This is a guest post by Abu Faris
Hisham the singer has been regaling me with tales of his banning from Sudanese state television. He had tried to sing his “HIV protest song”, but the editor had put the kibosh on that. “So I sang my female circumcision song instead – and they said I would never appear on Sudan TV again!” He seemed very proud of this.
One of the more unusual features of the otherwise rather reactionary regime in Khartoum is its apparent rather wide tolerance of political and social dissent.
Perhaps it is as a consequence of the unstoppable Sudanese addiction to political debate, perhaps it is the result of a rather media-savvy regime, canny enough to allow its many critics some space in which to blow-off steam. Whatever the reason, Khartoum continues to have a refreshingly free press in comparison to other authoritarian states and be a city where some freedom of expression flourishes despite the manifest disapproval of those in power.
However, expressions like “freedom of the press”, or “freedom of expression” are relative terms – and sooner or later, one will run into the wall of censorship and repression if the wrong buttons are repeatedly pressed. Everything, especially in a dictatorship, has its limits – as Lubna Hussein has recently discovered to her cost.
Lubna is a rather well-known, brave and outspoken journalist in Khartoum, publishing her weekly “Men Talk” column in the Arabic-language newspaper “al-Sahafa” – a column which she uses to make overt and direct criticisms of an often highly misogynistic Sudanese society and the patriarchal values shared by many of the men in power in Khartoum. Lubna also works for the disliked by the government UN Mission in Sudan (UNMIS). In other words, the feisty Lubna has been pressing all the wrong buttons for quite some time. Sooner or later someone was going to react.
React they did, as now much of the world know, arresting Lubna back in July for wearing the wrong trousers. The story was picked up by the world’s press as another example of the ludicrous and reactionary nature of the Sudanese regime, however it is worth repeating as those outside of Sudan will have missed some of the finer and more depressing features of the whole story.
Nine Sudanese women, including non-Muslim Southerners, were arrested by police in July on charges that they violated the public dress code. These included Lubna Hussein. They were taken by the Public Order Police (POP) [POP are the Sudanese equivalent of Saudi Arabia's notorious "morality" police] on a Sunday from a cafe in an area east of Khartoum. The only thing in common between all those taken into custody was that they were wearing trousers, Lubna commented at the time.
Hussein said they found four young women ahead of them waiting for interrogation by a judge in the al-Sagana court in Khartoum. Among the detained were four from Southern Sudan, three of whom were under the age of eighteen, she added. The arrests took place under the Criminal Penal Code which states that anyone wearing “provocative clothing” shall be punished with no more than 40 lashes or a fine or both.
Ten out of the thirteen women ended up receiving 10 lashes and were fined 250 Sudanese Pounds [US $104] each while the remaining three asked for their lawyers to be present and as such their cases were transferred to the deputy prosecutor.
Hussein said that some of the women admitted guilt to the judge without appearing to be aware of its implications. She said that one girl told her that she just wanted to “get this over with”. She disclosed that one of the women was “so terrified” before the judge that she wet herself in fear.
Lubna (being Lubna) demanded a proper trial, which she duly received. After over a month of both international publicity and condemnation, the judge Mudathir Al-Rasheed Sid Ahmed found Hussein to be guilty under Article 152 of Sudan’s 1991 penal code and ordered her to pay a fine of 500 Sudanese pounds ($200) or in the alternative be jailed for a month.
Eyewitnesses and the defence team said that the judge was in a rush to indict Hussein and did nit allow for cross examination of the prosecution witnesses. They also expressed surprise that the judge did not use “common sense” as the outfit worn by Hussein at the hearing was the same one she had on when arrested.
The judge spared Hussein the flogging penalty included in the law that was inflicted upon the other girls caught with her likely to avoid further international outcry.
The police witness evidence provided to the court was positively breathless and pruriently excited by the details it recounts:
“The defendant was wearing pants and a blouse and the pants were tight and flashy and showed from underneath it the thighs and the outline and the form of the underwear and the colour of her panties that could clearly be seen which were beige in colour and a short shirt with sleeves up to her elbow and it was transparent and there was light reflecting everything within, such as the shape and form of the bra and that the top of her chest was showing because of the blouse opening and it also had two holes on the side lengthwise from top to bottom, and there was a gap between the bottom the shirt and the trousers so that it appeared [!] that one was able to view the navel and the underwear of the accused”.
The judge concluded from this “evidence”:
“Based on this evidence, we decide that the defendant was wearing a provocative outfit through which it showed all parts of the body, of the woman’s charms, and showed the underwear and [she was] revealing her hair as she sat inside a nightclub full of dancing and singing with mingling between women and men, and this cafe is a public place as defined in the comment of Dr. Mohamed Awad Ali Mohyideen on this code that the public space is attended by people without discrimination and examples like public roads and public squares, shops and places of public entertainment.”
Lubna Hussein refused to pay the fine and chose the jail sentence. However, a day after Lubna was sent to Omdurman women’s prison, the head of the journalists’ union, widely viewed as a pro-government body, Mohyideen Titawi announced that they had paid the fine and had a judge’s order to release Lubna. Many Sudanese journalists and observers believe that Titawi was nudged by the government to pay the fine to avoid escalation of the international public relations nightmare created by the case.
What is for certain is that Lubna Hussein was furious by the payment of her fine.
Hisham, the now banned singer, met his friend Lubna, together with many supporters at the gates of Omdurman women’s prison on her release. Hisham was gleeful in the protest that there occurred: “Never in all my days have I seen so many beautiful young women deliberately wearing such tight trousers”, he giggled. Let us hope, I opined, that those other women whipped and fined and now forgotten for wearing the wrong trousers can too see the lighter side of the whole affair.