The law was written. The oppressor is the victor, and the victim is the criminal. The date for the trial and sentencing was set: September 1st 2013—later changed to September 19th 2013, another unjust conviction under the infamously oppressive Article 152 of the Criminal Law, which is upheld and enacted by the Public Order Police. Adding to the thousands of women each year who fall victim to this law is Ameera Osman, an engineer, political and social activist, who will face the charge of “indecent dress” under the vaguely written article 152 of the Criminal Law because her head was not covered with a scarf. In this disturbingly familiar incident, Sudanese women and international activist communities witness another outrageous assault on women’s rights and freedom in Sudan. It is another instance when Public Order Law—a law under which thousands of Sudanese women have been victims—was used in favor of the aggressor.
As reported by Al-Midan, a Sudanese newspaper, Ameera Osman was in the process of completing land registration procedures at a Jabal Awliya court when a policeman approached her. He asked her why her head was not covered and Ameera replied that she does not wear the hijab. Then she was transferred to the police station, where she was met by verbal abuse, and inappropriate, personal questions to which she refused to reply. Suffering a humiliating arrest, and verbal assaults under the policemen, Ameera was caught in a verbal tug of war with the policemen who insisted on asking questions about her tribe, reflecting not only the inherent racist mentality of the state’s institutions, but also the dehumanizing treatment of women in Sudan. If found guilty, the punishment under this law includes flogging, fines, and in some cases jail.
In a position paper published by the Project for Criminal Law Reform in Sudan (PCLRS), sponsored by REDRESS human rights organization, Article 152 of the Criminal Law is defined as follows: “(1) Whoever commits, in a public place, an act, or conducts himself in an indecent manner, or a manner contrary to public morality, or wears an indecent, or immoral dress, which causes annoyance to public feelings, shall be punished, with whipping, not exceeding forty lashes, or with fine, or with both; (2) The act shall be deemed contrary to public morality, if it is so considered in the religion of the doer, or the custom of the country where the act occurs.” The incident brings a flashback of the infamous case of Lubna Ahmed Hussein, an outspoken Sudanese journalist who was prosecuted for allegedly dressing indecently. She was wearing trousers.
Lubna’s, and now Ameera’s case, show that this law is problematic for one particularly dangerous reason: it gives the abusers absolute and unquestionable power to use this law to limit and repress the freedom of women under false pretexts. For example, in the case of Lubna, it was used to curb her journalistic activities; through her outspoken writing, Lubna criticizes the government’s policies, and practices. Another equally dangerous reason is that this law in particular does not explicitly define what an “indecent” or “immoral” dress looks like, thus allowing it to be subject of the interpretation, personal judgments or desires of the aggressors. Owing to its vague nature and wording, Article 152 of the Criminal Law can be used at the discretion of the aggressor: as a tool of punishment, manipulation and repression. It is possible that the use of this law is politically motivated, given the fact that it is not the first time Ameera has been summoned to court with charges under Article 152.
There has been a tremendous outpouring of solidarity from civil society organizations, as well as activists in Sudan and elsewhere. On her Facebook page, Amal Habbani, a journalist, and social activist, expresses solidarity with Ameera and stands with other Sudanese women against those shameful, degrading laws, laws that only seek to push women back into the dark ages. She says, “To those who do not know Ameera Osman, she is not the woman who can be oppressed by the Public Order Law a second time. She has been a victim of this law and its policemen when she was an undergraduate student. Despite its psychological pain, this pain has endowed her with courage, and strength which gave her the ability to come to terms with her body and what she wears, both of which fall under her privacy that no one has the right to transgress. With that, she has surpassed the oppression of the law, the government and its corrupt police system. She even surpassed this society which fell into the clutches of ignorance, backwardness, decadent outlook towards women, all of which were bred and fed into the society by all means.”
Despite the corruption that is wreaking havoc in the nation, what disturbs any sensible person is that an uncovered head is likely to offend the eyes of the government more than the ongoing genocide, deteriorating health, education, infrastructure, and the mounting human rights abuses. Out of all the injustices in Sudan, to which they turned a blind eye, the focus was on Ameera’s hair and women’s bodies. This shows the extent of the sex-obsessed mentality of this regime, its associated channels and the substantiation of their power being conducted through the humiliation and oppression of women. It becomes obvious that Article 152 is not a law, because when one thinks of laws, images of justice and equality are conjured, but not with this one.
Article 152 of the Criminal Law is merely a “pretext” that is used by those weak in spirit to cover for their inability to accept women as human beings. They use this law as a hanger for their political flaws to oppress women, substantiate their rule and prove their twisted sense of masculinity, further reinforcing the negative patterns of patriarchy. It is unfair to say that the rejection of such law is a rejection of “decency-enforcing laws” as many still claim and believe, simply because these laws are neither decently written nor used for decent purposes. For example, many women face this law because they rejected inappropriate advances made against them. This clearly shows that these laws can be arbitrarily used against women as a tool to suppress them and requires a great deal of change to take place at both the social and political landscapes. Change comes when we are aware of the connection between our own cultural norms and the ways in which they enable oppression of people, especially women. It is also important to recognize how these same cultural norms serve as mechanisms of oppression against women, by disallowing positive changes, such as the repeals of this law, to take place.
The Sudanese government’s failure to amend these types of laws reflects their arrival at the lowest point of political decay and dissolution, manifested in the moral decline of the governmental channels and institutions. These types of laws continue to be a source of suffering for Sudanese women because they derive their power from conceptions and traditions that are built on the basis that the woman is a symbol of vice, immorality and shame. This allows them to operate and to be used easily in a society that, by its own nature, is a patriarchal one. Ameera, through a video statement that reflects insurmountable courage and will to challenge this oppressive law, invites people to her trial in hopes to “put these laws under trial,” echoing the voices of the thousands of Sudanese women who were victims of them. The law might be written, but it is not set in stone. Soon, as Sudanese women begin to rise, it will be erased, and it will cease to exist, and other measures that promote and safeguard the dignity and freedom of women in Sudan will take their rightful place in the law and Sudan’s history.