The establishment of the Republic of South Sudan came with high hopes that it might improve the lives of women there. But women’s rights activists in the country left behind–the mostly Muslim Sudan–are bracing for a battle against an escalation of Islamic fundamentalist law.
Following South Sudan’s independence, its neighbor to the north, Sudan, is left in the hands of the widely-acknowledged-to-be-corrupt National Congress Party. President Omar al-Bashir, who took power in a 1989 military coup, was criticized for introducing Sharia law (based upon patriarchal interpretations of the Koran) in 1991, in a move that was opposed by the country’s Christian and Animist population. He vowed last December that if South Sudan split off, he would seize the opportunity to impose even stricter Sharia law:
If South Sudan secedes, we will change the constitution and at that time there will be no time to speak of diversity of culture and ethnicity. … Sharia and Islam will be the main source for the constitution, Islam the official religion and Arabic the official language.
Historically, women in North Sudan have had more access to employment and education than their counterparts in the South, but increased enforcement of Sharia law could threaten these freedoms. Take the 2009 case of Lubna Al-Hussein, a well-known journalist who was sentenced to forty lashes for wearing trousers in public. She was tried under Article 152 of the Sharia-based 1991 Sudanese Penal Code, which states that [PDF]:
Whoever commits in a public place an act, or conducts [her]self in an indecent manner… or wears an indecent or immoral dress … shall be punished with whipping not exceeding 40 lashes or a fine or with both.
Another Sharia-based policy, Article 149, lumps rape with adultery. A woman who reports rape must provide four witnesses to prove it was non-consensual. If she cannot, reports IPS, she “will be charged with adultery and punished with 100 lashes, if unmarried, or with death by stoning, if married.”
Women’s rights activists have allied under the banner “Alliance 149″ to push for reform of Article 149. According to Fahima Hashim, a Khartoum-based activist involved in the alliance, the impetus for such laws has come from external forces, not Sudan’s people:
The issue of Islamizing the North is … a whole issue of the international Islamic movement. The motive for Islamization doesn’t come from the people, they have their own way of practicing Islam.
These pressures, she says, will likely be exacerbated by the split, as Sudan strengthens bonds with North African countries. At the same time, she holds out hope that the Arab Spring could bode well for Sudan’s women. There are close ties between Khartoum and Cairo, and Hashim believes that the “situation is ripe for [Egyptian women] to fight for their rights.” Any victories for women in Egypt, she says, will be a victory for activists in Sudan. But she is concerned by the actions of Egypt’s military on International Women’s Day:
The same women that were standing in Tahrir Square fighting for their rights [alongside men], these same women are being asked to take virginity tests.
One of the greatest indicators of how women will fare in a new Egypt will be September’s elections. Hashim is among a group of activists from North Sudan who are conducting a ‘gender audit’ of Egypt’s election to assess the success of female candidates and women’s issues, in the hopes that any gains could be duplicated in North Sudan.
Meanwhile, women in North Sudan, much like their counterparts in the South, are actively trying to make their voices heard on the international stage. Hashim fears that if their voices are not loud enough, “no one will pay attention to North Sudan.”