At long last freedom has come for the women of Sudan after the country’s transitional government repealed draconian laws that oppressed them and violated their rights.
“The council of ministers agreed in an extraordinary meeting today to cancel the public order law across all provinces,” reported SUNA the state news agency. The move gives women freedom to wear trousers, uncover their hair, dance in public and mingle freely with men.
Omar al-Bashir, the ousted Sudanese leader, took power in a bloodless coup in 1989, after which he greatly restricted the role of women for 30 years.
During his rule, the government implemented a strict moral code that human rights activists said mainly targeted women, through harsh interpretations of Islamic sharia law. Thousands of women were flogged, fined and jailed under the oppressive public order law.
According to one women’s rights organisation called SIHA, the rampant arrests, detention, trial and punishment of women under Sudan’s public order, were key features of the government’s criminal justice system.
“The public order laws incorporate strict moral codes designed to exclude and intimidate women from actively participating in public life, for instance by restricting their presence in the public sphere and controlling what they wear.” These laws were enforced by the public order police and public order courts.
Under the law, men were given the power to arrest women for inappropriate dressing or indecent behaviour and take them to a nearby police station. A serious health issue such as miscarriage could land a woman in jail since it could be suspected as abortion which was a criminal act under Section 135 of the Criminal Act.
Abortion could also be interpreted as a sign of adultery, which was also a criminal offence. “Section 135 violates reproductive health rights as a woman who suffers a miscarriage and requires medical assistance, is presumed guilty of abortion and immediately arrested and detained,” read a report by SIHA titled Criminalisation of Women in Sudan.
The public order laws could be traced back to 1983 when the government formerly ruled by Gaafar Nimeiry, introduced Sharia laws. Those who broke the laws were stoned, amputated, cross amputated, crucified, and flogged.
Following the introduction of the laws, Nimeiry declared a state of emergency and ordered security officers to raid homes and clubs and arrest suspects. Many were brought before kangaroo courts and tried for alcohol consumption, gambling, mixing of the sexes without family bonds and/or for holding unlawful gatherings.
When Bashir came to power through a coup in June 1989, he extended and developed the public order law, effectively criminalising and controlling an array of private relations in the public sphere.
Through the public order law, the government sought to impose a particular set of values designed to control gender relations within society and the necessity of state engagement in the regulation of personal morality.
Women who tried to raise their voices and fight for their rights were silenced through intimidation, sexual violence and other forms of abuses. The women targeted were those who provided social services and legal aid, as well as journalists.
According to a Human Rights Watch report released in 2016, women who engaged in these activities were targeted with a range of abuses that ranged “from rape and rape threats to deliberate efforts to tar their reputations .”
“Sudanese women who defend human rights experience political repression like their male colleagues but are also vulnerable to sexual assault and intimidation because they are women,” said Daniel Bekele, the former African Director at Human Rights Watch. “ Sudanese security officials often take advantage of discriminatory laws and social conventions to silence them.”
During the period, the organisation documented several cases in which security forces abused women.
In one case, one woman activist who was urging people to boycott elections in 2015, was told by male security members that “you women activists and party members you are all sharmuta (whores).” The activist was arrested and assaulted when she defiantly stated that she was just doing what she believed in.
“They started kicking me and one of them took his trousers off and started raping me,” she said. After her release, she was rearrested and warned not to talk about the rape.
In October 2014, security officials beat and sexually assaulted a university student from the discriminated Darfuris after she protested her eviction from Khartoum University. Another student who also took part in the protests was taken to jail where she was raped several times and warned not to talk about it.
It was, therefore, a big win for women two weeks ago when the current government, which they helped bring to power, scrapped the oppressive laws that violated their rights.
Women were the face of the revolution that led to the ouster of Omar Al Bashir. Almost two-thirds of those who turned out on the streets to put pressure on the government were women. This is because they were the one ones had suffered most under Bashir’s autocratic rule which treated them as second class citizens.
Every morning, they would gather under the scorching sun in Khartoum’s main square chanting anti-government slogans despite the brutality of the police and the military.
Apart from scrapping the Public Order Act the new government also ordered the dissolution of Omar Al Bashir’s party, Islamist National Congress Party (NCP). This is among the many steps that are being taken to rid the country of remnants of Bashir’s oppressive regime. The new government under Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok took the step under a decree titled “Dismantling of the regime of 30th June 1989”.
The decree stated, “The National Congress Party is dissolved and its registration is cancelled from the list of political parties in Sudan. None of the symbols of the regime or party would be allowed to engage in any political activity for 10 years”.
The Prime Minister, however, denied that the dissolution of the party was a revenge against Al Bashir. Instead, the aim is to preserve the dignity of Sudanese people “which was crushed by dishonest people and to recover the plundered wealth of the people.” Thousands poured on the streets of Sudan’s capital, Khartoum, shouting “Sudan without Islamists. Sudan for all People” as soon the transitional government made the announcement.