Sunday,23 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)
Sunday,23 September, 2018
Issue 1164, (12 - 18 September 2013)

Ahram Weekly

Fighting for women in Sudan

In a case that has galvanised public opinion, rights activist Amira Othman is being prosecuted for alleged sartorial offences in Sudan, writes Salah Khalil

Al-Ahram Weekly

Four years ago, Sudan made international headlines because of the case of Lobna Hussein, a woman journalist who landed in court because she had worn trousers. Now a similar case is rocking the country once more.

Charges have been brought against rights activist Amira Othman for failing to wear a headdress in public. The Society Safety Police (SSP), Sudan’s morality squad, arrested Othman on 8 August, setting off an outcry in Sudan and abroad.

The charges highlight the controversial role played by the SSP in Sudan, and its allegedly frequent violation of women’s rights. Othman, who faces flogging or imprisonment if found guilty, told reporters that she had been verbally abused by her captors.

The case has renewed demands by rights and feminist groups to annul Article 152 of the Sudanese criminal code, which allows women to be arrested if deemed improperly dressed in public on the grounds of offending public morals.

The article offers no exact guidance about the nature of proper clothing or the specifications of indecent garments.

Sudanese and international rights groups say that thousands of women have been flogged in the past seven years on arbitrary charges of improper clothing. The charges, says one activist, are “hard to define and subject to the whims of law-enforcement officials”.

The law is often used to target working women and students. It is generally interpreted as a ban on tight or transparent clothing, but even this description is open to a wide range of interpretations.

As activists gathered in court in support of Othman, scuffles ensued between them and the police, prompting the court to postpone the session until 19 September.

Article 152 of the criminal code says in part that “anyone performing in a public place an act or conduct that is scandalous and offensive to public morals or wearing an indecent outfit or one that offends public morals or assaults public sensitivities is liable to punishment by flogging of up to 40 strokes or a financial fine or both.”

The case has galvanised Sudanese public opinion and drawn large numbers of politicians and rights groups, both foreign and local. Many activists, including representatives of women’s groups, were also in attendance.

In the scuffles between police and activists, the police snatched banners from the activists, most of which bore slogans denouncing the law on public order.

The SSP has for years hunted down young women deemed to be wearing indecent clothes and charged them with offending public morality. In the Othman case, defence lawyer Nasreddin Youssef said that his client’s dress was decent and lawful and thus represented no offence whatsoever.

Rights groups in Sudan view Article 152 as an assault on freedoms generally and on women in particular. Since the country’s public order law was passed in 1991, women have complained of increasing harassment by the SSP.

There is disagreement about this law even in official circles. While the SSP called Othman’s outfit offensive, the prosecutor’s office said that it didn’t consider it to be revealing.

The charges were met with widespread resistance among rights groups, who called the arrest a blow to human rights and an affront to women. Activists are now calling for a campaign against the public order law, regardless of what happens to Othman.

Many women, especially vulnerable ones who have no access to the media, have been prosecuted under this law. Others say they have been blackmailed or persecuted by the SSP.

The law, activists say, allows law enforcers to humiliate women without regard for ethnicity, religion, age or political beliefs.

Othman is a leading rights activist, who has played a major role in the No to the Repression of Women in Sudan campaign.

Nearly 51,000 women say they were harassed by the SSP last year alone, and nearly 98 per cent of women charged with indecency under the public order law say they have been sexually abused by the SSP.

Due to the censorship of newspapers in Sudan and the ban on reporting on such cases, only a few trials have come to public attention. In most cases, the defendants are young and have no connections, and many are found guilty and flogged on the spot.

Activists hope to ban the flogging of women found guilty of sartorial offences.

Othman is a member of the committee of the No to the Repression of Women in Sudan campaign and a member of the Sudanese Communist Party. She was also arrested in a protest marking International Women’s Day in March 2011.

Using her Twitter and Facebook accounts, Othman sent notes to her supporters, asking them to come to court “so we may place the public order act and its repressive laws on trial”.


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