On Tuesday last week, Amira Osman was working on land registration in Jabal Awalia, west of the Sudanese capital Khartoum when she was approached by a police officer who ordered her to cover her hair. Amira ignored him. He persisted, Amira remained defiant. The angry officer attacked her and forced her to sit on the floor, while hurling a string of insults at her. The policeman Amira dragged out of the government office to the police station, where he and fellow officers attempted to force her to undergo a summary “trial”. Amira refused and insisted on having a lawyer present. She was detained for four hours before being bailed out.
On September 1, 2013, Amira was due to stand trial under article 152 of the 1991 Penal Code on indecent dress code. Should she be found guilty, she could be sentenced to flogging and paying a fine, or serve a prison term of more than one year.
Amira is a Khartoum-based engineer who runs her own company and has been confronted by the Sudan Public Order Police on several occasions in the past. She has been targeted through physical assaults and verbal abuse while participating in civil or public activities. She has led a personal campaign against the Sudan Public Order regime for more than 15 years by simply refusing to cover her head under any circumstances. She believes that is who she is and that is how she wants to present herself – without a headscarf.
And she this is not the first time she has paid for her resistance. Last Amira was detained for more than one month alongside other women and was subjected to massive psychological abuse.
For the past 25 years or so, Sudanese women regardless of their race, religion, age or background, have suffered degrading treatment and humiliation under the Public Order Code of 1996, which changed in 2009 to The Society Safety Code. Women, especially impoverished women, street vendors and students, have been and continue to be subjected to the constant threats of being arrested, beaten and tortured on the basis of what they wear or their mere presence in public spaces. The majority are denied legal representation and tried through what is known as summary trials and either sent to prison or are flogged.
“The degradation of women is affecting our society and self esteem and diminishes the respect that we have in our diverse cultures towards women and girls – an aspect of our culture that we do need to promote and enhance”, says Hala Alkarib, the Director of the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA).
“Sudanese women represent more than half of the Sudan population; their contribution to the society, economy and wellbeing is substantial. Women, from street vendors, teachers and farmers, workers are preserving communities and families across the country. The role of the state is to protect them, maintain their dignity and pride and their access to a fair justice system.”
SIHA is now urging the Sudanese government to:
1) Reform the Sudanese Criminal Act, of 1991.
a. Remove from the criminal law offences which violate the principles of non-discrimination, legality, equality before the law and the equal protection of the laws, and, which by their definition, inappropriately restrict the exercise of fundamental freedoms.
b. Sections 151 to 156 must be subject to particular scrutiny.
2) Reform Sudan Public Order laws
a. Criminalization of behaviour which constitutes the exercise of basic personal freedoms — unless its prohibition can be shown to be necessary and proportionate in a democratic society — must end.
b. Civil law procedures and penalties can be used to govern regulation of many public order matters.
c. Provisions which restrict the right to work of women on the grounds of public order, either explicitly or implicitly, and in ways which violate the national Charter, must be abolished.
3. Abolish the public order courts (POCs)
a. The summary procedures in operation before the POCs violate fair trial standards, the principle of equal protection of the laws and the right to liberty and security of person.
Reform and consider the abolition of the public order police (POP). Many in Sudan, and particularly women, perceive and experience the POP, not as guardians of community safety, but as feared and arbitrary abusers of their fundamental freedoms.
* This report is based on a public statement issued by the Strategic Initiative for Women in the Horn of Africa (SIHA)