Female Muslim journalist faces trial for wearing pants

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(RNS) Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein will face trial Sept. 7 for wearing trousers in violation of government decency statutes derived from Sharia law. If convicted, she faces 40 lashes and a fine.

But it’s the Sudanese government, not Hussein, who wants the trial to go away.

“This is a turning point. We have a woman who has put the government on the spot,” said Abdullahi An-Na’im, an Islamic law expert from Sudan who teaches at Emory University Law School. “They can’t try her, and they can’t not try her.”

Hussein and 12 other women were arrested by the country’s public order police in July for wearing pants at a Khartoum reception hall. Most of the women accepted the punishment of 10 lashes and a $100 fine.

Hussein, 43, worked for the United Nations at the time, and could have claimed diplomatic immunity from prosecution, but refused, seeing her arrest as a chance to challenge laws she said were anti-Islamic.

“I want to change this law, because hitting is not human,” Hussein told the BBC in July. “It doesn’t match Sharia.”

Limited Sharia law was introduced in Sudan in 1983, and expanded in 1989 when current president Omar al-Bashir seized power and declared Sudan an Islamic republic. But Sudan is a vast country where 30 percent of the population is non-Muslim, and Sharia enforcement began waning in the late 1990s. The country’s 2005 constitution refers to Sharia as a source for national law.

The Khartoum government is reluctant to remove Sharia legislation for fear of angering religious conservatives and seeming to appease Western critics, said An-Na’im. Al-Bashir, however, has an International Criminal Court warrant out for his arrest and the government is eager to avoid a public relations headache; critics say he postponed the trial to search for a face-saving move.

The case has provoked international condemnation, as well as protests in Khartoum. Sudan’s embassy in Washington, D.C., did not return phone calls seeking comment.

“Just by forcing Muslims to look in the mirror, and to see how absurd it is that their religion is being presented as a religion that requires something like this, is important.” said An-Na’im. “She’s doing the whole Muslim world a favor.”

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