Lubna Hussein quits UN job to go on trial for wearing trousers in Sudan
I missed this one originally reported on Thursday in The Guardian:
A female Sudanese journalist facing 40 lashes for wearing trousers in public told a packed Khartoum courtroom yesterday that she was resigning from a UN job that grants her immunity so that she could challenge the law on women’s dress.
Lubna Hussein was among 13 women arrested on 3 July in a raid by members of the public order police force on a popular Khartoum cafe. The women were all wearing trousers, considered indecent under the strict interpretation of Islamic law adopted by Sudan‘s Islamic regime. All but three of the women were flogged at a police station two days later.
But Hussein and two other women decided to go to trial and Hussein invited human rights workers, western diplomats and fellow journalists to Wednesday’s hearing. Some of her women friends arrived in court wearing trousers in a show of support.
“This is not a case about me wearing pants,” said Hussein, who works in the media department of the UN mission in Sudan and contributes opinion pieces to a left-leaning Khartoum newspaper.
“This is a case about annulling the article that addresses women’s dress code, under the title of indecent acts. This is my battle. This article is against the constitution and even against Islamic law itself.”
Judge Mudathir Rashid adjourned the hearing until 4 August to give Hussein time to leave her job.
Hussein said she would resign immediately and thanked the UN for intervening to spare her possible punishment. She said the UN mission was trying to stand by her, invoking a clause in an agreement between the Sudanese government and UN representatives in Sudan that obliges officials to ask permission before starting legal proceedings against a member of UN staff.
Hussein’s defence lawyer, Nabil Adeeb, said the UN wanted to protect its staff, but Hussein wanted her trial to proceed. “We have contradicting interests,” he said. Hussein could face at least 40 lashes, according to Adeeb.
Sharia law has been strictly implemented in Sudan since an army coup led by Omar al-Bashir in 1989. Activists and lawyers say the implementation of the law is arbitrary.
Public order cases usually involve quick summary trials with sentences carried out shortly afterwards, as was the case with the 10 of the 13 women arrested earlier this month. They were flogged and fined 250 Sudanese pounds (£63).
Women in mostly Muslim northern Sudan, particularly in the capital, Khartoum, dress in traditional outfits that cover their heads and shoulders. Western dress is uncommon.
However, the raid on a Khartoum cafe popular with journalists and foreigners was unusual.
Lubna Hussein in an inverview with The Telegraph, entitled Whip me if you dare, described the detention:
“Flogging is a terrible thing – very painful and a humiliation for the victim,” she said. “But I am not afraid of being flogged. I will not back down.
“I want to stand up for the rights of women, and now the eyes of the world are on this case I have a chance to draw attention to the plight of women in Sudan.”
She could easily have escaped punishment by simply claiming immunity as a UN worker, as she is entitled to under Sudanese law. Instead, she is resigning from the UN – to the confusion of judges who last Wednesday adjourned the case because they did not know what to do with her.
“When I was in court I felt like a revolutionary standing before the judges,” she said, her eyes blazing with pride. “I felt as if I was representing all the women of Sudan.”
Like many other women in the capital, Mrs Hussein fell foul of Sudan’s Public Order Police, hated groups of young puritans employed by the government to crack down on illegal drinkers of alcohol and women who, in their view, are insufficiently demure.
Despite their claims of moral superiority, they have a reputation for dishonesty and for demanding sexual favours from women they arrest.
Mrs Hussein was one of 14 women arrested at the Kawkab Elsharq Hall, a popular meeting place for the capital’s intellectuals and journalists, who bring their families. Most of them were detained for wearing trousers. The police had difficulty seeing what Mrs Hussein was wearing under her loose, flowing Sudanese clothes. She was wearing green trousers, not the jeans that she said she sometimes wears, and wore a headscarf, as usual.
“They were very rude,” she said. “A girl at a table near mine was told to stand up and told to take a few steps and then turn around, in a very humiliating way. She was let off when they ‘discovered’ she was not wearing trousers.”
After her arrest, on the way to a police station, she tried to calm the younger girls.
“All the girls were forced to crouch on the floor of the pick-up with all the policemen sitting on the sides,” she said. “They were all very terrified and crying hysterically, except me as I had been arrested before during university days by the security services.
“So I began to try to calm the girls, telling them this wasn’t very serious. The response of the policeman was to snatch my mobile phone, and he hit me hard on the head with his open hand.
“On the way I felt so humiliated and downtrodden. In my mind was the thought that we were only treated like this because we were females.”
Christian women visiting from the south of Sudan were among the 10 women who admitted their error and were summarily flogged with 10 lashes each. But Mrs Hussein declined to admit her guilt and insisted on her right to go before a judge.
While waiting for her first court appearance, she said she was surprised to find herself held in a single cramped detention cell with other prisoners of both sexes. “How Islamic is that?” she asked. “This should not happen under Sharia.”
In an interview with The Observer today, Lubna Hussein explains why this issue means so much to her:
Sitting in the restaurant where her ordeal began, Lubna Hussein looks at the offending item of clothing that caused all the trouble and laughs softly. “In Sudan, women who wear trousers must be flogged!” she says, her eyes widening at the thought. The former journalist faces up to 40 lashes and an unlimited fine if she is convicted of breaching Article 152 of Sudanese criminal law, which prohibits dressing indecently in public.
What exactly constitutes “indecent” is not clear. Last month Lubna was among a crowd listening to an Egyptian singer in a restaurant in a swish area of Khartoum when policemen surged in. They ordered Lubna and other women to stand up to check what they were wearing, and arrested all those who had trousers on. Lubna, who was wearing loose green slacks and a floral headscarf, was taken to the police station.
“There were 13 of us, and the only thing we had in common was that we were wearing trousers,” Lubna says. “Ten of the 13 women said they were guilty, and they got 10 lashes and a fine of 250 Sudanese pounds (about £65). One girl was only 13 or 14. She was so scared she urinated on herself.”
Lubna asked for a lawyer, so her case was delayed. Despite the risks, she is determined that her trial should go ahead. Before her initial hearing last Wednesday, she had 500 invitation cards printed, and sent out emails with the subject line: “Sudanese journalist Lubna invites you again to her flogging tomorrow.”
The court was flooded with women’s rights activists, politicians, diplomats and journalists, as well as well-wishers. During the hearing, Lubna announced that she would resign from her job as a public information officer with the United Nations, which would have provided her with immunity, to fight the case. The judge agreed, and adjourned the trial until Tuesday.
Lubna says she has no fear of the punishment she might face. “Afraid of what? No, I am not afraid, really,” she insists. “I think that flogging does not hurt, but it is an insult. Not for me, but for women, for human beings, and also for the government of Sudan. How can you tell the world that the government flogs the people? How can you do that?”
She is determined to face prosecution in order to change the law. “It is not for me. It is my chance to defend the women of Sudan. Women are often arrested and flogged because of what they wear. This has been happening for 20 years. Afterwards some of them don’t continue at high school or university, sometimes they don’t return to their family, and sometimes if the girls have a future husband, perhaps the relationship comes to an end.”
Lubna, a widow in her 30s, says women have faced similar punishments, mainly in silence, ever since President Omar el-Bashir seized power in 1989. For much of the time since then, Sudan has been at loggerheads with the west. It provided shelter for Osama bin Laden in the 1990s, and is still on an American list of countries that sponsor terrorism, although a senior US official said recently that there was no justification for this.
But Lubna says her concerns are not political. Her frustration stems from what she believes is an erroneous interpretation of her religion.
“Islam does not say whether a woman can wear trousers or not. The clothes I was wearing when the police caught me – I pray in them. I pray to my God in them. And neither does Islam flog women because of what they wear. If any Muslim in the world says Islamic law or sharia law flogs women for their clothes, let them show me what the Qur’an or Prophet Muhammad said on that issue. There is nothing. It is not about religion, it is about men treating women badly.”
Since news of the case broke, Lubna has been celebrated in the western press. She is bemused by the thought of being seen as a heroine, and even more by the idea – suggested by some British newspapers – that she was targeted because she is a Christian. “I am a Muslim, and a good Muslim,” she says.
In response to the articles about her case, the Sudanese embassy in London pointed out there had been next to no coverage of a recent landmark arbitration ruling on the region of Abyei, which is contested by the north and the south following two decades of civil war. Despite fears that it might spark renewed conflict, both sides announced they would respect the ruling.
“The floodgates of expert and non-expert comments on Sudan opened suddenly on 29 July in the wake of an indecency and antisocial behaviour case in Khartoum involving journalist Lubna A Hussein,” the statement read. “The case is still ongoing and it wouldn’t be appropriate to comment on it. The real question, which is relevant to the deep-rooted Islamophobic and anti-Arab prejudice, is th selective spotlight on Ms Lubna Ahmed Hussein and determined neglect of Abyei dispute’s result for eight long days.”
Sitting in the Khartoum restaurant as the fierce late-afternoon sun intrudes through the windows, Lubna dismisses the notion that western praise might be a drawback in a country like Sudan. “In Sudan, we like the west,” she exclaims, apparently agitated by the idea that people might not realise this. “For many Sudanese, our dream is to go to the west.” But the government doesn’t always give that impression. “The government thinks differently to the people. The government hopes to be friends with the west, but sometimes they try to look tough, that’s all.”
Nevertheless, she is worried that the foreign attention on her case could lead to further cultural misunderstandings. “The west really doesn’t understand Islam,” she says. “Because as Muslims we know that, if the police catch girls and arrest and flog them, we know this is not Islam. But when the government of Bashir does that, the west says: ‘Oh, that is Islam.’ It presents a bad face of Islam.”
Since her initial hearing, Lubna has been bombarded with messages and phone calls from all over the world. Her family has been supportive, she says, perhaps in part because they are used to it: she was first arrested 15 years ago as a campaigning university student, and has been called in by the police on many subsequent occasions, often after writing satirical articles for the newspaper her husband set up, Sahafa
But one phone call from within the country touched her most. “I talked to my colleagues in the court, the 10 who have already been flogged. At the beginning they were very sad, and one of them was in a bad psychological state. But when she saw me on TV and in the newspaper, she called me to say that this was good. In the beginning, her neighbours and her family didn’t believe she was flogged just for the clothes she was wearing. So she called me to say thank you.”
The issue is rapidly becoming politicised. The Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, which represents the mainly non-Muslim south in a coalition government, has called for the law to be changed. Under a 2005 peace deal, sharia law is not supposed to apply to non-Muslims, and not the least controversial among Lubna’s statements is that several of the 10 women she says were flogged were non-Muslims.
But, for Lubna, the heart of the case goes beyond the north-south divide and its ramifications. She says nothing in Islam justifies flogging a woman for wearing trousers. “I am not a hero, I just don’t have a choice,” she says, fiddling with her pale gold headscarf.
When she spoke to the Observer, Lubna was wearing trousers again, this time blue jeans. Will her experience change the way she dresses? “I have trousers, I have dresses, I have traditional Sudanese clothes – I wear what I like. I won’t change.”
And what will happen if the judge decides, as is still possible, that she was indecently dressed, and sentences her to 40 lashes?
“I will take my case to the upper court, even to the constitutional court,” she insists, measuring her words. “And if they find me guilty, I am ready to receive not only 40 lashes, I am ready for 40,000 lashes. If all women must be flogged for what they wear, I am ready to be flogged 40,000 times.”
I look forward to Tuesday to see how Lubna Hussein fights this fight. All power to her!