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Freed, Sudan's pant-wearing woman vows to fight on

Lubna Hussein was released Thursday from jail, where she had conducted an unorthodox journalism assignment – interviewing her fellow prisoners.

By Shashank BengaliMcClatchy Newspapers / September 12, 2009



Nairobi, Kenya

It was the fashion statement heard around the world.

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Lubna Hussein, a Sudanese woman who was arrested for wearing pants in violation of a so-called indecency law and went to jail this week in protest, spent less than 24 hours behind bars. By then, however, she'd already exposed the daily indignities that women suffer in one of the most authoritarian and male-dominated societies in Africa.

"I'm happy for all the people who supported me in Sudan ... and all over the world," Ms. Hussein, a journalist, said in a phone interview Thursday with McClatchy, two days after her release. "But I will, with all women in Sudan, continue our work to end this bad law. We are not stopping here."

Few have dared go this far.

In a country far better known for the humanitarian crisis in the western Darfur region and for its considerable oil wealth, the everyday oppression of women rarely garners much attention.

Yet last year alone, under the strict Islamic law enforced by Sudan's ruling party, 43,000 women were arrested for clothing-related offenses in the capital, Khartoum, according to official figures.

Under Article 152 of Sudan's criminal code, anyone caught in public wearing "an obscene outfit" or committing "an indecent act" can be flogged up to 40 times, a vague provision that activists say police use to terrorize women. In 2003, after eight women were arrested for picnicking with male friends and were lashed with a wire and a plastic whip, an African human rights commission condemned the punishment as torture.

Hussein's arrest and legal fight

In July, Hussein was arrested at a Khartoum cafe with 12 other women, all of whom were wearing pants. Hussein's own were olive-colored and loose-fitting, so that from afar it could have seemed as if she were wearing a long skirt.

Ten of the women accepted the punishment and received 10 lashes each. Three, including Hussein, refused to accept and were to go to trial. It isn't clear whether the other two women have been tried yet.

Hussein resigned a coveted job – working in the media office of the local United Nations mission – to fight her case in court. At a hearing Monday, with hundreds of protesters massed outside the courthouse and news organizations worldwide eyeing the result, Hussein showed up wearing the same billowing slacks she'd been arrested in.

A judge spared her the lash and instead ordered her to pay a fine of about $200. She refused.

"I have money," she said afterward. "It was not about money."

Jailed, she interviewed fellow prisoners

Prison guards confiscated her cellphone and led her to a holding pen with about 800 other women, she said. She treated it like a journalistic assignment, and went around interviewing her fellow prisoners.

Most of the women were from southern Sudan, which is predominantly Christian and bitterly opposed to the northern government. Many had been jailed for drinking alcohol, others for clothing violations. One woman, a university student who'd been caught wearing pants and was flogged 20 times, was sleeping in jail alongside her 2-week-old baby.

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