Sudanese women: you can beat us but you can’t break us

Published: 2 Oct 2013
By: Hala Alkarib

(The writer is the Director of the Strategic Initiative for women in the Horn of Africa. The article first appeared in the Sudan Tribune on 23 September 2013 and has been reproduced with permission from the author.)

Anger is growing in Sudan as peaceful demonstrators are being injured and killed by the Sudanese regime forces. This comes as a result of years of injustices in which the people of Sudan have been exposed to the brutality of the dogmatic ideology of political Islam, and have been stripped of their dignity. And Sudanese women are a mirror of the cruelty and disparity imposed by the ruling regime. 

For 25 years now, women in Sudan have been flogged publicly. The current Sudanese regime’s ideology was clear from the beginning: like all dogma in political Islam, the regime decided that the road to secure their position was through controlling women’s bodies, minds, existence and interaction in public. This misogynistic ideology is based on the assumption that women are problematic and in need of being disciplined and controlled; that women are both dangerous and the main instigator of immorality, hence the need to be told how to behave in public.

“It’s not enough to talk to them; we have to punish them and install fear in their minds because they are not intelligent and are spiritually unfit. Their fathers and husbands are unable to control them”. These are the beliefs that underpin Article 152 of the Sudan criminal code, ‘Indecent and Immoral Acts’, under which thousands of women have already been tried, sentenced and publicly lashed. Their laughter is seen as a crime, their presence provoking sin.

It is on this basis that the regime drafted Article 154 of the criminal code, ‘Practicing Prostitution.” This article defines a place of prostitution’ as “any place designated for the meeting of men and women between whom there is no marital relationship, or kinship, in circumstances in which the exercise of sexual acts is probable to occur”.  Hundreds of women are being charged under this article every day, inside their homes and work places. The breadth of interpretation effectively allows women in any public place in which a woman can be in the same room as an unrelated man to be tried under this article.

The offence of “possession of materials and displays contrary to public morality” of Article 153 has exposed thousands of young women to the madness of the public order police and deprived them of their ability to live with dignity. The Sudan public order laws are vague and elusive in order to allow judges and law enforcers to employ their own interpretation of the law, turning the legal system into a self-serving machinery manipulated and twisted against women’s presence and participation in public.

The stories I tell here is just the tip of the iceberg. Sara is a 25 year old artist and school teacher at a private school. Early this year, while on her way back home, she was stopped and picked up by the public order police. She was wearing trousers and a long sleeved t-shirt. She was sexually assaulted, verbally humiliated and then charged under Article 152 for wearing trousers. According to her story, by the time they picked her up, there were twelve other women inside the vehicle all of whom had been picked up randomly by the public order police while walking on public roads. None of them had committed any crime; all were just walking along minding their own business. They were detained for 24 hours and their phones were confiscated. In the morning, the judge called them out by name. When her name was called, Sara says the judge asked her, “do you want 40 lashes or to pay 1000 SDP?” (US$225 equivalent) She said she only had ten pounds, so he yelled “40 lashes” and a soldier grabbed her. They took her to the yard inside the detention block, made her sit on the sand floor and started whipping her.  “After ten extremely painful lashes” she said, “I was numb and I could only hear the mocking and the laughter of the soldiers standing around and asking the flogger to beat harder”.

Forty-four year old Halima brews alcohol locally and sells it to men from all over Khartoum. She is the breadwinner for her family of six children and two elderly parents, all of whom depend on her for their care. She said she has been flogged and jailed many times, “every time they come they take away the alcohol, re-sell it to consumers or they drink it, and beat me for making it”.

Amena, 56 years old, sells tea next to a private hospital. She says, “they keep taking my kettle and cups all the time, sometimes they flog me, or if I have some money I give it to them. These days I have found a place next to the graveyard to sell my tea. I still get customers, but the police rarely come close to me. I think the dead in our country are more powerful than the living”.

The tales of these women reflect how millions of Sudanese women are living.

The battle against Sudan’s public order regime, which has been infused within the criminal code of the country, has been going on for years across the country. This regime has been utilized to repress women, to compromise their livelihoods, to impoverish them, to limit their participation in public life, sport, cultural activities and mobility, as well as to limit their political participation. The Sudanese discriminatory laws and the public order regime are affecting communities for generations to come by imposing the subordination of women in the mindset of the younger generation, and hence taking away any potential for progress and peace.

Hundreds of women flocked to court to attend Amira Osman’s trial, a Sudanese activist who was charged under Article 152 for not covering her hair with a scarf. Her trial has now been postponed until 4 November 2013. These women will not give up their humanity and dignity, despite the whip being held to their heads.

Regions: North and Horn of Africa, Sudan
Type: IRRI Blog