Khartoum, Asharq Al-Awsat – I will stand before a Sudanese court for the third time on Monday after I and 12 other women were accused of “committing an indecent action”, namely, wearing trousers in a public place. I will be sentenced to 40 lashes and an unspecified fine if I am convicted on violating Article 152 of the Sudanese Penal Code for 1991 which bans the wearing of indecent clothes in public places. I had immunity because I worked for the United Nations and was given the opportunity to avoid the trial but I chose to resign from the international organization so as to be able to confront the Sudanese authorities and make them show the world what they consider to be justice.
It might look bizarre for many people to see a woman facing this situation in a country that claims to be the “Dubai of the Nile River.” Over the past years, my country earned millions from oil revenues and massive buildings and modern hotels spread all over the capital and though the living conditions of most people did not improve the government promised that we were on our road to prosperity.
But the laws governing us were not modernized even though anew constitution was enacted in 2005, the comprehensive peace was concluded, and the human rights charters reaffirmed. They are still restricting woman’s behavior – not only the clothes freedom but also her freedom to work – and banning journalists from expressing their views and arresting people for no reason.
This is not something new. Sudan has an honorable and saddening history of courageous men and women who were forced to fight against repressive laws. They also taught me that we should not hide behind privileges but to express those who cannot express their opinions.
My trial next week might put Sudanese justice under the spotlight for one moment but I hope that people will not ignore it once my trial ends because there are major challenges facing us.
When the Government of Sudan and the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement signed the comprehensive peace agreement after more than 20 years of barbaric civil war, both sides promised to respect the international law on human rights to prevent a repetition of the barbaric acts committed in the past. This obligation includes the repeal of many repressive laws, especially the famous public order law which is used to persecute ordinary citizens. But the control and harassment of journalists and human rights defenders are continuing and woman continues to be chased for working in traditional coffee shops. One woman fell and died immediately when she tried to escape the police chasing her in the past weeks and a young man selling paper tissues to help his poor family also died after falling from a building he fled to as he tried to flee from the police.
After my case became famous, the police of the so-called “public order” arrested girls in a public place. They searched their cell phones and discovered photos and videos from a famous Turkish soap opera, “Nur and Muhannad”. The cell phones showed Nur and Muhannad kissing and that was enough reason to take the girls to the police station and to court under the indecency article (153), another in the Sudanese Penal Code for 1991, and each one was given 40 lashes. Would you believe that most of these courts are made up of a single judge and a policeman only! The policeman is the one who arrested the girls, the plaintiff, and the prosecution…and the single witness!!
Would you believe that? There are thousands of incidents and the papers are not enough to list them. Allow me to say that the number of women arrested in Khartoum Province for reasons of clothes in 2008 was 43,000! The police commander who reported this news also said that he did not know exactly the number of women who were actually lashed!!
Elections in Sudan will begin next summer but the opposition parties will be unable to contest them unless the laws are changed to be in accord with the new constitution. The elections are one step toward the referendum in which our brothers and sisters in the south will determine whether they want to continue the unity or secede. These are painful choices because they will determine the future of our children and future generations.
When I think about my trial, I pray to God that my daughter will not live in fear of the so-called “society’s security police.” We will not be safe unless the police protect us and these laws are repealed. I also pray to God to let the new generation look back and see that we had the courage to fight for their future before it was too late. We need the Arab and African peoples, the Americans, the Chinese, and the Europeans to stand with us and support us so that the next chapter in our history will be less bloody and barbaric than the past. This requires conviction and boldness. I also hope that they will bring to light the traits of these Sudanese men and women who they greatly admired because these are the traits that ensure non-capitulation and running away before a real change has happened.