A Sudanese woman who faces 40 lashes for wearing trousers in public is using the case to challenge the country’s tough decency laws.
Battles over dress codes are common in many countries where contemporary global fashions collide with Islamic interpretations of decency. But in Sudan, which has the one of the strictest interpretations of Shari’a law in the world, few have dared to challenge those rules.
Most women in Sudan’s mostly Arab and Muslim north wear a traditional long dress and a shawl over the head and shoulders. If they dress differently, it is only in private.
That’s why Lubna Hussein is now causing a sensation -- both in the Sudanese capital and the international media -- by fighting to overturn Sudan’s strict rules on what constitutes “decent” clothing.
Hussein, a former journalist who works in the media department of the UN Mission in Khartoum, was arrested earlier this month for wearing trousers at a party in a local restaurant popular with journalists and foreigners.
She was not alone. Twelve other Sudanese women with her were also detained over their choice of non-traditional clothing.
But if 10 of the arrested women accepted what seemed like inevitable punishment, Hussein and two others did not. While their colleagues submitted to 40 lashes each at the police station and paid fines of $120, the three remaining women took their case to court.
As Hussein appeared for her hearing on July 30, the packed courtroom erupted into pandemonium. The reason: Hussein appeared in exactly the same green trousers she was wearing at the restaurant when she was arrested.
Some of her female friends also appeared in the courtroom wearing trousers as a show of support.
The trousers were a signal that Hussein is ready to fight her case to the end. She has told the media that she hopes not just to avoid the usual flogging for “indecency” but also to remove clothing regulations from Sudan’s legal code. The regulations currently appear as part of prohibitions against “indecent acts.”
“This is not a case about me wearing pants,” she told the Associated Press. “This is a case about annulling the article that addresses women’s dress code.... This article is against the constitution and even against Islamic law itself.”
Hussein’s battle is attracting international attention in part because she is a UN employee and in part because she invited many foreign media colleagues to attend her trial today. Human rights workers also came.
As a UN employee, Hussein would ordinarily be immune from prosecution. As in most countries, an agreement between the Sudanese government and the UN obliges authorities to ask the world body for permission before starting legal proceedings against a member of its staff.
But Hussein has insisted upon resigning from the UN so that her case can go to trial. On July 30, the judge adjourned her trial until August 4 to give her time to quit her job.
Hussein’s case has become a cause célèbre at the UN. At a press conference in New York on June 29, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said he is “deeply concerned” about the case.
"The United Nations will take every effort to ensure that the rights its staff members are protected," Ban said.
Ban also condemned the Sudanese judiciary’s use of flogging as a form of punishment. "The flogging is against international human rights standards,” he said. “I call on all parties to live up to their obligations under all relevant international instruments."
The question now is whether the strong international interest in the case of Hussein and her two other co-defendants will be enough to sway Sudan’s judges from their usual strict interpretation of decency laws.
Normally, it is not a question the judges even have to face. Women in Sudan – unlike in many Arab countries – have a prominent place in public life as teachers and administrators. But they rarely dare to challenge the periodic police raids on restaurants that characterize Khartoum’s night-life.
Can a few women’s resolve change the system? The question has engaged large numbers of people in Sudan and elsewhere who will be watching closely when Hussein reappears in court next month.