It's a busy afternoon in the youth hostel in Stuttgart. Alaa Mohamed Masaad Elsayed takes part in the intercultural workshop of the Cross Culture Programme (CCP). She is one of the programme fellows.
ifa: You are currently working in the field of human rights and peace building. However, you initially studied chemistry. How did you come to this change of direction?
Alaa Mohamed Masaad Elsayed: Subjects such as medicine, engineering and natural sciences are the most prestigious ones, both in the Sudanese society and my family. When I got accepted at Khartoum University in the faculty of science, it was a great success for me. My family was very proud, because getting in is not easy. During my second or third year I realised that chemistry was not right for me and I wanted to change to law or economics but our education system does not allow that, so I decided to just continue.
ifa: How could you nevertheless gain a foothold in the field of human rights?
Alaa: Since the path of another field of study was blocked, I started doing a lot of voluntary work. One of my commitments was with ''TEDx''. TED stands for ''Technology, Entertainment and Design''. The original TED is organised in California (TED is a nonpartisan nonprofit organisation devoted to spreading ideas, usually in the form of short, powerful talks.).
I helped with the organisation of TEDx woman. We organised a series of conferences focused on women-oriented themes. The idea of ''TEDx woman'' was to give women a platform to share ideas, and inspire others. I found myself in that completely so I decided to shift my career and to focus on women rights.
Human rights work in Sudan
ifa: You are now working for the “Sudanese Human Rights Initiative”. What field is the organisation working in?
Alaa: We work in the promotion of freedom of faith. Often, people are sentenced to death because they want to change their religion. We provide legal aid to those people, but we do not write that in our mission. Otherwise the Humanitarian Aid Commission, who is monitoring the activities of all organisations in Sudan or the National Intelligence Service might shut us down. In two cases, the lawyers of the accused claimed that their clients had mental problems in order to save them. They then fled to other countries as refugees, because they were stigmatised and couldn't live in Sudan safely anymore.
ifa: Apostasy (leaving your religion behind) is still punishable in Sudan, sometimes even by death penalty. How do you work against this?
Alaa: It's worth mentioning, that there is a conflict between the first Sudanese constitution and the criminal law. Freedom of worship and religion are confirmed in the constitution. But in the criminal law there is an article that claims that everyone who changes their religion from Islam or misinterprets Islamic provisions should be sentenced to death. An especially shocking incident occurred in 1985, when the leader of the oppositional republican party, Mahmoud Mohamed Taha, was accused of apostasy. He tried to reinterpret some Koranic verses and was therefore sentenced to death. This conflict occurs consistently, thus lawyers try to use the constitution to work around the criminal law, but it does not always work out.
To turn anger into positive action
ifa: You've been already active in fighting female genital mutilation (FGM) for some time. In the initiative ''Ana Lan'' which means ''I will not'' you try to help families to stop FGM in Sudan. Is this another reason why you are interested in the field of woman rights?
Alaa: Yes, another motivation lies in my personal history. I am the first born among my siblings and I come from a conservative family. I had to go through a lot of struggles to live my life independently and freely as a woman. I am also a victim of FGM. At the beginning I felt angry and asked myself: ''Why did that happen to me?'' or ''Why did my parents put me in this situation?''. After some time, I was able to turn my anger into positive action. Together with other girls, we established ''Ana Lan'' in 2012. The idea was to establish a lobby of people saying: ''I will not circumcise my girl. I will not accept FGM in my family''. We wanted to collect a lot of voices of parents, school teachers and others. It's like a wave - once someone starts it, the others will rally around them.
In October 2016, the Sudanese government finally passed a law that bans FGM. So our initiative shares this victory with a bunch of other organisations that are fighting for the same cause.
ifa: So after FGM has officially been banned, do you think it will disappear in Sudan?
Alaa: We know it continues. In our capital Khartoum it is quite rare, but it is still practiced. However, it is very common in some rural areas. They are doing it now much more inconspicuous. We used to see people on TV, talking about how FGM is part of Sudanese culture. Nowadays, the FGM-ceremonies are much smaller and they involve nurses or doctors working secretly. In case the medical council found out about their practice, they would face consequences. However, some parliament members and religious men still oppose the law against FGM. Social behaviours sometimes need some time to change, especially when it comes to issues related to sexual behaviour. It is taboo to talk about it in public, but maybe the law will change peoples' minds once they see the advantages.
Being an activist in Sudan is not welcomed
ifa: How does your family and your environment feel about your work? Especially in connection with such a sensitive issue like FGM?
Alaa: My parents support me, but they are concerned about my security. Being an activist in Sudan is not welcomed by the government. I was arrested once in a demonstration in 2013. It was for a few hours only, but after that, my name was known, which limited my freedom of movement a bit. I had to work in low profile and stay away from social media for a while.
ifa: You are going to work with ''act for transformation''- a human rights initiative, working in the field of peace building and conflict resolution, in Aalen. What do you expect from this experience?
Alaa: Firstly, I want to study different tools and strategies in my field to advocate for rights. I was interested in ''act for transformation'', because their work includes peace building, conflict resolution and woman empowerment. They also have projects in Sudan, so I believe that they understand the context and that they already know the region. I also want to get to know German culture. I would like to find out what we have in common.