By Amal Habani, Winner of Amnesty International USA’s 2015 Ginetta Sagan Award
In July 2009 when my colleague was arrested and tried for wearing trousers in Khartoum, I could no longer stay silent.
Women and girls in Sudan are constantly confronted with obstacles imposed by the public order regime that hinder their freedom of movement, their freedom of association, and their ability to make personal choices on a daily basis. As a Sudanese woman, I had always encountered these problems and as such, aspired to become a journalist to speak out for social change.
The public order regime in Sudan consists of laws and practices that allow the imposition of corporal punishment for what is seen as immoral behavior. Notably, Sudan’s Criminal Penal Code of 1991, article 152, which was renamed and incorporated into the Society Safety Code (2009), calls for the punishment of people who perform in public, an “indecent act or an act contrary to public morals or wears an obscene outfit or contrary to public morals or causing an annoyance to public feelings.” Those who violate this law may be subject to flogging not exceeding forty lashes and/or fined. Because the standard for contradicting public morality is subjective and not defined, this article is frequently applied arbitrarily to the detriment of women and girls.
This system disproportionately affects women and girls due to deeply entrenched gender-based discrimination where women and girls can be stopped by police, sent before a judge, and sentenced to a public flogging for nothing more than wearing pants or leaving their hair uncovered.
There are also issues of due process including the right to a lawyer and a fair trial. Defendants in most cases are tried immediately or within a few days by public order courts which do not meet Sudanese or international fair trial standards. Amnesty International has documented cases where defendants are lashed within hours of their arrest.
I estimate that 40,000 to 50,000 females in Khartoum alone are detained, tried, and punished each year under the public order regime. Many are traumatized and afraid to speak out due to a fear of stigmatization.
Amnesty International and other international organizations, including the United Nations, have condemned the flogging of women, calling for the abolition of this punishment. In accordance with international and domestic law, such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and Sudan’s 2005 Interim Constitution, Sudan should put an end to flogging, as it constitutes cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment.
In response to the subjugation of my colleague and countless others, I co-founded the No to Oppressing Women Initiative (NOW) in 2009 to campaign against the Public Order Laws. As part of NOW, I along with other activists submitted a memorandum to the Ministry of Justice calling to repeal these laws, and in response we were beaten and arrested by the police. In July 2012, I was arrested again, detained for four days, and subjected to psychological torture while campaigning for the release of NOW women activists.
Women activists in Sudan are working fearlessly and tirelessly to advocate against flogging women for violations of the public order laws. But this has not been enough.
No one should have to be afraid of being arrested and beaten for wearing pants in public.
Join me and other women activists and tell the government of Sudan to:
- Repeal Article 152 of the Criminal Code 1991 because the article is vague and discriminatory, and fails to adhere to Sudan’s human rights obligations;
- Remove the penalty of flogging for crimes against public order because it is cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment; and
- Fulfill their obligations under human rights treaties, including Article 7 of the ICCPR, and Article 5 of the African Charter of Human and Peoples Rights
 Sudan Criminal Penal Code of 1991, art. 152 “Obscene and Indecent Acts,” accessed 14 November 2014: <http://www.ecoi.net/file_upload/1329_1202725629_sb106-sud-criminalact1991.pdf>
(Contributions by Cindy Ko)