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Turning the clock back in Sudan – Lubna’s case

Tuesday 8 September 2009.

By Ahmed Elzobier

September 7, 2009 — It seems Muslim women are wearing both too much and too little, a paradoxical symbol of our time. They can be lashed in Sudan, banned from university in Turkey, expelled from state schools in England and France.

While the worldwide media focus on Lubna’s case and there are protestors in the streets of Khartoum, the public order police appear indifferent as they go about their work in the streets of the city. They keep arresting young Sudanese women because they are wearing trousers or dressed “indecently”, the women are taken to the court and instantly receive forty lashes. Indeed, over 43,000 women have been arrested under the provision of article 152 in 2008, according to the director of public order law.

Why is flogging considered humiliating now? There are good reasons for that. In history the practice was certainly present in earlier civilizations, being used in Greece, Rome, and Egypt for both judicial and educational discipline. In the Roman Empire, the maximum penalty allowed by law was 40 lashes. In the Islamic world, God apparently instructed men in the Qur’an, (An-Nisa – verse 34), how to treat their wives, especially those who dared to disobey them – they should be admonished, beaten and sent to a separate bed. To this day some men take that instruction literally.

Currently out of the 192 United Nations (UN) member states, corporal punishment which includes the flogging of women is only practiced in Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Yemen, Malaysia, Iran and Sudan. In Sudan, the word flogging was mentioned more than twenty five times in the penal code of 1991. Article 152 of the Sudanese Penal Code 1991 states clearly that: “Whoever does in a public place an indecent act… or wears an obscene outfit… shall be punished with flogging which may not exceed forty lashes. or with a fine or with both….”. Of course, since 1989 Sudan has decidedly joined a minority group of countries that seems at odds with the modern world.

However, throughout history flogging has also been a terrible symbol of slavery, and women in the above mentioned countries are in state of servitude. To subdue their “stubborn pride”, as one slave woman wrote, flogging seems to be the panacea that their masters envisaged.

In Sudan, for the ever elusive and increasingly pragmatic National Congress Party (NCP), the arguments are not even religious, it is all about the overt challenge to their power. The NCP say that the growing national and international attention to the case is politically motivated. Meanwhile, in a workshop organized by a group named the Purification of Society in Khartoum, which is associated with the ruling party, the participants requested much harsher punishment for public indecency, and accused unidentified foreign elements of spreading immorality among young people. Of course such individuals are impervious to self doubt or criticism.

It seems that extreme sexual obsession and extreme religious views are somehow interrelated and in the case of the Islamist the connection is more obvious. The men who framed such laws are, at best, misogynist, or worse, secretly active sex predators. They imagine any female body as simply a source of sexual thrills, classified, catalogued and designed only for men’s pleasure. A woman is merely a body, and a body that is so intimidating that it needs to be hidden, covered and tucked away under masses of clothing.

It’s a forgone conclusion that the first casualty in any society unfortunate enough to be ruled by Islamic Fundamentalists, is the women. Now in Sudan, to counteract such thinking and sinister scheming, women activists in Khartoum have come up with a daring slogan, “Better be dead than oppressed”.

Of the total Sudanese population of 38 million citizens, women, of course, account for half. Notwithstanding their active role in the society, their socio-economic situation is still precarious. For decades they have remained marginalized both economically and socially, and sidelined in the political sphere.

By the 1960s Sudanese women constituted seven per cent of the official modern workforce. While most were nurses, secretaries and teachers, others gained posts as physicians, engineers, judges, lawyers, diplomats, journalists and university professors. The 1969 military government of Ja’afar Nimeiri agreed to put into practice the demands for equal pay and eight weeks’ maternity leave, as well as pensions.

The Sudanese women’s movement’s achievements of the 1950s, 60s and 70s suffered a considerable setback after the introduction of “sharia” law in September 1983. Then, after 1989, women’s rights entered its bleakest phase in the modern history of Sudan. The new regime banned political parties, trade unions and associations, as well as women’s organizations.

The “highlight” of this new phase was President Omar Hassan al-Bashir’s speech at a conference in January 1990 about “the ideal Sudanese woman” – in his view this ideal woman “takes care of herself, her children, her home, her reputation and her husband”. In November 1991 the government ordered all women in Sudan to wear the “hijab”. The 1991 Public Order Act, part of the regime’s new penal code, is framed so widely as to constitute harassment and public humiliation for women and enables their virtual exclusion from the male-dominated public sphere.

In fact all of the new legislation introduced by the regime invariable discriminates against women in Sudan. The family law introduced in 1991 reinforced male dominance over women. The right of women to travel freely has been greatly reduced and the right of a single woman to stay in a hotel is also prohibited.

What has taken place in the last 20 year in relation to the women of this country is unfathomable in its depravity. Unfortunately, most of these discriminatory laws and the law enforcement practices remain intact and are still occurring on a daily basis, in violation of the Interim Constitution of 2005. Lubna’s brave stand has highlighted just a segment of the web of draconian laws that are still embedded in our legal system.

However, the case has become an embarrassment for the Sudan government amid growing international attention. Many observers think the court might dismiss the charges on grounds of immunity as a “face saving” alternative for the government. But whatever the outcome the government has been stunned and shaken by the international and national reaction to the case.

In short, we need to ask ourselves much harder questions centered on the very essence of real equality. Morally speaking, Lubna’s case has revealed that there is something gravely hypocritical in our society when it openly imposes a set of criteria on women that men, by definition, do not require of themselves.

The author is a Sudan Tribune journalist. He can be reached at


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