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Sudanese Woman Faces Flogging for Refusing to Cover Hair

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A 35-year-old Sudanese woman says she is resigned to the fact that she may be flogged for walking outside with her hair uncovered. Amira Osman Hamed says that she wants to defend the right to leave her hair uncovered and challenge the "Taliban"-like law. Under Sudanese law, all women must be covered with a "hijab."

Hamed is being charged under Article 152 of the Sudanese criminal code which prohibits "indecent" clothing. If convicted at her trial scheduled for September 19, she faces possible whipping.

Civil rights activists have lined up behind Hamed, and her case has drawn the ire of women's rights groups. It is the latest in a series of incidents highlighting Sudan's morality laws which took effect an Islamist-backed coup 24 years ago put President Omar al-Bashir in power.

Activists say the poorly worded law disproportionately targets the poor in an effort to maintain "public order." It also leaves women subject to police.

"They want us to be like Taliban women," Hamed said, referring to the fundamentalist militant movement in Afghanistan. "This public order law changed Sudanese women from victims to criminals. This law is targeting the dignity of Sudanese people," she added.

Hamed said that while visiting a government office on August 27 in Jebel Aulia, outside Khartoum, a policeman grabbed her and told her to cover her head. Her dark hair is tightly braided against her scalp with a flare of curls at the back.

"He said, 'You are not Sudanese. What is your religion?'"

"I'm Sudanese. I'm Muslim, and I'm not going to cover my head," Hamed replied, after which she was detained for a few hours, charged and then freed on bail.

At her first court appearance on September 1, when the case was delayed until later in the month, about 100 women and some men gathered to support her. Many of the protesting women had their heads uncovered, as did Hamed, who says she has "never, ever" worn a hijab.

"There are many (who) wear it because they are afraid, not because they want to wear it," she said, speaking at her family's home and dressed in blue jeans which could also get her into trouble if she went outside. (Hamed was charged in 2002 for wearing trousers but a lawyer helped her get off with only a fine, rather than a flogging.)

"Daily, Sudanese women are flogged in the court under this law," Hamed said.

In 2009, the case of journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein led to a global outcry and spotlighted women's rights in Sudan.

Hussein was fined for wearing slacks in public, but she refused to pay. She spent one day behind bars until the Sudanese Journalists' Union paid the fine on her behalf. Others rounded up with her in a restaurant were flogged.

Asked about activists' concerns, Rabbie Abdelatti Ebaid, a senior official from the governing National Congress Party, said President Bashir is seeking views from a wide spectrum of society on a new draft constitution for Sudan. The constitution, from which laws derive, will be designed to take into consideration the will, culture and customs of the people while "respecting the human being," he said.

Hamed hopes the laws will change. In the meantime she expects to be convicted at trial and says she is ready for any sentence, including a flogging.

"I take a risk to tell what is happening in our country, and I hope that will be the last time a Sudanese woman is arrested by this law."

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Meira Svirsky

Meira Svirsky is the editor of ClarionProject.org