KHARTOUM (Reuters) - A Sudanese woman facing 40 lashes for wearing trousers in public made her first appearance in a court packed with supporters Wednesday, in what her lawyer described as a test case in Sudan’s decency laws.
There were chaotic scenes as Lubna Hussein, a former journalist who works for the United Nations, attended the hearing wearing the same green slacks that got her arrested for immodest dress.
Indecency cases are not uncommon in Sudan. But Hussein has attracted attention by publicising her case, inviting journalists to hearings and using it to campaign against dress codes sporadically imposed in the capital.
The case was adjourned Wednesday as lawyers discussed whether her status as a U.N. employee gave her legal immunity.
After the hearing, defense lawyer Nabil Adib Abdalla said Hussein had agreed to resign from the United Nations in time for the next session on August 4 to make sure the case continued.
“First of all she wants to show she is totally innocent, and using her immunity will not prove that,” Abdalla told reporters. “Second she wants to fight the law. The law is too wide. It needs to be reformed ... This is turning into a test case. Human rights groups will be watching this closely.”
He said Hussein was ready to face the maximum penalty for the criminal offence of wearing indecent dress in public which was 40 lashes and an unlimited fine.
Before the hearing Hussein told Reuters she was arrested in early July when police raided a party she was attending at a restaurant in Khartoum’s Riyadh district.
“Thousands of women are punished with lashes in Sudan but they stay silent,” she said. “The law is being used to harass women and I want to expose this.”
She said a number of other women arrested with her received lashes. But her case was sent for trial when she called in a lawyer.
Journalists scuffled with police armed with batons outside the court room Wednesday and some reporters, who were briefly detained, had tapes and equipment confiscated.
Scores of women, some wearing slacks and jeans, attended the case. Some waved small placards with the slogan “Lashing people is against human rights.”
The trial was also attended by representatives of the embassies of France, Canada, Sweden and Spain, alongside politicians and members of the Sudanese Women’s Union.
Yassir Arman, a senior member of the Sudan People’s Liberation Movement (SPLM), the dominant party in southern Sudan, said he had brought up the case with the U.S. Envoy to Sudan Scott Gration on his recent visit.
“The SPLM is calling for this law to be repealed,” he told Reuters. “It humiliates both Christian and Muslim women.”
Northern Sudan is government by Islamic law which includes restrictions on public decency, particularly for women.
But the regulations are only sporadically enforced in Khartoum — while most women wear traditional dress in public, some, particularly from the mostly Christian south, also wear slacks and more Western clothes.
It is also rare for a Sudanese woman to take such a public stance on her rights to defy the dress code.
Lashing is handed out as a punishment for a range of offences in Sudan, including brewing alcohol.
The punishment is often administered minutes after a trial, in public outside the court room for male defendants and generally in private for women.
Additional reporting by Khaled Abdel Aziz; Editing by Giles Elgood