physically safe when you are there in the streets”, the activist recounts. “We wrote every single worst-case scenario that we were trying to avoid.”
“All three stories travel from the margin to the centre – hence, the title. They end up in Khartoum.”
Whenever leaving Khartoum, the capital, and travelling to another region, the videographer had to hide the camera and video material in order not to get caught. He was in fact arrested, but luckily had two memory cards in his camera, and gave the officials the fake one.
“All three stories travel from the margin to the centre – hence, the title. They end up in Khartoum. We travelled to Port Sudan in East Sudan, where we filmed a gay man there”, Adam explains. “The second story was a lesbian woman from Sinnar. And the third was a trans man from Al-Obeid in West Sudan.”
In order to edit the film, the film material had to be smuggled outside of the country, since the editing software needed were not available in the country for the team. Since the film material was highly incriminating, flying it out of the country became a security risk that the team had to take into account.
Talking about the documentary’s protagonists, Adams tells us that “they are all very far away from their families now and hiding. They were very happy [when they heard about winning the prize]. One of them actually said: now, I can live in peace.”