12 Women in Sudan Risk 40 Lashes for Wearing Pants

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July 14, 2015; The Guardian

Twelve Sudanese women were recently arrested and charged with indecency by the government’s morality police because of their purported crime of wearing pants. Had they been convicted, they would each face a public flogging of 40 lashes. Due to the activism of human rights organizations that really are inordinately courageous, facing off against a government run by Omar al-Bashir, who is still wanted for human rights crimes by the International Criminal Court, one of the women, 19-year-old Fardos Al Toum, has been convicted—but for the moment, not been sentenced to flogging. The other eleven women are awaiting their verdicts.

It is a victory for even one of these women to be spared a flogging, at least for the moment, but the sentence still could be imposed on her or on the other women. Still, one might consider these women lucky. According to Amal Habbani with the organization No to Women’s Oppression, 40,000 to 50,000 women each year in Sudan are arrested and flogged because of the crime of inappropriate clothing. Most of the time, the women who are arrested for the crime of pants are invisible to the outside world and don’t seek attention because of the social stigma involved, but these dozen women chose to make their cases public and to take advantage of social media to drum up support for their exoneration. Nahid Gabr Allah, the director of the Seema Center, a nonprofit organized to protect women and children, noted that in other similar cases, the impact on the women’s psychological health can be severe, and some women charged with these crimes try to commit suicide.

Amnesty International weighed in with a statement that declared it “outrageous that these women face a risk of being flogged simply for choosing to wear a skirt or a pair of trousers. The public order law is imposed in a way which is hugely discriminatory and totally inappropriate and violates women’s rights.”

It takes huge courage for these women to stand up against Sudanese authorities and for the human rights nonprofits in the country to speak out against a government headed by an international war criminal. However, these twelve women aren’t the first to have publicly resisted the Sudanese prohibition against wearing trousers. In 2009, a woman named Lubna Hussein was arrested and beaten for wearing pants at a Khartoum restaurant. Because she was at the time a United Nations press officer, she was offered UN immunity from prosecution, but Hussein chose instead to resign from the UN so that she could face the charges in court in front of women’s rights activists and journalists. She actually had 500 invitation cards printed and distributed for her trial.

It’s hard to imagine someone having the courage of Lubna Hussein. “Afraid of what? No, I am not afraid, really,” she said at the time. “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?”

“It is my chance to defend the women of Sudan,” Hussein continued. “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.”

A profile in true courage, Hussein concluded, “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.”

It is difficult to fathom the courage of these people facing off against al-Bashir’s government. Let’s hope that U.S. nonprofits are don’t become so solipsistic that they turn a blind eye to the human rights abuses that occur throughout the world and to the willingness of some nonprofits in otherwise authoritarian countries to stand up to support people like Fardos Al Toum and Lubna Hussein.—Rick Cohen