In Sudan, a fashion statement that spoke for all women

McClatchy NewspapersSeptember 10, 2009 

NAIROBI, Kenya — It was the fashion statement heard around the world.

Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese woman who was arrested for wearing pants in violation of a so-called indecency law and went to jail this week in protest, spent less than 24 hours behind bars. By then, however, she'd already exposed the daily indignities that women suffer in one of the most authoritarian and male-dominated societies in Africa.

"I'm happy for all the people who supported me in Sudan ... and all over the world," Hussein, a 34-year-old journalist, said in a phone interview Thursday with McClatchy, two days after her release.

"But I will, with all women in Sudan, continue our work to end this bad law. We are not stopping here."

Few have dared go this far.

In a country far better known for the humanitarian crisis in the western Darfur region and for its considerable oil wealth, the everyday oppression of women rarely merits much attention.

Yet last year alone, under the strict Islamic law enforced by Sudan's ruling party, 43,000 women were arrested for clothing-related offenses in the capital, Khartoum, according to official figures.

Under Article 152 of Sudan's criminal code, anyone caught in public wearing "an obscene outfit" or committing "an indecent act" can be flogged up to 40 times, a vague provision that activists say police use to terrorize women. In 2003, after eight women were arrested for picnicking with male friends and were lashed with a wire and a plastic whip, an African human rights commission condemned the punishment as torture.

In July, Hussein was arrested at a Khartoum cafe with 12 other women, all of whom were wearing pants. Hussein's own were olive-colored and loose-fitting, so that from afar it could have seemed as if she were wearing a long skirt.

Ten of the women accepted the punishment and received 10 lashes each. Three, including Hussein, refused to accept and were to go to trial. It isn't clear whether the other two women have been tried yet.

Hussein resigned a coveted job — working in the media office of the local United Nations mission — to fight her case in court. At a hearing Monday, with hundreds of protesters massed outside the courthouse and news organizations worldwide eyeing the result, Hussein showed up wearing the same billowing slacks she'd been arrested in.

A judge spared her the lash and instead ordered her to pay a fine of about $200. She refused.

"I have money," she said afterward. "It was not about money."

Prison guards confiscated her cell phone and led her to a holding pen with about 800 other women, she said. She treated it like a journalistic assignment, and went around interviewing her fellow prisoners.

Most of the women were from southern Sudan, which is predominantly Christian and bitterly opposed to the northern government. Many had been jailed for drinking alcohol, others for clothing violations. One woman, a university student who'd been caught wearing pants and was flogged 20 times, was sleeping in jail alongside her 2-week-old baby.

"There were many more cases," Hussein said, "but time was short and I couldn't talk to all of them."

The next day, to her surprise, she was sprung from jail. Sudan's journalists' union, which has ties to the government, had paid her fine unsolicited.

"They did not want to get me out of prison, but they wanted to get the government out of a problem," she said. "There is information inside the prison, and I think that the government doesn't want journalists to know it."

On www.iamlubna.com, a Web site set up by a Sudanese expatriate in the United States, a message now flashes: "Lubna Hussein is released but dissatisfied."

"She took a very courageous step. She helped all of us," said Fahima A. Hashim, a human rights activist and the director of the Salmmah Women's Resource Center in Khartoum, who was one of several dozen women who were arrested Monday while demonstrating outside the courthouse.

"But the case ended without a clear result. We're not certain about any reforms. The struggle continues."

Change never comes easily in Sudan.

The president, Omar al Bashir, has long shrugged off the condemnations of the outside world, especially over Darfur, where he's accused of war crimes and wanted by the International Criminal Court. Bashir seems to revel in the notoriety, claiming that Western countries are only out for a slice of Sudan's oil riches.

Domestic dissent is muffled, largely because Bashir keeps tight control over the press, the airwaves and the Internet. His National Congress Party has women in top positions, including his chief legal adviser, but experts say that Hussein's case underscored the gulf between political elites and workaday Sudanese.

"The NCP is not against women, but if you're against the policies of the government and not a member of the party, you can be subjected to" these laws, said Fouad Hikmat, an analyst in Nairobi with the International Crisis Group research agency.

Back at home now, Hussein, a widow, said she'd take her campaign to one of Sudan's newspapers, where she writes a regular column. She acknowledged, however, that her words might not make it past government censors.

"My family supports me," she said, "but my mother is worried for me. Like she says, 'Take care: Something bad could happen to you.' "

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McClatchy Newspapers 2009

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