NPR logo

Arrest For Wearing Pants Galvanizes Women In Sudan

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Arrest For Wearing Pants Galvanizes Women In Sudan

Arrest For Wearing Pants Galvanizes Women In Sudan

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Not long ago, an unusual invitation circulated by email in east Africa. It read: Lubna Ahmed Hussain invites you to attend her court appearance and flogging under Article 152 of the Criminal Code of 1991. Her violation of that code was for, quote, �clothing causing harassment to public sentiment� - she was wearing pants.

And what started with a pair of pants helped galvanize Sudan's women's movement. NPR's Gwen Thompkins has this report.

GWEN THOMPKINS: Nile Avenue is one of the prettiest streets in all of Khartoum. There's a long line of royal palm trees here, a red carpeted palace and a view of the blue Nile before it meets the white Nile and heads up to Egypt. At sundown, people sit along a grassy bank of the river playing cards and drinking hot black tea.

But between the tea vendors and the Tinky Winky Teletubby balloons for sale, there are government security agents everywhere. And right now, they're staring. For any woman looking to get arrested for the crime of wearing pants, Nile Avenue is the place to be.

Lubna Ahmed Hussain says it happens a lot.

Ms. LUBNA AHMED HUSSAIN: (Through translator) Yes, I have seen, in the Nile Avenue - I have seen the boys have arrested some of the girls who are wearing pants. And now if you go into the Nile Avenue wearing pants they will arrest you.

(Soundbite of sirens)

THOMPKINS: Okay. Got to go. Under Sudan's decency law, any man can accuse any woman of dressing indecently. She could have bare wrists or bare head, or she could be wearing trousers. That's how Hussain got arrested. Back in July, police nabbed her and several other trouser-wearing women at a Khartoum nightclub. And when Hussain said the decency law was unconstitutional, the officer wasn't interested.

Ms. HUSSAIN: (Through translator) I told them that this is against the law. They replied and said, if you don't like the law, go to the parliament and tell them.

THOMPKINS: That got her mad. Hussain hired a team of lawyers. She quit her job at the United Nations to press the case. She connected with women's groups and she became an activist.

Ms. HUSSAIN: (Through translator) I was very angry and I was thinking that I will do the media campaign in a way that, like the government that's sponsoring these laws, never rest again.

THOMPKINS: Women wear trousers in Khartoum all the time, but every year tens of thousands of them are detained under Article 152 of the nation's criminal code, which has more weight than the constitution. Article 152 penalizes an act contrary to public morals - an obscene outfit and anything causes annoyance to public feelings.

Scholar Abdul Rahim Ali Ibrahim(ph) cites the Quran.

Mr. ABDUL RAHIM ALI IBRAHIM: In sharia, this would classically be seen as (Foreign language spoken). It can be translated as the responsibility of society and government to look after Islamic values by encouraging what's good and preventing what is evil or bad.

THOMPKINS: By taking her case to court, Hussain faced the maximum penalty of 40 lashes and the loss of her reputation. Again, Abdul Rahim Ali Ibrahim.

Mr. ALI IBRAHIM: For any girl to be taken to court because she has infringed the law of decency is not something that a Sudanese girl would like to do. I think it's very embarrassing. This is our society.

THOMPKINS: Imams preached against Hussain at the mosques; fundamentalists called her and her supporters prostitutes and homosexuals. She got death threats. So, why did she continue? Hussain's photo collection may offer some explanation. Her house is massive by local standards, situated only a mile from the palace where Sudan's president goes to work every day.

And Hussain's living room wall of fame includes shots of a lot of tough guys -King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, former Prime Minister Nehru of India, and, in a nice sepia tone, the Chairman himself.

Is that Mao in the picture?

Ms. HUSSAIN: Yeah, yeah, yeah.

THOMPKINS: So, that's really Mao?

Ms. HUSSAIN: Yeah.

THOMPKINS: Hussain's late husband is in the pictures too. He founded Al Sahafa, a well-known daily newspaper here. Had the police known Hussain's background they might not have arrested her.

Mustafa Abu al-Azim(ph) likens her case to that of American scholar Henry Louis Gates in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Al-Azim edits Akir Laza(ph), which is a pro-government newspaper. He says both arrests got people talking about much bigger issues. And both arrests could have been avoided.

Mr. MUSTAFA ABU AL-AZIM (Editor, Akir Laza): (Through translator) I suspect that at the moment of the arrests, Lubna got into a clash with the officers and the police took a reaction.

THOMPKINS: At trial, the arresting officers gave conflicting statements. The judge never allowed Hussain's lawyers to present their case, and the judge ruled in favor of the police. But he spared Hussain the lash. Hussain is appealing the decision.

(Soundbite of singing)

THOMPKINS: Women's rights activists sang this song and many others as they demonstrated for Hussain at all of her court dates. And the police beat some of them severely. Fahima Hashim(ph) sees Article 152 as�

Ms. FAHIMA HASHIM: Just more control over women's bodies, women's sexuality, women's mobility.

(Soundbite of singing)

THOMPKINS: Many of the women singing in this crumbling office far from the city's center, champion desperate causes - like for poor women on the street, for example, who sell hot tea without licenses. Police often scald those women with their own boiling water.

Nahid Mohammad al-Hassan Ali(ph) is a psychiatrist. She says police stopped her for laughing.

Ms. NAHID MOHAMMAD AL-HASSAN ALI (Psychiatrist): In 2000, when me and my husband, when we were in our car laughing with each other, they stop us and they just want to harass us. He says that this is not your wife - unlikely to be your wife and husband so intimate and laughing and so on.

THOMPKINS: Now, the couple travels with a certificate showing they're married.

Women's groups are petitioning parliament to change the criminal code, but most lawmakers appear unwilling to do so. And yet Samir Robby(ph) is convinced that Article 152 will die in her lifetime. Luckily, she's only 27 years old.

Ms. SAMIR ROBBY: (Through translator) People say that I'm over-optimistic, but I am not over-optimistic, because 1,000 miles journey starts in a mile.

THOMPKINS: Robby is a psychology student in Khartoum. She says she wears trousers all the time, and mini-skirts too. Her mother complains.

Ms. ROBBY: (Through translator) When she yells at me, I kiss her on both cheeks.

THOMPKINS: The way Robby sees it, mothers and daughters have been fighting over what to wear since the beginning of time. And that's the natural order of things, because mothers are the original fashion police.

Gwen Thompkins, NPR News, Khartoum.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.