August 8, 2009
The Canberra Times

Scourge of oppression

Every woman in Australia wearing trousers right now is violating Article 152 of Sudan’s criminal code. Thankfully, unlike our Sudanese sisters, we don’t get whipped for it. If we did, I wonder how many of us would have the guts to seize the whip and thrash back?

Journalist Lubna Ahmed al- Hussein has got more than guts. She’s got a steely spine. And she’s going to need it. She could be in for one hell of a thrashing.

But before they get a chance to flog and humiliate her, Hussein is taunting these so-called men of God – to bring it on! Charged with wearing ”indecent clothes”, Hussein is facing a punishment of 40 lashes. Outside court this week she said, ”I’m ready to be whipped not 40 but 40,000 times” if it can be proved that such law really is the word of God, and therefore constitutional under Sudan’s Islamic sharia law.

Hussein and 12 women friends were caught wearing trousers in a popular Khartoum restaurant early last month. They were rounded up and herded into custody.

Ten of the young women panicked and agreed to forgo a trial, plead guilty, and get it over with. Their sentence was reduced to 10 lashes, and they were each flogged before Hussein’s court appearance on Tuesday.

I don’t know how ”official” flogging is done. But it’s worth contemplating – just for a moment – in order to dwell on the barbarity and monstrosity of men who claim they have God on their side. I suppose they hold the woman down on some sort of table, so that her face and chin smashes into a hard surface each time she is hit. Or perhaps they stand her upright and string her arms up above her head. Maybe that hurts more. I suspect the whip cracks the skin on impact and draws blood instantly. It’s possible some of the women pass out before the thrashing is over. Given they’re in their 30s, their skin is still young and will rip and slit easily. The sting is unimaginable. Scars may form, and the wounds may eventually heal. But I suspect the women will never, ever recover. I doubt I could. The rage that must rip through them every day, at every moment, would send most of us mad.

Lubna Hussein is mad. She is furious at the idiotic rule of law that suggests women wearing trousers is an offence. Unlike her mortified friends, who have now been thrashed to within an inch of their lives, Hussein says she wants to be tried. She wants the opportunity in court to challenge such arbitrary and hateful laws.

Sudan is the largest country in the Arab world and, unlike elsewhere, the women of Sudan are prominent in public life. Female soldiers and police officers even wear trousers as part of their uniform. So rounding up and flogging other women for doing

the same can only be seen for what it is – part of an ongoing war against women in which radical interpretations of Islam are used to excuse despicable and extreme misogyny, and wield brute power. A devout Muslim, Hussein defies her accusers to defend their barbaric actions.

”If some people refer to the sharia to justify flagellating women because of what they wear, then let them show me which Koranic verses or hadith [sayings of the Prophet Mohammed] says so. I haven’t found them,” she said.

It’s a call to ”prove it” that echoes the arguments of Iran’s Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. A Muslim human rights lawyer accused of innumerable offences, Ebadi was thrown into Iran’s notorious Evin prison. Perhaps the beginning of her undoing was her argument before the Iranian Parliament in which she insisted there was no text in which Islam insisted a woman needed her husband’s consent for divorce. ”So why are you insisting that [there] is?” she asked. Ebadi was never forgiven for that comment. And she was severely punished. Later she reflected, ”It is not religion that binds women, but the selective dictates of those who wish them cloistered.”

Like Ebadi, Lubna Hussein is a woman of great courage. Employed by the United Nations to work in its Sudanese media office, Hussein is afforded diplomatic immunity, and could avoid prosecution altogether. But instead of taking that safe way out – as advised by her lawyers – Hussein has quit her UN job in order to face trial and fight those who whip women for wearing trousers.

On Tuesday the court adjourned her case while the status of immunity is clarified. Rather than express relief that she’d won a reprieve from a possible flogging, Hussein said the trial should not have been delayed. ”I’m absolutely not afraid of the verdict”, she said, to the cheers of hundreds of women supporters who’d gathered outside the court. Riot police then moved in and used tear gas to disperse them.

Across the world, women are applauding the brave and outspoken Lubna Hussein. But until many more are prepared to stand and fight – for more than the right to wear trousers – this insidious war against women will rage on, fuelled by phony religious justifications. Surely such abuse is an insult to any god?

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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