Sudanese Women Rise Above Oppressive Laws
Jan 21, 2015
A loving mother, courageous journalist and passionate activist, Amal Habbani embodies the aspirations of Sudanese women. Amal, whose name means ‘hope’ in Arabic, paused for a few moments when I asked her how she would describe herself, reminding me of a challenge: portraying her world.
Amal’s world is filled with resilience, and dedication to achieving the dreams of equality and justice for women in Sudan. After she paused, she laughed shyly. “I am just an ordinary person, like the other millions of women in Sudan,” Amal says. “But the only thing added is that since a very young age, I have had an awareness of the concern for the public and society; an awareness of the rhythm of things around me.”
Amal’s concern for society is illustrated throughout her career. In 2005, after the Comprehensive Peace Agreement that ended the second civil war in Sudan, Amal created a small school for refugee children as part of the “Popular Peace Initiative.” In collaboration, neighbors contributed to helping the refugees. Outside of this work, Amal led campaigns to free political prisoners and created a column in a Sudanese newspaper to address various social and political issues.
Because of her writing, Amal faced unjust charges. She was terminated from her job, fined, arrested and detained multiple times. But Amal’s dedication to improving the conditions of women in Sudan did not falter. The attempts to silence Amal stand as testimony to the underlying issues faced by Sudanese women –– the set of problematic elements within the ruling system reflected in laws, practices and ideologies that target women in Sudan.
Though my Skype conversation with Amal assured me of our ability to stand against our oppression, it confirmed my fear: women in Sudan continue to suffer under a regime, which according to Amal, operates under the ideology “where there are women, there is a vice.” Yet where there is Amal, there is a way. Amal recounted the story of her colleague, Lubna Ahmed Hussein, who was detained by the “Public Order Police” –– a special police authority responsible for enforcing the Public Order Law –– for allegedly dressing inappropriately. This incident sparked the creation of the “No to Women’s Oppression Initiative” in 2008 by Amal and her colleagues.
Amal said that the “No to Women’s Oppression Initiative” team believes that such law was put into place to oppress and assault women. The law is problematic because of its extortion of society and inherent diminution of women’s citizenship and their personal freedom. An institution in itself, the law involves power structures and legal systems that legitimize it. Women subjected to these laws believe that if they speak out, they will be stigmatized.
According to a study conducted by Amal and her colleagues, all the women who were subjected to this law have experienced humiliating arrests, blackmailing, verbal abuse, and sexual harassment instigated by the authorities. Amal therefore highlights the dangers of faulty laws falling in the wrong hands. She also believes that the reason for the North-South separation was mostly due to the Public Order Law, under which many Southern Sudanese Christian women were arrested, detained and punished because they were not wearing what is considered decent by Muslim standards, such as a scarf.
”Women in Sudan currently bear all the abuse of this regime along with its tyranny,” Amal says. “Women in Sudan historically have had problems and throughout history, women are the first to be oppressed since the emergence of patriarchal eras.” Amal also points out women in Sudan are at the mercy of a legislative system that targets and oppresses them. This system enforces the framing and molding of women into a specific way of thinking, and makes clothing a determinant of a woman’s virtue –– the basis for her ability to secure the right of work and study.
Amal believes that the regime’s Civilizational Project agenda –– a form of political Islam ––is being substantiated through women, and enforced by the Public Order Law. Amal says, “The Public Order Campaigns are a big example. You can see that in this country there are no manifestations of religiosity, and even theocracy is not evident. But when you try to enter a college campus without a scarf, you will not be able to, even if you have gained admission into the college by great academic achievements and qualifications. This is not decided by the president of the college, but rather by government recruits who are part of the police. Even the college guards have become part of the policing. This is a huge problem for women.” According to Amal, approximately 40,000-50,000 women in Khartoum each year are subjected to the Public Order Laws, detained, tried and punished.
Amal’s passion continues to drive her despite these circumstances. “The thing that encourages me the most is the feeling that what you do pays off, and that there are improvements and changes even if they are little. There was a study conducted about Public Order Laws, and there is more awareness. Even the government admits that there are problems with these laws, and Khartoum’s governor had acknowledged the need for them to be revised.” Still, a dominant radical wing within the government opposes women’s rights, and thus revising these laws.
Amal continues to inspire many Sudanese women, through her stance against Public Order Law. Amal is a symbol for Sudanese women’s resilience, who she says had the strongest feminist movement during the 1950s and ‘60s in all of Africa and the Middle East. Even today, under a regime that seemingly seeks to push them back to the Dark Ages, Sundanese women like Amal continue to hold their ground. Through her writing and activism, Amal is only at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the power of Sudanese women rallying for change. “I dream of comprehensive change,” Amal says. “I also hope that this law is repealed, and that laws that are more sensitive towards women’s issues come into place to allow women to reach high rather than sink low.”
This article is part of a writing assignment for Voices of Our Future a program of World Pulse that provides rigorous digital media and citizen journalism training for grassroots women leaders. World Pulse lifts and unites the voices of women from some of the most unheard regions of the world.