A tussle over trousers in Sudan
One moment everything was quiet on the streets outside the Khartoum courtroom where Lubna Hussein was on trial this morning, charged with indecency for wearing trousers.
The next, a three-way fight had exploded between riot police armed with crackling electric batons, women’s rights protesters waving banners and posters, and Islamists fuelled with righteous indignation and pious chants.
You couldn’t have asked for a better illustration of the opposing forces that have come piling down on Sudan’s government since the start of the case — opposing forces that also compete for influence at the heart of the Khartoum regime.
Women’s rights campaigners and other activists were the first to get involved after Sudan’s public order police barged into a party in the capital in July and found Lubna and 12 other female guests wearing trousers.
The activists saw it as a test case for the hundreds of women who get picked up every year in Khartoum, and face flogging for a range of for public order offences, mostly related to dress. Punishments aside, may women also complain about the sporadic way the law is applied and the lack of a clear definition of indecent dress.
The human rights protesters had a powerful case to make to a Sudanese government that is currently keen to cosy up to the West, in the hope of getting some of Washington’s crippling trade sanctions lifted. A highly publicised flogging would have been particularly bad news for Khartoum on Monday, two days ahead of an expected visit from the U.S. Sudan envoy Scott Gration.
The next group to make their presence felt at today’s protests were the Islamists who infiltrated the crowd, shouting religious slogans and tearing up women’s posters. They also had influence to wield. Sudan’s government, which once played host to Osama bin Laden, has its roots in the Islamist movement.
The next people to pile in were the police, a group with their own strong power base in a regime built on its security services. Lubna’s case in a way was a challenge to the authority of a brother force, questioning the right of the public order police to arrest at will.
So what’s a judge to do with so many conflicting pressures piling up around him? No doubt he would insist his ruling today was based purely on the law. But his final judgement — a $200 fine, way below the maximum penalty of 40 lashes — certainly felt like a compromise.
For the Islamists, the law was upheld and a guilty verdict given.
For the campaigners, Lubna had her chance to publicise her case and got off with a relatively light sentence. For the police, order in the streets was restored As the last riot police moved off in their caged vans, and the last protesters dispersed, two southern Sudanese women stood no more than 100 yards away from the site of the demonstration, buying oranges from a pavement stall. Both wore tight blue jeans and close-fitting t-shirts. No-one batted an eyelid.