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Rough justice

By Donu Kogbara
LUBNA Al-Hussein, a beautiful young Sudanese woman, used to have a pleasant and uncomplicated existence. She lived in a comfortable villa in Khartoum, her country’s capital city and had a loving family, a wide circle of entertaining friends and a prestigious and well-paid job – as a United Nations Press Officer.

Then, all of a sudden, on one fine sunny day – last June 29, to be precise – storm clouds rudely intruded into the near-idyllic landscape of Lubna’s life. She was relaxing in a café when a bunch of policemen burst into the joint and arrested her and the female pals she was happily socialising with…on the grounds that they were, allegedly, violating Sudan’s 1991 Indecency Act.

The Indecency Act governs women’s public dress codes, but Lubna and her girlfriends didn’t imagine that anyone could think them indecent, since they kit themselves out like traditional Muslims and were almost, on the day of their arrest, totally covered from head to toe in demure shawls, decorously baggy blouses, trousers that were not provocatively tight or figure-hugging and skirts that were long and loose enough to completely conceal legs and alluring feminine curves.

In the photograph I saw of Lubna, bare skin was in very short supply. The only parts of her that weren’t 100 per cent under wraps were her face, her hands and her feet.

But this high-level body coverage was not enough for certain powerful and tyrannical Sharia law afficionados in Sudan…who have decided to start interpreting the l991 Indecency Act in the most bigoted way possible and are now taking delight in shaming and maiming any lady – Christians included – who dares to wear trousers in public.
“Public order” police can arbitrarily decide that certain outfits “offend public morals”.

And those who arrested Lubna and friends quoted Article 152 of the Act before literally throwing them into the back of an open pick-up truck and driving them through the town as if they were common criminals or cattle.

They were then locked up in a cell with other women who had been accused of similar “offences” and of “sins” such as being seen with men who were not their husbands.

Every member of Lubna’s group – except Lubna herself – was so keen to bring this humiliating and terrifying nightmare to an end that they all pleaded guilty in a public order court that did not permit them to defend themselves by giving evidence. Most of them wound up being sentenced to be whipped several times.

Lubna, however, refused to plead guilty.

“I had heard about barbaric beatings and I thought this is not right. This is not what it means to be a Muslim. The Koran says nothing about beating women or about women not wearing trousers. I decided I was going to fight this all the way.”

When Lubna made it clear to the authorities that she wasn’t going to join her friends in responding to their bullying in a docile manner, they realised that a rebellious woman who worked for a high-profile multinational organisation that has a strong human rights focus could easily embarrass them by drawing the outside world’s attention to their primitive ways. And they were right to fear exposure.

Lubna has became a huge celebrity and has acquired legions of supporters both at home and abroad. Street rallies are held in her honour in Khartoum. Run an internet search on her name and you’ll come across thousands of references to her courage.

When a judge hinted that Lubna, thanks to her United Nations job, was a diplomat of sorts and could be entitled to immunity from prosecution, she resigned from her job because she didn’t want it to be used as a means of providing her with special treatment and shutting her up and saving the Sudanese Government’s face.

“I don’t want immunity,” she recently told a British journalist. “I want to fight to the highest level to have these monstrous laws thrown out. I want Sudanese women like me to have our dignity and self-respect returned to us…and I’m not afraid to speak out. I cannot stand by and see pain and cruelty wrongly inflicted on women.”

Regular readers of this column will know that I despise dictatorial, dishonest regimes and love people who take risks to protest against enslavement…especially when such champions of truth and progress happen to be women.

I hope you will join me in praying that feisty Lubna – whose next court appearance will take place on September 7 – achieves her objectives and comes to no harm.


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