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Controversy Over Women Wearing Pants Highlights North-South Tensions in Sudan

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Controversy Over Women Wearing Pants Highlights North-South Tensions in Sudan

Posted by Maggie Fick on July 16, 2009

An insightful op-ed appeared in the Guardian’s “Comment is Free” online column yesterday. Nesrine Malik’s op-ed responds to the news that police in Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, arrested 13 women in a café on Monday and flogged 10 of them for wearing pants in public. Malik describes her own experiences growing up in the “new Khartoum”—after the National Salvation coup in 1989 which brought the National Islamic Front, now known as Sudan’s ruling National Congress Party, or NCP, to power.

Malik says that, over the past few years, the “draconian public decency laws” enforced by the NCP have been relaxed in Khartoum due to a number of factors including an influx of wealth into the city and an increased international presence in the capital. However, Malik hits on a key issue related to these laws: The Comprehensive Peace Agreement guaranteed that sharia law would not apply to southerners living in the North, and one of the women arrested on Monday is reportedly a non-Muslim southerner. Malik notes:

The incident has prompted a member of the southern SPLM – now incorporated into the ranks of the government – to demand an investigation into the event, hinting at concerns over the viability of a united Sudan as the 2011 referendum (when the south will vote for or against secession) looms.

The difficulties of governing two different communities in one country under two different sets of laws are highlighted by the harsh punishment for brewing of illegal alcohol known as "araqi," more often than not concocted by poor women from the south. On a recent trip back to Khartoum, I watched from my window as a family of southern squatters stood by while their makeshift tents were burned to the ground by public order police as punishment for brewing alcohol illegally.

Indeed, the future of the internally displaced southerners living in Khartoum—the U.N. and some humanitarian agencies have put this figure between 1.5 and 2 million, while the recent census conducted by the NCP claims it is only 200,000—is one of the many unknowns facing Sudan in the run-up to 2011. Malik aptly describes this dilemma as it relates to the brutal application of sharia law by Khartoum police this week.

Malik’s closing remarks are also powerful:

What these women were wearing is hardly the point. They were just an easy target for someone’s discomfort with the challenge they posed to convention, traditionalism and the status quo. As with all self-declared Islamic governments, what a woman wears becomes no longer an issue of religious modesty but one of audacity and defiance to a regime’s raison d’etre and authority.

Read the entire op-ed here.