Will Youmans, a former graduate student of mine at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, runs an irreverent blog KABOBFEST on matters pertaining to the Middle East and the Arab Diaspora. Earlier this week, Will gave his take on the case of the Sudanese media worker, Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein, arrested and tried for wearing trousers [Sean Jacobs].
This Sudanese media worker was charged by the government with ‘indecency’ for wearing trousers, which carries the medieval penalty of forty lashes from a whip.
After this story gained wide media coverage, the Sudanese officials looked for a way out. Al-Hussein was an employee of the UN and was therefore immune, they said in an attempt to save face and salvage the law. She responded by quitting her job and demanding a trial in the hopes of getting it thrown off the books. Her defense was that the law was both in contravention of Islam and the government’s constitution.
At her second court date two days ago, supporters lined the street, many wearing trousers as civil disobedience in solidarity. They chanted against a return to the Dark Ages. The police used tear gas to disperse the crowd, saying it became a riot.
Al-Hussein has become a symbol, and hopefully this will embolden the people Sudan and Arabs in other countries to stand up (a difficult notion of course given not everyone gets media attention or was employed by the UN).
The court adjourned the case to investigate the UN issue further. My guess is they still want to use that as a way out, so as not to cause any changes to this draconian and senseless law.
Al-Hussein said she wants to get rid of Article 152, which decrees up to 40 lashes for anyone “who commits an indecent act which violates public morality or wears indecent clothing.” Indecent dress, many women there argue, is not defined in the law, thus leaving it up to the tastes of arresting officers and giving them no guidelines.
Al-Hussein’s willingness to fight patriarchy and to assert her rights is commendable. She said she is willing to appeal the case to the highest court. If effective, she could spare thousands of Sudanese women from state violence.
Also, observers should note that she grounded her arguments in Islam, arguing that the law as it stands distorts the teachings. “If some people refer to the sharia to justify flagellating women because of what they wear, then let them show me which Quranic verses or hadith [sayings of the Prophet Mohammed] say so. I haven’t found them,” she said.
If successful, this will bolster arguments by human rights activists that their campaigns can be rooted in religion. In religious societies, this may be necessary to achieve legal decency and to check the state’s powers. This is no easy struggle, but an ultimately necessary one.
Sudan should act just in this case and rebut the pressures of the less tolerant. Sadly yet predictably, it is turning to further repression to squash support for her. Police assaulted one of her attorneys. They also cracked down on another woman journalist, Amal Habbani, who published an article in the paper Ajrass al-Horreya (Bells of Freedom) entitled: “Lubna, a case of subduing a woman’s body.”
I applause al-Hussein and her supporters. Now, France needs an al-Hussein, too.