Trousers: Sudan’s wild card

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In Sudan, Lubna Hussein was recently arrested and is facing flogging for having worn trousers. Is this really about Islam and sharia law?

As I was preparing for my first trip to Sudan some years ago, I had nightmares. It was to be my first time in a predominantly Muslim country where sharia law is imposed. I didn’t know what to expect, so I expected the worst. I imagined a regime similar to the Taliban and prepared myself mentally to feel uneasy in the skin of a Western woman strolling around the streets of Khartoum.

I have now lived in Sudan for almost two years. Friends and family often ask me if I have to wear the veil. No, absolutely not. Never have I felt targeted as a foreigner or have I felt uncomfortable wearing trousers or even t-shirts around Sudanese colleagues, friends or strangers. I have always been surprised by the incredible tolerance and hospitality of the Sudanese people. Not all Sudanese women in Khartoum wear the veil. Some wear it tightly around their faces while others seem to have quickly thrown it on their heads as part of the daily morning rush hour. Since the signing of the peace agreement between the largely Muslim North and the Christian South, sharia law has been somewhat relaxed and the government has grown more lenient in its practical implementation.

So why then does the Western public still see Sudan as an extremist society? Indeed, from time to time the government chooses to impose sharia law in a drastic manner. For some such actions in these instances seem rash and random. But when sharia law has been imposed radically it has been infallibly for political reasons. The recent arrest and possible flogging of Lubna Hussein for wearing trousers is no exception. Many Sudanese women in Khartoum wear trousers and have done so for a long time. The question we need to ask ourselves then is why have authorities suddenly decided to arrest a group of women for wearing clothing that thousands of us wear every day?

One can easily criticize the Sudanese government for abusing human rights and freedom of speech, but we also need to admit that they are incredibly shrewd. For years now Sudanese authorities have succeeded in manipulating Western public opinion and diplomatic relationships with the international community.

Many may recall the British schoolteacher, Gillian Gibbons, who was arrested in Sudan in November 2007 for insulting Islam’s prophet, after she allowed her pupils to name a teddy bear Muhammad. She faced six months in jail, 40 lashes or a fine. I had then recently returned from Sudan. I still remember laughing out loud when I read the story. This had nothing to do with the Sudan I knew, neither the devout people I had met there or Islam itself. For days the story made the headlines of all British media. Incidentally, the same week Gibbons was arrested, the Under Secretary of the United Nations for Humanitarian Affairs, Sir John Holmes, was making a crucial visit to Sudan and more specifically to the war torn region of Darfur. Moreover, the government in Khartoum faced at the time a serious political crisis as the South Sudan People’s Liberation Movement, the other signatory to the North-South peace agreement, had temporarily decided to withdraw from the Government of National Unity threatening to reignite civil war. Were these key stories covered by the British media? No. A friend at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office later confirmed to me that the British government had been entirely consumed by the arrest of Gibbons. And as I expected, Gibbons was soon pardoned by President Omar el Beshir and freed two weeks after the incident.

Islam has long been Sudan’s wildcard in the endless games played with the international community. Authorities know too well that radical interpretation of Islam will make news headlines in the West and detract attention from important politically charged events. The government also knows too well that thanks to this precious wildcard they can show who is in power. Immediately after Prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo submitted his case against President Beshir to the International Criminal Court (ICC) in July 2008, Khartoum’s luxury hotel, the Rotana, was temporarily prohibited from having men and women swim together in its pool. This was a subtle punishment for members of the international community who had almost exclusively been swimming there for years. When the ICC indicted President Beshir for war crimes and crimes against humanity, all of us in Khartoum knew that something bad would come out of it. As we feared, 13 international NGOs were expelled from the country, accentuating the humanitarian crisis in the Darfur region. Possibly as many governments before them, Sudanese authorities also may want to create fear in the West. They may want “us” to think that “they” are potentially dangerous. A diplomatic advantage indeed, as perhaps not many countries in the Western world would want to be seen publicly holding talks with extremists.

Despite being politically active, Lubna Hussein maintains that authorities were not targeting her specifically when she was arrested. This is possible. But there is no doubt that trousers suddenly became controversial for a reason that has nothing to do with sharia law. Ironically, the Sudanese Embassy in London commented in a statement that there had been almost no coverage of a recent arbitration ruling of the contested region of Abyei and that instead the media spotlight had been on Lubna Hussein’s case. Indeed, the Sudanese government knows better than anyone else how the Western media functions. But Lubna Hussein is also shrewd and is now fighting back. She is using the same wild card to bring attention on much larger problems affecting her country: an example that should be followed by the international community.