She Wears the Pants

Lubna Hussein, the Sudanese woman found guilty of the crime of wearing trousers, may not have won her case, but she has done one important thing: made the Khartoum regime fear the world's response.


Lubna Hussein’s trial for the "crime" of wearing trousers went ahead in Khartoum yesterday morning. It was her third official court appearance — on previous occasions the court delayed its decision in the hope that the international media attention on Lubna, the "Sudan trouser lady," would fade. The court’s verdict was eminently predictable.

Trying to save face, the court played it both ways. The judge decided Lubna was guilty under Article 152 of Sudan’s so-called indecency laws — a nod to the government, which maintains that the law is just and that Lubna simply fell afoul of it. But the court decided to fine her 500 Sudanese pounds (about $200) rather than flog her — a nod to the sensitivities of the global media watching from outside the courtroom, where Lubna’s domestic supporters were once again protesting.

Presumably the court hoped that Lubna, grateful to be spared flogging, would happily pay the fine and the world could move on. Case closed. That was a miscalculation.

I spoke to Lubna by phone shortly after the verdict was handed down and was not surprised when the first thing she said was that she had no intention of paying the fine. While most of the media coverage of her story to date has focused on the most sensational part of the case — the possibility of her facing a public flogging — for Lubna, her decision to take on the government was a challenge to the justness of Article 152 in its entirety. From Lubna’s perspective, paying the fine would legitimate an illegitimate law.

I lost contact with Lubna last night after she was jailed for refusing to pay the fine. But having spoken to her earlier in the day, I knew that going to jail to continue her protest of a vaguely worded law that allows for the harassment of women was something she was perfectly prepared to do. Lubna had advised friends and family that she did not want anyone to pay the fine on her behalf.

From the perspective of the Sudanese government, this was not a satisfactory result. With the "trouser lady" now in jail, how could the global media move on? Enter Mohideen Totawi, head of the Sudanese Journalists’ Association (SJA). Totawi paid Lubna’s fine and this afternoon she was forcibly freed.

If anyone thinks this was an act of solidarity by one journalist toward another, think again. Independent journalists in Khartoum refer to the SJA in the same scathing tone as they do the "Gongos," the governmental "nongovernmental organizations" that Khartoum runs to demonstrate to the West its robust civil society. Indeed, the links between the government and the SJA are too tight to claim anything approaching independent status. The truly independent association of journalists in Sudan is called the Sudanese Journalists’ Network — but you’ll be hard-pressed to hear anything about it because any statements it issues are censored from Sudanese papers.

So, for today it looks as though the government has won. In effect, it paid the fine to shut down both Lubna’s challenge to Article 152 and the unwelcome media attention that her act of civil disobedience spurred. But two questions remain. First, will it be this easy to stop the activism of Lubna and her many domestic supporters? My guess is no. Lubna’s case is now part of a larger campaign by a group of similarly brave Sudanese women, working for women’s rights from inside a repressive system. Second, will any Sudanese court again dare to flog a woman for wearing trousers? Let’s hope not.

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