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What Sudanese Women Wear

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Few people in Australia would be unaware of Lubna Hussein, the Sudanese "trouser woman" who in August this year was  catapaulted into the limelight with her defiant defence against the punishment of flogging. She had been one of a group of friends - Muslim and non-Muslim - sprung by the Sudanese police in a  restaurant after closing time, smoking shisha and wearing trousers and a kaftan top, rather than the traditional "tobe" ( a wraparound cloth similar to the sari but worn in a less structured, yet more concealing, manner) or the fashionable long, close-fitting skirt and top which young Sudanese women favour and which reveal their rather robust curves delightfully but conform - just - to the current "modesty" requirements imposed under the 1991 Criminal Code. Although she was charged with "affray and anti-social behaviour" the focus has remained on her trousers.

Women's clothing in the Sudan is a political issue. But the Islamist government of Omar al-Bashir, always energetically pursuing its agenda of Islamization of non-Muslims, Arabization of everybody and general dictatorship, has found that regarding clothing, Sudanese women will submit only so far and no further. Thus when the popular "tobe" was attempted to be banned in favour of Arabic Muslim dress, the women protested vigorously, and the voluminous, colourful tobe remains, a staple of Sudanese cultural expression; although young women often prefer more Western clothing, imported mainly from China, Egypt and India, and ground-length denim skirts are very popular, despite the fierce heat.

While men can wear the jellabiya, a light, white cotton tunic worn with loose white trousers, there is no corresponding cool alternative for women; indeed the female alternative to the jellabiya as a statement of religious adherence, the appallingly hot black cloak which is sometimes worn with face covering, is becoming more visible in the Sudan, perhaps as a requirement made by those women's  fundamentalist husbands or even as an expression of perceived superiority in keeping with the Arabic Muslimas with whom they like to identify.

Under the terms of the rather shaky CPA (Comprehensive Peace Agreement) made in 2005, in which, supposedly, only  Muslims are  subjected to Sharia law, non-Muslim southern women often stand out quite markedly in the Muslim capital of Khartoum in their bright, tailored African-print dresses, close-fitting trousers or traditional loose African caftans. Yet many others conform to northern Sudanese  dress codes in order to fit in, similar to the way Western women cover their arms and heads in Muslim cultures. Trousers are clearly not banned by law for non-Muslims.

But the non-Muslims wrongly apprehended by the police with Hussein did not protest, and submitted to ten lashings each, perhaps mindful of the Sudanese women's jails full of women incarcerated for minor infringements, for example southern women who were caught brewing araki (the cheap, local, rather poisonous alcohol), or Muslim girls who refused to marry the man chosen for them by their parents, or other "crimes" considered in other cultures to be matters of personal choice and not crimes at all.

In the Khartoum area in 2008, 43,000 arrests of women were made in relation to infringements of the Public Order Act, a set of laws and mechanisms which deal with matters ranging from those of public security to the enforcement of a range of behaviour from dancing at private parties, to "indecent dress", to intention to commit adultery. (Sudan Tribune, 23/11/09.) These laws are enforced not only by police, but also by young Muslim zealots who reportedly have been known to lie and demand sexual favours from arrested women as they go about their pious business. Dancing, outside of the home, is only allowed at weddings, celebrations of which must cease at 11.00 pm; although a little bit of action not unlike dancing is tolerated during the happy frenzy of Sufi celebrations...

Lubna Hussein, who worked for the United Nations in Khartoum, and was eligible for diplomatic immunity from punishment - an eligibility she denied herself by leaving her job - and chose to fight the case, received a lot of local and international support which undoubtedly influenced the court's decision to change the punishment to a fine, or jail for a month if the fine was not paid. The Sudanese Journalists' Union paid the fine she refused to pay, and the still-defiant Ms Hussein was released from jail after a few hours, despite her stated wish to remain in jail and research the facts of incarceration of Sudanese women; in the short time she had in jail she had met southern women, legally exempt from Public Order laws, who had been jailed for lengthy periods, unable to pay fines for their purported crimes.

Although she was released, the matter has not been dropped by Ms Hussein, who, despite a travel ban, has slipped out of  the Sudan in full Islamic dress - demonstrating ironically what a great sense of freedom such clothing can give a woman - with the help of "friends at the airport", and gone to France to publicize her country's draconian but arbitrarily-imposed indecency laws, and shame the government into reform of the laws. In this she may have been encouragd by the "teddy bear" fiasco of 2007 in which an English school teacher was spared jail by Western publicity and intervention after naively acquiescing to her students' request to name the class teddy "Mohammed" and finding herself the subject of a loud demonstration by outraged Sufis (Sufis being apparently only "peaceful" until they are not peaceful.) The Sudanese government declared that they could not guarantee her safety if she remained in Khartoum - in the manner of European governments who now say helplessly that they cannot guarantee the safety of anyone who attempts to challenge, or is simply in the way of, Muslim mobs demonstrating in the streets - and sent her home, unpunished, to England. 

Perhaps Ms Hussein is a little too hopeful if she is looking to the West for support for an enduring programme of progress in her home country. Western countries' panic-stricken slow capitulation to Islam at home and reluctance to tackle Islamic injustice overseas, and the existence in Europe of Islamists of all stripes, some even more fanatical than those she will have encountered in the Sudan and many with a profound hatred of the Western countries they live in, might give her an unpleasant surprise. 

But for now at least she is doing something, even if it not leaving Islam, something only the bravest of the brave do in the Sudan and only when escape from the country is possible. Apostasy in the Sudan can lead to a quick and nasty death; Sudanese have not forgotten the jail execution of the genial Mahmud Muhammad Taha, executed in 1985 for his mild attempt to reform Islam, or the journalist Mohammed Ahmed Taha, found beheaded in the street in 2006 after criticizing the brutality of the government and supporting the liberalization of shariah, and, more dangerously in this country where the ruling cliques pride themselves on their Islamic bloodlines, questioning the ancestral lineage of the "Prophet" Mohammed. Murderous attacks on ordinary people who leave Islam completely go unreported in the press, but are spoken about privately, not necessarily in a tone of condemnation of the attackers.  

For Ms Hussein, the safest option has been to declare that Mohammed never banned trousers. Of course, this might well be what she truly believes, that adherence to Mohammed's commands, wishes, or even idle whims or anything he deemed to be behaviour likely to be approved of by Allah, is all that matters, and that despite his instructions to women to cover up, Mohammed did not specifically mention trousers. (Indeed, the shalwar kameez, the national dress of Pakistan's Muslim women, consists of trousers with a tunic not much longer than that worn by Hussein on the occasion in question.) 

However, caution is advised for those who want to make Lubna Hussein the poster girl for Sudanese women's rights. In the Sudan, women's rights do not necessarily mean "human" rights. It is entirely possible in the Sudan for demands for certain freedoms for Muslim women to be consistent, in the mind of an individual, with a tolerance for discrimination, or even jihad, against non-Muslims. This discordant - to Westerners - combination is found in the mindset of Hassan al-Turabi, the politician who was for many years a force behind the present government and an advocate of the war of jihad against the non-Muslim south, and made the Sudan a base of operation for Osama bin Laden, Carlos the Jackal and other terrorists. He was ambitious for the total Islamization of Africa which was expected (and to many still is) to follow the defeat of south Sudan resistance.

But Turabi has also been a champion of the rights of women, marginalized black people and homosexuals, an unlikely feature in an Islamist's mental landscape, but with a logic an advocate of democracy could appreciate: the potential broadening of the support base for proselytising Islam. Happy Muslim women, fed a line or two about the "respect" Mohammed had for women and given relative freedom and status accordingly, would be more likely to both attract possible converts and help generally in the grand project of Islamizing Africa. His support of education for women has helped create the popularity of the Islamist movement amongst young women in north Sudanese schools and universities. But his insistence that women's testimony should be of equal value to a man's, and that Muslim women should be free to marry non-Muslim men, was too much for Sudanese Muslim clerics, who in 2006 declared him an apostate: of course!

Life for a Sudanese Muslim woman is difficult in so many ways: the heat and dust, scrutiny and harrassment by security police, arranged marriage, polygamy, genital mutilation, and clothing restrictions, to name the most obvious. On the other hand, they can study, work (and aspire to high-status jobs), drive cars, mix with the opposite sex relatively freely, enjoy music and sing in public concerts (as long as the lyrics praise Allah.) And they are well-fed; often exceedingly so. Some of the freedom they enjoy has been won for them by the southern non-Muslims whose long, devastating fight against sharia has been quietly supported by many northern Muslims, whose desire for a secular state cannot be translated into action by themselves due to the government's insistence on absolute conformity to their version of Islam and the enormous difficulties in forming organizations with which to challenge the government.

And so all Lubna Hussein can say is that trousers are not un-Islamic and not against the constitution and that the punishments devised by the government contravene the law and the CPA, and hope that the reputations of her female Sudanese supporters are strong enough to keep them safe from retaliation. She has also made statements opposing female genital mutilation. But what does she care about beyond Muslim women's issues? What does she feel about the suffering of the black people of the south which led finally to the existence of the CPA she now demands the Muslims of the north have a right to benefit from? In what way did she support the southern people in their terrible struggle against sharia and savage jihad? Or against the pernicious da'wa campaigns still in operation?

 

Her job with the UN surely exposed her to some knowledge of the atrocities committed by the Muslims of her country against non-Muslims and black Muslims. Her remark that the government's actions "distort the real message of Islam", while typical of Sudanese naivety about their religion, is something she should perhaps now reconsider.  Now she is not in the Sudan, will she take the opportunity to study her religion a little more closely to better understand her country's history? Will she take her protest further and support the secularization of Sudan, equal rights for black and non-Muslim Sudanese, the establishment of services available in Khartoum to peripheral Sudanese, and the right of Muslims to leave Islam? It would be wonderful if she did, now that she has such a public face, and it would show inspiring courage and insight. Let's hope she finds it in herself to join the bigger struggle.

But temptations abound to keep her focused on Muslim women's issues. Western media and Western feminists tend to care more about the difficulties endured by Muslim women than they do about non-Muslim women who suffer in Muslim-majority countries. Thus Ms Hussein is being feted by France's President Sarkozy, who, like so many others, invests great hope in "moderate" Muslims and whose banning of the hijab is a ploy to encourage all Muslims to be "moderate" and integrate into French life. ( President Obama, on the other hand, reserves his compassion, such as it is, for Muslim women in the US, whose "right" to wear the hijab they already freely enjoy he "defended" in his abominable Cairo speech.)

Instead of fawning over Lubna Hussein in this matter, even though her courage is undeniable, Westerners who encounter her might want to question her about the lives of the southern Sudanese women, many still helplessly witnessing the slow starvation of their children, living with the possibility of the irreversible breakdown of their societies and with ever-present terrible memories of bombs, helicopter attacks, the burning of their villages and abduction of children. It was their people's rejection of the brutality of Sharia and its punishments which led to such retaliations; yet most would probably say that an occasional unjust Islamic whipping with camel-hide is not as bad as being forced to accept the totality of the religion they have good reason to loathe and which imposes such whippings, the religion which still will not leave them alone but creeps quietly, steadily, into their territory, protected by flaws in the Western-brokered CPA.

If such a woman went to France to plead for support in the restoration of her shattered society and right to be free of threatening, creeping  Islamization, would she be greeted warmly and publicly by President Sarkozy? It is doubtful, considering he is hardly making a major attempt to stop the Islamization of France. South Sudanese women are sadly aware that being non-Muslim, or being Christianized, means they are not entitled to the compassion reserved by the West, however dimly, for the Muslim women of Khartoum or even the Muslim women of Darfur, and that however hard life is for them, according to the West they just have to wear it.

Last Updated on Sunday, 29 November 2009 20:16  

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