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."