Sudanese female UN worker jailed for wearing trousers


When one pictures someone becoming upset at a woman wearing trousers, that image probably harkens back to the days when James Bond still wore a hat – in Dr. No – in the 1960s.

North American audiences are used to hearing about surprising and even backward third-world customs.  And then there are those, which come off more like something from News of the Weird.

A Sudanese journalist, Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein, who had been working for the United Nations, was one of more than a dozen women who were arrested for wearing trousers this summer.  They were simply enjoying a dinner party.  To North American eyes this would be laughable, except for the routine punishment for offending the local Islamic sensibilities – a flogging of up to 40 lashes.

Sudanese journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein

Sudanese journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein

England’s Guardian newspaper carried the story.  And then the United States’ Time magazine did as well.

It is remarkable that Islamic law and custom demands that women not wear trousers.  The typical punishment is what is extraordinary to North American sensibilities.

The work-a-day Khartoum people have described she and her peers as prostitutes and demanded that the lashings be meted out.

What lifts this story above the typical third-world cultural or religious barbarism are the chances that Ms. al-Hussein is taking to stand on her principle and win more publicity for this.

She resigned her UN position, so that she would no longer be eligible for diplomatic immunity in the matter.  And she wanted this to be litigated; she wanted the Khartoumi court system to help her make her point.  She preferred prison time over paying a $208 or 500 Sudanese pound fine.

Natives and local lawyers have insisted that the laws are questionable: they are vague and are  enforced inconsistently.

This begs many questions:

  • Why are images of women’s suffrage and equality so disparate between countries, cultures and their customs?
  • Are Sudanese Muslim values backwards, even barbaric, as many North Americans would easily conclude?
  • How did women wearing trousers become a cause for alarm and gender tumult?

On foreign affairs, feminism,…and a “woman’s place”:

  • Is it reasonable to look at what happened in Khartoum, Sudan through North American cultural eyes?
  • How universal is feminism or are women’s rights?

It is rarely wise or simple to consider another people through ones own ways.  The United States’ history, particularly in foreign policy, is littered with that and has often ended in shame and the loss of moral ground.

The list of cultural slights with which North American women must contend are daunting: only two out of the nine U.S. Supreme Court justices are women.  The Equal Rights Amendment has sat on someone’s shelf long after the day when the electronic typewriter was boasted as cutting-edge.   At least skirmishes over trousers ended 20-years-ago.

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