Police in Khartoum violently cracked down on women gathered in solidarity today with Lubna Hussein, a journalist on trial for accusations that she violated Islamic dress code by wearing pants. Police sprayed tear gas into the crowd and beat demonstrators, many of whom were women, according to news reports.
Earlier this month, Khartoum’s “discipline police” raided a local café, arresting 14 women for and accusing them of violating sharia law’s dress code by wearing pants. Such arrests are not uncommon in Khartoum, but they are usually dealt with quickly and quietly. In this case, for instance, 13 of the women arrested decided to accept their punishment of 10 lashes and a $120 fine without question. But Lubna Hussein, a press officer and columnist for the U.N. Mission in Sudan, decided to challenge the charge. Although she receives diplomatic immunity as a U.N. employee, Hussein chose to resign her post, forfeit her immunity, and stand trial.
Hussein, whose trial resumed today, is using her case to as a platform to raise the profile of what she says is the unfair treatment of women in Sudan. “Hitting is not human,” she declared in an interview. Her lawyer agreed, calling the practice of flogging “degrading” and a form of harassment. Hussein said that if the Khartoum court decides that her punishment of 40 lashes should be carried out, she wants the whipping to be done in public so that people can see that flogging is “an insult to humans, women, and religion,” she said.
But Hussein wants to do more than raise awareness through her trial; she wants to create change.
"I want to change this law,” she said. “It does not match with sharia law.” Hussein claims that the Islamic code only forbids clothing that causes public offense. Her clothing on the day of the incident, she said, did not incite such a reaction. Hussein also pointed out that women in the Sudanese military are required to wear pants, and that to arrest some women for wearing what others are mandated to wear is an unfair double standard.
Hussein is also using her case to spotlight the flaws in the implementation of both the Sudanese constitution and the Comprehensive Peace Agreement, or CPA, which ended the North-South civil war in Sudan in 2005. “The law [allowing women to be flogged]…contradicts the human rights charter in the constitution,” she said. Furthermore, one of the provisions of the CPA is that sharia law will not be applied to South Sudan. Several of the women arrested in the café raid are from South Sudan and thus by letter of the law should be exempt from following the sharia dress code.
At the trial today, the judge adjourned the case until September 7, noting that the court needs to verify whether Hussein still has diplomatic immunity due to her U.N. post. “I don’t know why they are doing this because I have already resigned from the United Nations. I think they just want to delay the case," Hussein told Reuters.