Every once in a while an image appears that so viscerally frames the human story in a time of social or political paroxysm that it becomes a symbol. Such was the case this week with a smartphone photo taken during a demonstration in Sudan against the repressive regime of President Omar al-Bashir, as the protests that have been going on intermittently since December reached a new intensity.
In the picture, a woman in a white thoub and gold disc earrings stands on the roof of a car. She is caught in profile, mid-speech, one arm raised to the heavens, finger pointing upward, the other clutching her waist, amid a sea of heads and arms waving phones to record the moment. Posted on Twitter on Tuesday by Lana H. Haroun, it had 50 000 likes by Wednesday morning and had taken on a life of its own.
Though the speaker has since been identified as Alaa Salah, a 22-year-old student, some people have dubbed her the Sudanese Statue of Liberty, others simply “the woman in a white thoub.” Either way, her picture has had resonance far beyond its place of origin.
“I’m pretty sure it’s going to be the image of the revolution,” said Hind Makki, a Sudanese-American anti-racism educator in Chicago who reposted the photo on all of her platforms.
She wasn’t the only one who thought so.
Part of its power, Makki argued, derived from the symbolism inherent in the shot, much of it contained in the visual shorthand of what Salah is wearing.
Her earrings, which reflected the light, are, Makki said, traditional wedding jewelry meant to symbolize femininity. The choice of a white thoub, a garment no longer popular among young Sudanese (who associate it with an older generation), reflected a connection to mothers and grandmothers “who dressed like this while they marched the streets demonstrating against previous military dictatorships.”
The white thoub also has been, Makki said, a democratic garment, worn by secretaries and lawyers alike. And white was the color adopted by female student protesters, beginning in March, when many involved in a sit-in at Ahfad University for Women (AUW) wore white thoubs, inspiring others to show their support by wearing similar garments (and producing a hashtag).
Since then, these women in white have often been called Kandakas, a reference to ancient Nubian queens, connecting their power to the power of the women who are now helping lead the protests.
And though, as Makki has pointed out, these references give white its own history in Sudan, it is also generally seen as the color of new beginnings, the color of American and British suffragists, and the colour adopted most recently by the women of Congress, who wore white to the State of the Union address earlier this year to demonstrate their own solidarity and moment of change.
“The response has been phenomenal,” Makki said of reaction to her posts. “It’s a little overwhelming.”
The reaction to Haroun’s picture puts it firmly in line with a series of images that have become synonymous with the historical moments they represent, including, most recently, the “woman in a sundress” who faced down the riot police in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, during the 2016 protests against the shooting of Alton Sterling; the “woman in a red dress” who turned her head away as Istanbul police tear-gassed protesters in 2013 during an anti-development demonstration; and the young man in shirt-sleeves facing the tanks that were rolling into Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989.
In each case, the images derive their power in part from the sheer quotidian nature of the individual, armoured not in defensive gear or in depersonalizing military garb but in the clothes of the everyday.
It’s one of the ways viewers connect to the figures in the frame; they feel immediate and recognisable because they are wearing recognisable colours and costumes.
And it is no accident that such photographs are referred to by the garments involved. It’s not just how we identify the pictures, but how we identify with them.
Indeed, though some comments on social media have expressed irritation about the fact that it took a photograph to capture the attention of the world and draw it to Sudan, Arthur Asseraf, a historian at Cambridge University in Britain, wrote of the reaction to Haroun’s picture: “this is incredibly frustrating. But it is also very useful. The images of these women is a huge strategic resource for these movements to grab attention. So go out and dress up! Use your phones! Seize the means of representation!”
The effect is, as Susan Sontag wrote in her essay “On Photography,” “to democratize all experiences by translating them into images.”
There’s a throughline linking one picture imprinted on the memory to the next, a shared sense of sisterhood and humanity, though they were taken across oceans, and time.