Pants Pants Revolution

Sudanese courts might give Lubna Hussein 40 lashes for the crime of wearing pants. But they also might start a grassroots backlash on the world stage. 

Khartoum -- To the media she is the "Sudan trouser woman." Images of Lubna Hussein wearing the outfit that led to her arrest in Khartoum last month have zipped around the world. News reports give the impression that she is a radical on a crusade, her trial a fight over women's rights in an Islamic capital city. But this impression fails to scratch the surface. What is at stake is no less than a burgeoning social movement that promises to test the authoritarian Sudanese government on a global stage.

Hussein is one of thousands of women arrested each year for one of the "public order" offenses listed in Sudan's criminal code. Article 152, the one relevant to Hussein's case, reads: "Whoever commits an indecent act or an act that breaches public morality or wears clothes that are indecent or would breach public morality which causes annoyance to public feelings is liable to forty lashes or fine or both punishments."

The laws are officially meant to keep the public safe. But in practice, public order police use the vaguely worded regulations to extract bribes from women on the street, while public order justices deliver immediate punishment for infractions, devoid of due process. This means that public order laws are the subject of suppressed but persistent debate inside Sudan.

The current regime, led by President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, enacted the sharia-based provisions upon seizing power in a military coup in 1989. But the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended two decades of bloody civil war between the government and southern Sudan, mandated a "democratic transformation." The Interim Constitution, which takes the country through a set transition period, includes a bill of rights meant to respect the "freedoms enshrined in international human rights treaties" -- which includes equality between the sexes and due process, two things disrespected in cases like Hussein's.

A disparate group of activists -- including non-governmental organizations, opposition political parties, and media outlets -- have been trying to use the Interim Constitution to argue for the easing of the public order provisions. "The government's statistics tell us that last year 43,000 people were arrested for crimes against the public order," explained Sudanese human right activist Nahid Gabralla. "I consider every one of those people to be victims."

But activists have made no headway in changing the laws or the institutions that enforce them. Nor have they garnered the attention of the public officials who could make the necessary reforms. What has started to change, with Hussein's arrest, is the opposition itself. The incident has spurred diffuse activists into coordinating and bolstered their efforts. And Hussein herself has played an integral part, by refusing to duck a trial and then drawing attention to her case -- a startling move for a woman in this conservative society.

As a staffer at the U.N. Mission in Sudan's media department, Hussein could have invoked diplomatic immunity to avoid flogging for the "crime" of wearing trousers. Instead, she waived her immunity and decided to challenge the law head-on. Hussein says she hoped to shed light on those flogged under unjust laws -- especially because most women and girls who are thus punished do everything they can to keep their ordeal from the rest of the world. 

Speaking with me the day before her trial, she explained her decision to go public. "The trouble is that usually people don't hear about this law. If you tell people you have been flogged for wearing trousers, they won't believe you. This way, there will be witnesses." 

After waiving immunity, Hussein says she considered using her skill in journalism to write an article on her case, highlighting the absurdity of the law. But Sudan censors its press. Anything she wrote would never have seen the light of day. Hussein enlisted the support of legal reform advocates instead, writing personal invitations asking them to attend her trial. She then reached out to the international media to give the case a global profile. 

The grassroots movement coalesced and grasped the opportunity. On Tuesday, more than 100 women appeared at the North Khartoum District Courthouse with hand-written signs reading "No more women's rights violations!" and "Kill me, but don't suppress me!" Gabralla, the human rights activist, stood proudly in the front row, facing scores of the much-feared policemen carrying batons and AK47s, with riot gear at the ready. 

Inside the courtroom, the judge postponed the trial for a month, saying he wanted time to clarify Hussein's immunity status. It would have been hard to imagine, given the global spotlight on this case, there being any other outcome from the hearing. Hussein and her acolytes have forced the Sudanese government to decide whether it wishes to flog a practicing Muslim widow in full view of the world. 

At this time, Sudan is attempting to prove its bona fides to a U.S. administration. Recently, U.S. Special Envoy Scott Gration indicated the United States may be willing to normalize relations, suggesting that Sudan should be removed from the official U.S. list of state sponsors of terrorism. Although the Sudanese government wishes to appease the Americans, it also does not want to let the protestors have their way. Hussein knew these dynamics well when she took the step of challenging the law.

The Sudanese government has turned the tactic of delay into an art form -- hoping that in a month's time, the outrage over Hussein's case will have blown over.  It is a hope resting on a shaky foundation. The international media spotlight may be fickle -- "trousergate" can only run for so long.

But the regime in Khartoum will not be able to stamp out the hundreds of women intent on protesting Hussein's trial. In a country where the omnipresence of the dreaded security services has led the population to self-censor, Hussein's act of defiance shows the possibility of a different path.

As Hussein puts it, "This is not about trousers."

AFP/Getty Images


Can Abbas Save Fatah?

A convention in Bethlehem might be the Palestinian leader's last chance to save his dying party.

More than one participant at the opening of this week's Palestinian Fatah convention in Bethlehem likened the scene to "a really big wedding." Only the sixth such meeting since the movement was founded a half century ago and the first one in 20 years, it comes at a key moment for a party struggling with declining popularity, internal discord, and a violent rivalry with Hamas. Everyone who was anyone in Fatah was there.

Between Fatah's West Bank leadership, young Fatah loyalists, diplomats representing dozens of countries, and exiled Fatah members convening from Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, the streets were lined with a mix of luxury cars and armored autos. Talk of the conference monopolized radio discussions, taxi chats, and conversations on the streets. Security was tight: The roads around the Church of the Nativity, near the school hosting the convention, were shut down, and Palestinian security perched on every rooftop. The convention hall was closed even to the majority of credentialed journalists.

There are countless issues on the table for Fatah to address this week, but the biggest triumph will no doubt be that the multiday convention is even happening at all. It's a long-overdue reunion for a party that has been in steady decline since the 1993 Oslo Accords and the formation of the Palestinian Authority. Now, Fatah must face up to a trio of challenges: reconciling with Hamas, pinning down its strategy for either negotiations with or resistance to Israel, and repairing internal rifts within the party. The conference won't solve all, or maybe any, of these problems. But many Palestinians hope the gathering will be a reckoning of sorts, an acknowledgement, at least, that Fatah needs a new approach to solve its many crises.

The most apparent, and urgent, quandary is the high-profile rivalry between Hamas and Fatah, which has split the Palestinian territories literally in two, with Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip and Fatah retaining hold of the West Bank. The logistical complexity of the conference shows just how deep the trouble runs. From the outset, many Fatah members in exile protested the event's being held in the occupied West Bank, claiming that the setting itself would drain legitimacy from a party committed to ending the Israeli military presence on Palestinian land. But Hamas was the more formidable obstacle; the Gaza rulers prevented about 400 Fatah delegates from traveling to the West Bank for the conference. Some Gaza-based attendees made it to the West Bank by sneaking out in the days before the conference, but one such delegate reportedly returned home the night before the opening in solidarity with those who remained trapped.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is well aware just how sour relations between the two factions have turned, and he devoted much of his two-hour opening speech to the Hamas-Fatah rift. Although offering positive overtures in favor of unity talks and reconciliation, he also had harsh words for Hamas. He called the party "coup makers," in reference to Hamas's forceful 2007 takeover of the Gaza Strip. Hamas members were "forces of darkness," Abbas said, condemning them for denying Fatah delegates the ability to travel to the conference (Hamas says it did so in hopes of securing the release of Hamas prisoners detained in the West Bank by Abbas's forces).

The splits, however, don't end there. Since the death of its founder Yasir Arafat in 2004, Fatah itself has grown ever more divided, as is evident at the conference. The delegates here, draped in the black-and-white checkered scarves of the Palestinian national movement, range from hard-line party founders in exile, who, having seen several rounds of peace talks with Israel fail, still prefer armed resistance, to the West Bank leadership, whose painful experiences living through two intifadas have convinced them to pursue negotiations.

Abbas is walking the line between these two camps within his party. He promised to prioritize negotiations while reserving the right to "resistance," preferably in the form of civil disobedience and nonviolent protests, if peace talks fail. The result is a slow, steady softening of Fatah's principles, which date back to its start as a guerrilla liberation movement committed to armed resistance. That history is proving tough for the party to denounce entirely.

Yet most Fatah leaders know that revitalizing the party -- and regaining popular support -- will mean completing the long transition from liberation movement to internationally recognized political party. Fatah, the recipient of regular donations from the United States and other countries, is making strides under Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, a technocrat with a laserlike focus on delivering services and good governance to the Palestinian people. But finishing the job will take many more fresh political faces -- no small task for a party that has failed to produce an inspirational Palestinian figurehead since Arafat's death.

Elections set for the final day of the conference, which might run longer than its expected Thursday closing, in theory offer a chance for new leaders to emerge and take positions in the central committee or ruling council. But no dramatic change looks likely. Abbas and his longtime cronies in the Palestinian Authority worry that new faces could threaten their already tenuous hold on the party. Several hundred delegate names were added at the last minute, a ploy rumored to draw more votes for those currently in power. The vast majority of the few hundred delegates milling about after the opening speech were men over 50, some quite elderly, while young men like those at the front lines of Fatah's former days of armed resistance were conspicuously absent. Many younger members vied for seats at the conference, but complained of receiving only a few spaces.

Despite the celebratory and hopeful atmosphere in Bethlehem, there is a sense that this is an urgent moment for Fatah, when the party's implosion is a real and imminent risk. It's a disturbing thought that the future of Arafat's once revered movement, the governing Palestinian Authority, and indeed the entire peace process hinge on the emergence of a strong alternative to Hamas and chaos. Holding the conference at all is a victory for Abbas -- a "miracle," as he called it in his speech. But now is the time for him either to step up, strengthening the Palestinians from within, or step aside, letting new leadership reach for the goal of Palestinian statehood that has eluded him so far.