Indecent dressing doesn’t deserve a flogging
In the warring African nation of Sudan, where Australia has a deployment of 10 Federal Police officers and 15 Defence Forces specialists connected to the UNMIS (United Nations Mission In Sudan) operation, the story of one brave woman standing up against a brutal, medieval government led by a president wanted by the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity has been reported around the world.
And quite rightly so. For the woman at the centre of this vile affair - journalist Lubna Hussein, a former UN employee - is seeking to draw attention to one of the more absurd and extreme edicts of the Islamist Sudanese government, and for her determination, she faces the frightening prospect of a public flogging.
Now, Ms Hussein and 12 other women was arrested by so-called Public Order Police on July 3 as they sat in a Khartoum café, and all were charged with the crime of “indecent dressing”.
The “prima facie” evidence (the Sudanese legal system probably doesn’t have much regard for Latin) was irrefutable.
The women were all wearing trousers, and in Sudan, there is an official decree that such attire on women is indecent.
Ten of the women have already been dealt with – flogged and fined.
But so far, Ms Hussein’s case has not been finalised, apparently because the court is weighing up whether she has immunity from prosecution on the basis of her association with the UN, by which she employed at the time of her alleged “offence”.
Of course it’s absurd, and offensive and ridiculous; enough to make any sensible person sick and disgusted, and newsworthy thereby.
Enough also to reinforce whatever “prejudices” one may hold against fundamentalist Islamic regimes, wherever they manifest. It might also cause some to question the validity and worth of our having a deployment of personnel in such a benighted, backward place.
But all power Ms Hussein. By her courageous stand, she’s focussed the sharp light of world attention on one aspect of the cruelty and inhumanity which is the routine stock-in-trade of the Sudanese regime.
Yet there is an appalling irony in all of this. For while there is no doubting the importance and symbolic value of Ms Hussein’s spirited, intelligent protest, her cause might be seen as trivial by some when it is weighed against the vast and enduring - but too-often-unreported – tragedy of mass murder, torture, rape and ethnic dispossession which has disfigured Sudan for more than 20 years.
Between 1983 and 2004, about two million people lost their lives in the civil war between the “official” Khartoum-based government of Sudan and the largely Christian southern area of the country.
And when that war was finally settled (“settled” is probably putting it too high; in reality the tensions remain unresolved, but the fighting has died down) the central government then appeared to launch a campaign of bloody oppression against the black African population of the Darfur region, on Sudan’s western border.
And in that conflict, a further 100,000 people have probably been killed and as many as two million dispossessed.
Of course, all of that has been reported, but it rarely makes the front pages, the lead broadcasts. The sheer scale of it, the vastness of the human tragedy involved, makes it sort of incomprehensible.
The deaths of two million, the dispossession of a further two million – that’s four million people, about equal to the population of Sydney either exterminated or driven out of their homes - it’s just too much suffering to calculate.
So we put it to the back of our minds, knowing it’s going on but detaching ourselves from its ugly, confronting reality.
Then along comes someone such as Ms Lubna Hussein, protesting about pants, and suddenly Sudan is worthy of the news pages again.
Of course, we ought to do everything we can to support her, to condemn the stupidity and cruelty of a vicious regime which counts pants-wearing a crime. But really, that’s pretty obvious, isn’t it?
What’s less obvious is why the international community is not fired to daily outrage against the litany of violence and bloodshed by which Sudan - and many other places – remain endlessly beset.
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