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An open letter to President al-Bashir

Mary Wandia and Lila Kiwelu call on Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir to withdraw the case against 13 women charged with ‘indecent dressing’ for wearing trousers, under Article 152 of the country’s 'archaic' criminal code. President al-Bashir must repeal the discriminatory provisions in this code, Wandia and Kiwelu write in Pambazuka News, and ensure that Sudan upholds its obligations as a signatory to the .

Dear President Omar Hassan al-Bashir,

Your Excellency, I hope you are well.

This letter is coming to you in the wake of several events in Sudan, most notably your indictment by the International Criminal Court for alleged crimes in Darfur, not to mention preparations for the elections scheduled for 2010. However, I would like to engage you on a different issue – the disturbing occurrence that took place on 10 July 2009, in which Sudanese women were flogged, with those that refused to be flogged charged with ‘indecent dressing.’

Your Excellency, 13 Sudanese women were arrested for wearing trousers, termed as ‘indecent’ dressing.’ Two of them pleaded guilty and were flogged 10 lashes after being released on a bail of US$100. Three others, including well-known journalist Lubna Hussein, opted for a lawyer so as to be tried in court. They are demanding elimination of Article 152 of the criminal code to eliminate discrimination against Sudanese women.

For the women, some of whom come from southern Sudan, were charged under Article 152 (Indecent and Immoral Acts) of the 1991 Penal Code. From what is emerging, this law is not clear what ‘indecent dressing’ is, leaving it open to interpretation by Public Order Police who are responsible for its enforcement. This has left Sudanese women open to discrimination, a fundamental breach of their human rights.

In case it has not yet been brought to your attention, harassment of women by the Public Order Police is common in the Sudan, yet under-reported. It exploits the fact that many women lack knowledge of their rights and, fearing social stigma, do not go to a police station, have a criminal charge laid against them and sign a paper that says that they will not repeat the offence. In addition, the bail of US$100 is expensive, especially for poor women.

As you may recall, you offered the women a Presidential pardon, which they rejected – and rightly so. I know you are wondering why they would reject your offer, opt to go on trial and risk being flogged 40 lashes if found guilty. I will explain why they remain adamant.

They know they have not violated any law but are victims of institutionalised discrimination entrenched in the Penal Code. The Penal Code provision on ‘indecent dressing’ is archaic – women have the right to choose how to dress. They are being ‘stubborn’ because they are fighting for this right for all Sudanese women.

The Penal Code currently in use in Sudan contravenes international and regional human rights standards. The very existence of this law exists is evidence of discrimination against women because we have not heard of men being flogged or charged with ‘indecent dressing.’ Your Excellency, if I may remind you, your government has signed the African Union’s Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa, which under Article 5, prohibits and condemns all forms of harmful practices which negatively affect the human rights of women and which are contrary to recognised international standards. It goes further to call on AU states to take all necessary legislative and other measures to eliminate such practices. Your Excellency, as a State that has signed on to the Protocol, Sudan is under obligation to ensure that the provisions of the Protocol are adhered to at all times.

Your country is a member of the AU and, going by the speed with which it and the region came to your defence following your indictment by the ICC, you ought to follow the standards it has set with the Protocol. You could turn this incident into a quick win for you by taking the opportunity to ratify the Protocol and implement it fully. It will save you such embarrassment in future. Surely, this is the image you want to portray to the rest of the continent and the world at large when human rights violations taking place in the Sudan are causing international concern and outrage?

Your Excellency, I urge you to invoke the powers conferred on you as Head of State to demand the immediate withdrawal of the case against our Sudanese sisters. Go further and repeal the discriminatory provisions in the Penal Code without giving those provisions legitimacy by seeking to define what is ‘indecent dressing’ or ranting Presidential pardons to women whose rights are clearly being violated.

You have the power to uphold Sudanese women’s human rights. You have the option of using this incident to affirm your commitment to human rights. What will you choose? Sudanese and African women are watching.


* Mary Wandia is a feminist from Kenya with over ten years experience in women's rights at regional and international level. She is currently gender justice and governance lead for Oxfam GB’s Pan Africa programme. She writes here in a personal capacity.
* Lila Kiwelu is a gender justice and governance intern with Oxfam GB. She writes here in a personal capacity.
* Please send comments to [email protected] or comment online at Pambazuka News.