‘It’s Going to Be the Image of the Revolution’

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 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, Ms. Makki argued, derived from the symbolism inherent in the shot, much of it contained in the visual shorthand of what Ms. Salah is wearing.

Her earrings, which reflected the light, are, Ms. 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 during while they marched the streets demonstrating against previous military dictatorships.”

The white thoub also has been, Ms. 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).

The reaction to Ms. 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, La., 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, armored 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 recognizable, because they are wearing recognizable colors and costumes.

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