Sudanese women can still be whipped for wearing pants

Sudanese authorities justify their refusal to repeal the article in the Public Order Law by their desire to preserve Sudanese values.
Sunday 28/10/2018
Sudanese women are seen in Khartoum’s Souq Shaabi area. (AFP)
Rights in jeopardy. Sudanese women are seen in Khartoum’s Souq Shaabi area. (AFP)

LONDON - Most countries pay little attention to people’s appearance and sartorial choices. In fact, societies have become overwhelmingly tolerant of styles from various cultures and subcultures. In most Arab societies, women are just as free as men to wear clothes of their choice. So why are women in Sudan struggling for their sartorial freedom?

Is it believable that women in Sudan can be fined and whipped for wearing pants? Article 152 of the Sudanese Public Order Law stipulates punishment if a woman is convicted of wearing a “revealing outfit” but the law does not specifically define “revealing.” Some say the law purposely left the matter up to the whims of police.

Human rights activists in Sudan have strongly opposed repressive practices by the state against women. They demanded that public order regulations that severely restrict a range of personal rights and allow police and security personnel to arrest, humiliate and flog women because of their appearance be reformed.

Sudanese authorities justify their refusal to repeal the article in the Public Order Law by their desire to preserve Sudanese values and fight vice and delinquency among girls.

The issue of Sudanese females wearing trousers does not seem to be the origin of the problem, insofar as it is a tiny detail imposed by the ruling Islamist parties on Sudanese society regarding women and their rights. Extremist interpretations of sharia lead to humiliating interference in the lives of women from dress and behaviour to all aspects of their personal lives.

Human rights activist Winnie Omar is facing a range of charges, including prostitution and undermining constitutional order. “The irony is clear when talking about the rights of women in Sudan,” Omar said. “Sudanese women won their right to vote and to participate in politics rather early compared to women in many other Arab countries, as well as their right to equal pay and the right to a maternity leave, but when we look at what is happening now we clearly see that the path to more rights has been blocked.”

“This blockage is originally a political and ideological transformation led by the Islamic movement in Sudan in June 1989. In fact, it was a political coup against democracy that ended up colouring political and social life in Sudan with religious tones,” added Omar.

“This coup has created a significant shift in the legal framework and has rebuilt the social understanding of women and their role in public life. These policies were extended to touch on other women’s rights, like the right to travel, which has been restricted, or the right to naturalise their children from non-Sudanese fathers or the right to marry without the agreement of a guardian.

“A whole legal system called the ‘public order system,’ with its own special courts, its own police force and its ideologically inspired laws, was put in place and used, along with a package of criminal laws. This system specifically targets women, their appearance, their movements and even their choice of jobs,” Omar said.

She said she was involved in two incidents with police. In the first, she was accused of wearing a scandalous outfit, even though she was wearing a skirt and a headdress while waiting for public transport in Khartoum. She was acquitted of the charge.

In the second instance, which is pending, Omar was accused of prostitution while visiting a friend. Police stormed the house, even entering through windows, and arrested Omar and others.

Article 154 of the Public Order Law states that “a person who commits a crime of prostitution or is in a brothel where he or she is likely to engage in sexual acts or materially profit from them” could be sentenced to 100 lashes and imprisoned for three years.

Article 155 provides for a possible penalty of 100 lashes and a 5-year prison sentence for anyone who “manages a brothel, rents a space or permits its use for sex knowingly.”

The opposition Sudanese Congress Party expressed solidarity with Omar. The party accused Sudanese authorities of monitoring Omar’s movements and of conspiring to arrest her after she had been acquitted from the charge of wearing an indecent outfit. The party called for the abolition of the Public Order Law which, it said, is unconstitutional and violates fundamental human rights.

Using the court case against activist Omar as a backdrop, the US Embassy in Khartoum last year urged the Sudanese government to review, amend or repeal Article 152.