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Sudan: Women Arrested for Wearing Pants Are Released

(Jan. 11, 2018) On December 10, 2017, Sudanese authorities released 24 women arrested by morality police four days earlier for wearing pants at a party in the El Mamoura area of south Khartoum. (Sudanese Women Arrested ‘for Wearing Trousers’ Released, NEW ARAB (Dec. 11, 2017).) The women, who had been arrested despite obtaining a permit for their gathering, were released when the prosecution dropped the charges without comment at the district court hearing. However, the party’s sponsor was fined 10,000 Sudanese pounds (about US$1,493) “for holding a public party while the permit she obtained indicated the occasion of a ‘family farewell party,’ ” which the court ruled violated article 79 of the Criminal Code on the serving of alcohol in public places. (Sudan Court Fines Party Sponsor, Acquits Women in Trousers, DABANGA (Dec. 11, 2017); Criminal Code of 1991, issued Feb. 2, 1991 (in Arabic; click on “PDF” icon), WIPO Lex website; unofficial English translation of Criminal Code of 1991, ILO Natlex website.) The party organizer claimed “she had requested from the police administration a permit for a public party, and had not seen what was written in the permit paper she received.” (Sudan Court Fines Party Sponsor, supra.)

Criminal Code Provisions on Indecency

Following their arrest by the morality police, who reportedly have discretion to determine whether women’s clothes are “provocative” or not, the women were charged with violating article 152 of the Sudanese Criminal Code, which prohibits indecent acts in public, such as wearing indecent clothes. (Sudanese Women Arrested ‘for Wearing Trousers’ Released, supra.) The article provides that “[w]hoever in a public place acts or behaves indecently or contrary to public morality, or dresses in clothes that are obscene or contrary to public morality, causing an annoyance to public feelings, shall be punished with flogging which may not exceed forty lashes or with a fine or with both. (Sudan Criminal Code of 1991, art. 152(1) (translation by author).)

Reaction to the Arrest

The arrest of the women, which produced an international uproar, was condemned by human rights activists, who claim that the law is applied arbitrarily and that tens of thousands of Sudanese women are arrested and flogged annually for indecency. (Sudanese Women Arrested ‘for Wearing Trousers’ Released, supra.) Amira Osman, a women’s rights activist, maintains that the women in El Mamoura did not commit any public indecency because their party took place in a closed hall in a building. (Id.)

Another Indecent Dress Case Dismissed

In another case involving the wearing of indecent attire, the Khartoum Court of First Instance on December 21, 2017, found women’s rights activist Winnie Omar not guilty for lack of evidence. Omar had likewise been arrested by the morality police and charged by the prosecutor with indecency for wearing pants in public. Omar was arrested hours after attending the hearing of the 24 women who had been charged with indecency for wearing pants at the party in El Mamoura. The judge reportedly ruled that Omar appeared to have been under surveillance before her arrest and that the clothing she was wearing “was familiar to the Sudanese.” (Abdel Hamid Awad, Sudanese Activist Winnie Omar Found Not Guilty of Wearing Provocative Clothes, NEW ARAB (Dec. 21, 2017) (in Arabic); Sudan Court Dismisses ‘Indecent Clothing’ Charges Against Woman Activist, DABANGA (Dec. 22, 2017).) Following her release, Omar was quoted as saying that during her detainment, the contents of her phone and laptop were searched, and the arresting officer told her he did not like the way she walked. Omar called the provision in the Criminal Code regulating the appearance of women “a flagrant violation of personal freedoms” that needed to be reformed. (Sudan Court Dismisses ‘Indecent Clothing’ Charges Against Woman Activist, supra.)

Following this court decision, the Organization to Defend Women’s Rights in Sudan announced that it will file a lawsuit before the Sudanese Constitutional Court to abolish article 152 of the Criminal Code, declaring that the article infringes on the rights of women and their liberty by restricting what they can wear. (Sudanese Activist Winnie Omar Found Not Guilty of Wearing Provocative Clothes, supra.)