Khartoum, Sudan – Omnia Hamid is pretty laid back about whether the turquoise scarf loosely covering her head stays there. As she sits at her desk at work, it keeps falling of, onto her shoulders and even when she tugs it back onto her head, it just slips off again. In this, Omnia, a office employee in her early thirties, is typical of many urban educated young women in Khartoum. She covers, but not obsessively, and is as happy in trousers as skirts.
“I am very comfortable with the way I dress,” she says later, relaxing on a magenta sofa next to her sisters at their her home. “Islam is about principles and beliefs, it is not about the way you dress. In fact I only own three skirts.”
“And I gave you one of them!” her younger sister Moram adds and they both start laughing.
Moram, unlike Omnia, always wears a hijab. A lab technician at a women’s health centre, she is careful to cover her hair, wears long sleeves and skirts that reach the floor.
Their youngest sister Lama, a 17-year-old studying software engineering, is wearing a bright yellow teeshirt and black jeans. She never covers – if she can help it. She has to cover when she attends university or the mosque. She says her friends also vary in how they dress.
“Some of my friends wear Niqab [full cover] although most of them dress like me,” Lama says.
Asked why all the sisters dress so differently, even though they come from the same family and live in the same culture, Moram says brightly: “We are all just different, that’s why. I have always covered. This is how I feel comfortable.”
But she adds that it is totally up to her sisters how they dress. “Islam says what matters is what is in your heart. So if I am covering but if I am treating people badly, covering does not mean anything. “
Threat of flogging
While the vast majority of women in Sudan do cover their heads, the Hamid sisters, whose father is a university lecturer, illustrate that within the context of this overtly conservative Islamic society, many middle class and educated women have some choice over how they dress.
But these choices are not shared by ordinary women in Khartoum, or indeed Sudan. Article 152 of the penal code of the 1991 Public Order Law – an off shoot of the Sharia laws introduced in the 1980s – states those found guilty of “indecent” dress or behaviour can be punished with flogging.
The public order police, responsible for upholding this law, have been quoted in Sudan’s press as saying they carry out “thousands” of floggings.
Women’s groups argue that in practice this law is used as a form of social control. They suggest that the police use article 152 as a means of harassing and intimidating Sudan’s growing class of urban poor.
Unfortunately this oppressive law affects the oppressed people more than it does anybody else: the ignorant people, the poor people, the people who can’t fend for themselves, the people who don’t know the law.
Sudan’s tea ladies, who sell drinks and snacks on virtually ever street corner, are often cited as being one group the public order police target. Women’s groups say they are often harassed and intimidated arbitrarily.
The other group, they say, that is frequently targeted are Khartoum’s thousands of refugees, particularly those from Eritrea. They are expected to cover themselves completely even though many of them are Christians and covering is not in their culture.
Sara – not her real name – is in her 30s and has lived in Sudan most of her life, having fled conflict in neighbouring Eritrea when she was a young girl. Even though she wears jeans and tee shirts at home, she says she never leaves the house without covering her head carefully and wearing an Abaya, a full-length gown which loosely covers the body.
“I wouldn’t dare to go out without covering my hair and I never wear trousers outside of my home, otherwise I get harassed,” she said. “When my sister came a few months ago to visit from Eritrea, she went out with her head covered but she was wearing trousers. Two men tried to take her to the police station. She had to beg them to let her go. She was terrified after that and did not go outside again until it was time for her to go home.”
Dr Amin Mekki Medani [CORR] a Sudanese human rights lawyer says: “Unfortunately this oppressive law affects the oppressed people more than it does anybody else: the ignorant people, the poor people, the people who can’t fend for themselves, the people who don’t know the law. These are the people who are the victims. What you call middle class or educated people may challenge [it].”
One person who is certainly challenging it is Amira Osman, an IT specialist who runs her own company. She has brought this law to global attention in recent weeks after she was arrested in the town of Jebel Aulia, just south of Khartoum, in August for not wearing a headscarf.
No one expects Amira Osman’s case to end in flogging. People like Amira, if charged, get fined. But as both an activist and women’s rights campaigner she is seeking to maximise the publicity around her case over what she argues is a law that contravenes her rights.
The authorities, on the other hand, are keen to minimise the attention it gets. On September 19 when her case came up in court for a second time, there was a vast police presence and journalists were banned from filming. On that day, her defence team successfully had the case postponed until November, after they wrote to the Attorney General asking him to review it.
Moiz Hadra, one of her defence lawyers says: “We want to stop this procedure against Amira because Article 152 of the criminal law is against…human rights. We need to stop [it] because this article is used by the police against women unfairly.”
Rabbi Abdul Atti, a senior member of the government’s ruling party, the NCP, stressed that this law had been “endorsed” at the time of Sudan’s interim 2005 constitution, and remained part of it. But he added they welcomed debate on this law in light of negotiations underway over a new constitution for Sudan.
“Public debate is good because the fruit of these debates will make the laws that meet the desires of the people,” he said.