On December 1, 1955, Rosa Parks became the symbol of the civil rights movement when she chose to challenge an unjust law in the Jim Crow South by refusing to give up her seat to a white man on a bus in Montgomery, Alabama.
On July 6, 2009, Sudan’s Lubna Hussein also found herself challenging injustice when she and a group of 12 women were arrested in a restaurant in the capital of Khartoum. Their official crime was a violation of Article 152 of Sudan’s criminal law: “conduct or clothing in violation of public decency.” But what did they actually do? They wore pants in public. The punishment: 40 lashes and a fine. (To see what Hussein will endure if she’s found guilty, see this disturbing video of the Taliban flogging a teenage girl in Pakistan.)
Of the 13 women arrested, 10 pleaded guilty, admitted to being “dressed indecently” and accepted a reduced punishment of only 10 lashes and a $100 fine. But Hussein and two of the other women remain defiant. They insist that they have not violated the Koran, and they are now putting Sudan’s law itself on trial in the name of Sudan’s women – and women across the Islamic world.
“I’m ready to be whipped not 40 but 40,000 times,” Hussein said. "Tens of thousands of women and girls have been whipped for their clothes these past 20 years. It’s not rare in Sudan. I want these women’s voices to be heard."
Summarizing what she refers to as “my battle,” Hussein says that her “main objective is to get rid of Article 152. "This article is against both the Constitution and Sharia,” she said. Hussein doesn’t frame her plight as anti-Islam or even anti-Sharia: “If some people refer to the Sharia to justify flagellating women because of what they wear, then let them show me which Koranic verses say so. I haven’t found them.”
Commenting on this strategy at JihadWatch, Robert Spencer observed that Hussein faces three daunting challenges in her campaign for justice and gender equality:
“Once one is under Sharia law, the only path forward within the system is to argue a ruling somehow violates Sharia. Appeals to democracy, egalitarianism, or human decency (as defined by something other than Sharia) are outside of the scope of the discussion. Secondly, it is in the spirit of Islamic law -- via Qur'an 4:34 -- that disobedient women may be beaten. That is the root of a variety of problems. Thirdly, the lack of accountability inherent in a theocracy ensures cases of this level of absurdity will happen again, and the victims can only hope to embarrass the government enough in the global media that it relents.”
But Hussein is not only trying to embarrass the Islamist authorities with her rhetoric. She’s also taken decisive action. At her first court appearance, she wore the exact same outfit that prompted her arrest and time and again she has refused to abandon her case – even when offered a way to escape the 40 lashes that await her – as a matter of principle.
For instance, she and her two co-defendants were offered a presidential pardon; they refused it. Also, as a UN employee – she works as a press officer for the organization – she was eligible for diplomatic immunity. Yet she chose to quit her job. Hussein also put her skills as a journalist to use in her battle, sending out 500 invitations to journalists, diplomats, and human rights groups to come attend her trial and flogging to witness the injustice for themselves.
Like Parks’s 50 years ago, Hussein’s defiance has inspired other Sudanese women to stand up and fight for their rights. At Hussein’s second trial date, 100 men and women came out to show their support. Wearing pants in solidarity, they waved banners proclaiming, “No return to the Dark Ages!” (Click here for a video of some of the protestors.) Their protest came at a price. According to the Associated Press police beat the peaceful protestors and launched tear gas into the crowds.
This conflict over Sharia is not new to Sudan, a country divided on the question of Islamic Law by its religious diversity. Since the military coup in 1989 that installed current President Omar al-Bashir, the country has been split in half with an Islamist government in the North and Christian authorities in the South. As part of a peace deal between these two halves of the country, in 2005 it was decreed that Sharia law would only apply toward Muslims in the North. One need not be a legal scholar to see that such an arrangement – laws applying to some but not all – would make enforcement and prosecution difficult. Adding to the legal quagmire in Hussein’s case is that the law on “indecent” clothes is ill-defined and broad enough to allow for even more selective enforcement by Sudan’s Islamist police.
As it stands now, Hussein can only win. Even if she has to take her 40 lashes, her stature as a civil-rights fighter can only grow. The only way the Islamist government can even manage a stalemate is to try and let off Hussein on some sort of legal technicality, thus allowing them to maintain Article 152.
When Parks died in 2005, fifty years after her act of civil disobedience, she was treated as a national hero, her body put on display in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda. She was the first woman and second African-American to receive this honor. She died in a country far different than the one into which she was born.
It may be too much to hope for the same progress on women’s equality in Sudan in the next fifty years. But in her own way, Lubna Hussein has brought global attention to an issue that has too long plagued the Muslim world. For all the intimidation of the Sudanese authorities, she still wears the pants in her country.