Islamism in Sudan and the “trousers-gate” scandal

by Anders Hastrup.

This summer and autumn brought news from the Sudanese capital to the front pages of the Western press and media agencies as the journalist Lubna Hussein was arrested in a Khartoum cafe along with several other women for wearing trousers, forbidden by the country’s Islamic law. Islamic law was introduced as early as 1983 in Sudan, and has been enforced vigorously in the early 1990s since the coming to power of the present Islamist military dictatorship. Although Islamism has cooled down immensely since the 1990s and the terrorists have gone elsewhere, the case is a reminder of the inherent contradictions of a imposing a stern Islamist rule in a country with one of the strongest, independent and well- educated female elites on the African continent.

Muslim dress, again

I initially ignored commenting on the Lubna Hussein case of this summer/autumn, as I was annoyed by the fact that it is only when stories of women and Muslim vs. Western dress emerge that the Western press bring news of Sudan, home of two of Africa’s most devastating and longest running civil wars. The war in the South is erupting again. It looks as if the CPA, the Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2005 that ended the North South war is failing. The past 6 months have seen acts of war and violence in the South that by far exceeds events in Darfur in their sheer brutality and number of people killed. The culture of impunity and violence still engulfs the entire region of Darfur where as many as 2.5 million people are internally displaced relying on food aid from the international agencies in the most expensive continuing relief effort in the world.

Where is the analysis of the interconnectedness of Sudan’s real tragedies? Why is Western media obsessed with a discussion of pants vs. dresses? There are more interesting and important stories that come out of the biggest country in Africa, I thought, and decided not to devote any further attention to the matter. However, the story continued to grow as Lubna Hussein, a strong and powerful journalist from North Sudan refused to the accept the punishment of flogging and took the case to court. And to the Western media. Lubna Hussein’s position as a UN employee gave her an international backing and a direct link to the world of international media. The case blew up in Western media much to the embarrassment of the ruling elite in Khartoum.

Relations with the West

The Khartoum government’s relation with the Western countries is ambivalent and ambiguous. On the one hand, the ICC indictment of President Bashir over war crimes in Darfur have worsened relations and cooled down a lot of recent improvement in diplomatic ties between Khartoum, the US and the ever amorphous “International Community”. While promising genocide lobbyists in their own country to take a tougher stand on Darfur, the Obama administration has signaled a new beginning and a fresh look at Sudan-US relations much to the dismay of the protagonists of the Save Darfur movement, the biggest civil movement on overseas matters in the US since the anti- Vietnam movements of the 60s and 70s.

Khartoum doesn’t really need the US that much right now. They are perfectly all right with leaving the mayhem of Darfur to the international aid agencies and ill equipped and understaffed AU and UN forces. Money is pouring in, Khartoum is a booming city thanks to the increasing oil revenues and the industrious Chinese who are completely remaking the Northern Sudanese infrastructure and constructing the Meroe dam on the Nile. The Chinese don’t ask questions. Khartoum is doing more than ok at the moment, thank you very much.

The Lubna Hussein “trousers-gate” scandal is embarassing because it gives the Sudan exactly the coverage it doesn’t like in the West as (yet another) of the backward-looking Islamist regimes, which it certainly is not. In this way the “trousers-gate” scandal echoes the scandal over the British schoolteacher who named a teddy bear “Mohammed” in 2007 and was imprisoned and expelled from Sudan. The case blew up in Western media and the teacher ended up receiving a Presidential pardon.

The elite in Sudan are tired of this portrayal. The Sudan Northern elite are among the oldest educated elites on the African continent, a real cosmopolitan bunch who have very successful diasporas and are doing very well where ever they may roam. This is true of both women and men. They are as far from the Taliban as you can get. The “trousers-gate” scandal is a threat to the Sudanese Northern elite, not because of negative publicity in the West, but because of this publicity’s negative internal effect on the elite themselves.

The Turabi fatwa and the role of women in Sudan

Sudan is a country characterized by many things among them strong, willful, articulate and independent women. They are the real glue that holds the country, especially the Northern elites, together. Sudanese politics are fragmented but held together to a large extend by intermarriages of the families of the ruling elite. Secular, Sectarian, Communist, Islamist, all of these fractions are intermarried and a large network of wives can to a large degree be thanked for the coherence of North Sudan.

Losing the women of Sudan would be a far more devastating blow for the survival of the Sudanese elite than any economic sanctions, ICC indictment, UN missions or anything else imposed on Sudan from the outside. This is well known in Sudan and caused Hassan al Turabi to issue a most controversial fatwa in 2006 allowing Muslim women to marry a Christian or Jewish man.

Although an Islamist, and indeed the chief architect and ‘Ayatollah’ of the Islamic revolution in Sudan of 1989, he is also a pragmatic figure navigating through the (ever) changing political landscapes of Sudan. The fatwa is a pragmatic tool to hinder the brain drain of Sudan’s women, who see their opportunities dwindling in the “unnatural” limitations imposed on them by Islamism. The “trousers-gate” scandal of Lubna Hussein is precisely an internal scandal for the Sudanese elite, who, hopefully, feel increasingly alienated from the police forces cracking down on immodest behavior in the public space. Sudan cannot survive without a highly educated, articulate, strong and independent women like Lubna Hussein in the long run.

Hopefully the realization of this will teach the Sudanese forces to treat their women with greater respect, not clamping down on their freedom of movement, expression, dress and their possibility to put on trousers if they so desire.

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