Reports: Women in Sudan

Social turbulence in Sudan has had a particularly acute impact on the lives of women, not only among disadvantaged minorities but also among the middle and upper classes. There have been many reversals since 1974, when women gained the constitutional right to representation in all public institutions. The political freedoms won by bodies such as the Sudan Women's Union and decades of progress towards social equality now face a backlash under the guise of religious law. Although some women from the elite classes still hold public office, strategic dismissals have ensured that the few who are allowed to remain in their posts are sympathizers with the regime.

In major northern towns displaced Southern and non-Arab families, where the women are often the heads of households, have encountered unprecedented harassment.

In the west and south women play a major role in agriculture, which has been disrupted by war. The introduction of mechanized farming has also altered female economic roles and imposed new constraints, for example in areas where it is unacceptable for women to work alongside migrant male labourers.

In the war zones, women have suffered rape and abduction by all sides in the conflict, to the extent that the ending of hostilities between the factions of the SPLA will depend in part on the return of "wives" seized in raids on villages.

Women's status as economic chattels is underlined by the dowry system, usually paid in cash or kind in the north, and in cattle in much of the south. It contrasts with the system in India under which a dowry is offered by a woman's family to the husband who marries her.

The introduction by former president Nimeiri of "sharia" law in September 1983 caused considerable upset at all levels of society, not least in the way it allowed law enforcers to exercise prejudice against women and other minorities. One of its measures forbade women to be seen in public with men other than family members or approved "muharram" guardians. There was outrage among the educated classes when respectable married couples travelling by car between the three towns of the capital were repeatedly stopped at police checkpoints and accused of immoral behaviour.

Although the overthrow of Nimeiri in 1985 brought a temporary suspension of the penalties, the "sharia" laws were never revoked, and in 1989 the military-Islamist regime of Lt-Gen al-Bashir introduced dramatic and systematic attacks on all elements of women's lives in Sudan. The 1991 Public Order Act, part of the regime's new penal code, is framed so widely that it allows almost any mixed social gathering to be considered a setting for fornication, and enables the virtual exclusion of women from the male-dominated public sphere.

The supposedly "Islamic" nature of the strictures on women is highly controversial. It is argued by progressive Muslims that the Prophet Mohamed was responsible for advancing the status of women at a time when unwanted girl children were disposed of by being buried alive. However, the male clerical interpretation of Islamic law after his death, with its emphasis on the letter of the law rather than its spirit, halted or petrified the process. In this way the Quranic injunction that both men and women should dress and behave modestly became a mechanistic requirement for women to cover their bodies. Similarly, the Prophet's admonition of a midwife about to circumcise a young girl, that she might "reduce, but not destroy", which amounted to criticism of the already established practice of female genital mutilation (FGM), has been treated in reactionary circles as an endorsement rather than a condemnation of the practice. The National Islamic Front's claims that Islam is incompatible with female economic activity outside the home is equally unwarranted. These attitudes have more to do with tradition, nationality and class than with religion.

The 1990s began with alarming developments in the treatment of women, including imprisonment, torture, intimidation and harassment; and interference with the rights of movement, association, employment and dress. In the name of protecting morality, the energies of law enforcement bodies have been directed towards the persecution of women in public. Young women, particularly, are primary targets for quasi-religious propaganda in the name of chastity, obedience and domesticity, voiced repeatedly through government-controlled media. Persistently made to feel ashamed of their bodies, they may be stopped on the street at the whim of any member of the police and security organisations. Reasons given for this include being inadequately covered, not having an escort, being seen with a man not properly accredited as an escort, or simply walking in a "provocative" manner.

While women in government offices were immediately forced to adhere to the dress code, the response of the majority of women has been a mixture of defiance, passive resistance and practicality. For some young women in the 1980s, the "hijab" combination of headscarf and long-sleeved blouse was more practical - and much cheaper - than the unwieldy "tobe" traditionally worn outside the home by northern Sudanese. It became fashionable outside the narrow circles of the NIF who introduced it. However, the attempt to impose an Iranian-style "chador", after one merchant imported the garment in bulk, was unsuccessful.

A ban on unaccompanied women travelling abroad was framed with the declared purpose of protecting the honour of Sudanese women and clamping down on vice. In practice, it did more to restrict the movement of perceived opponents of the regime, for example by preventing the attendance of respected middle-aged female academics at conferences abroad, than to limit prostitution. Most of the detentions regarding prostitution are on the grounds of "reasonable suspicion" rather than evidence, since Islam dictates that any such act must be witnessed by four (male) individuals.

In the towns of northern Sudan, any non-northern woman risks classification as a brewer of alcohol and a prostitute, no matter how respectable her social background. She will be accosted on the streets for sex, especially if she does not conform to Islamic dress, and if she sells food or tea out of doors she risks confiscation of her utensils and arrest under the frequent "kasha" purges of the informal economic sector. The practice of "kasha" was introduced by Nimeiri, and is periodically used to round up unlicensed street traders and others deemed socially undesirable.

The majority of displaced family households are headed by women. Men may be absent for a number of reasons: some are part of the migrant agricultural labour force; others are in the south fighting for the SPLA; others are fighting on the side of the government. Many of the women are widows of government soldiers, trying to sustain their families without the pensions to which they are theoretically entitled. In Omdurman, some groups of women are organizing themselves into cooperatives so that they can sell tea, peanuts or "kisra" (sorghum pancakes) from licensed kiosks without suffering the penalties of the "kasha", but these initiatives are prone to interference.

The severest interpretation of "Sharia" law is used to flog and send to prison women from minority groups who brew alcohol, which they do to support their families in the absence of any alternative source of income. The role of alcohol in Sudanese society is surrounded by hypocrisy: at least 50 per cent of northern males consume the "aragi" (distilled date or sorghum liquor) and "marissa" (millet beer) brewed by women from the south or west of the country.

Policemen may visit the drinking houses to consume illicit alcohol and return later to raid the premises. Informers are encouraged to report to the National Islamic Front's "People's Committes" and "Popular Police Forces", who may carry out raids without warrants at any time. Men with grudges against individual women may make allegations of prostitution against them if their own sexual advances are refused. Sometimes the police demand bribes in order to drop charges; if the amount offered is insufficient, the woman is charged with attempted bribery.

It is traditional in some parts of Sudan for the women to brew millet beer, known as "marissa", or its equivalent from sesame seed. Marissa is rich in vitamins and relatively low in alcohol, and forms a staple part of the diet for many Sudanese from the West and South. It may be brewed for daily consumption or for special occasions, such as harvesting or celebrating. When women from the regions where marissa is part of the culture come to the towns of the North, they may also brew marissa for sale. For those who have lost their husbands, it is sometimes the only source of income. Most of Sudan's distillers are women, who use dates, other fruit or sorghum to make the traditional "aragi", equivalent to the Irish poteen.

Men, of course, are the primary consumers. In general, past governments have more or less turned a blind eye to this trade, even when imported alcohol has been banned. However, the NIF has launched a witch-hunt against the women brewers and distillers. Under the 1991 Penal Code, women selling marissa or aragi have been arrested, tortured and flogged in public, and their apparatus confiscated without compensation. Often the police who carry out the raids on women brewers are known to their victims as previous customers.


Subsequent trials at the Public Order courts are characterized by pressure for conviction. The judges are often junior military officers with little or no legal training who act as hostile prosecutors. Cases are dealt with so rapidly that there is rarely time to bring relatives or advocates for the accused, and the presumption is of guilt rather than innocence. Appeals are discouraged, and floggings are administered without checking the fitness of the accused for corporal punishment.

In prison the women are often raped. Prison warders demand sexual favours in return for small essentials like soap or when they wish to be visited by relatives. Little shelter is available to protect them from extremes of heat and cold. The quality of food and water is poor, even by local standards, and cases of malnourishment and dysentery are common, especially among the babies and children who are taken into prison with their mothers. About 75 per cent of the women in detention are either pregnant, suckling babies or caring for small children. Two-thirds of them are married; one in five are widows. The number of detained women has grown so rapidly that prison facilities have become insufficient to accommodate them, and the authorities have been obliged to release some to make room for new detainees. Omdurman women's prison, the largest in the country, often holds ten times its original capacity of 30-50 women. In October 1994 the government announced the release of most of the the women in Omdurman women's prison, in a manner suggesting that this was an act of clemency. In fact the women had rioted after promises that they would be freed if they underwent Popular Defence Force training were not honoured. Non-Muslim women are often offered gifts or early release as a reward for conversion to Islam, and proselytising organizations have become part of daily prison life.

Sudanese Muslim women who have not even attempted to diverge from the traditional patterns of life have found themselves under attack. One of the central female institutions, the communal practice known as "Zar", has been targeted under the Public Order Act. The Zar, which incorporates a belief system which existed before Islam and has survived by never challenging the religion, is a major factor in binding female society together, and acts as a cathartic safety valve for the frustrations of daily life. It is described by anthropologists as a cult of spirit possession, and is found in Sudan, Egypt, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Somalia, with related activities in West Africa, on the East African coast and across the Red Sea in Yemen. It has parallels with the trance-inducing role of the "Zikr" chanting and dance practised by the Sufi orders, and is credited with healing powers. Psychiatrists have acknowledged that Zar gatherings help to prevent neurosis, and it may be argued that they help to break down social barriers and compensate women for their lack of power in other fields.

Religious conservatives began to move against the Zar in 1988, before the Bashir regime seized power, on the grounds that it was contrary to Islamic practice. It had been driven underground a hundred years earlier during the Mahdiyya, when it was forbidden along with intoxicants, tobacco, amulets, music and feasts for marriages and circumcisions, but as with these other customary accompaniments of Sudanese life it resurfaced soon afterwards. Few men attend the Zar, although they often fear its power, and the freedom it gives women to snub male society is considered subversive. In Zar gatherings, which may continue for three to seven days, drums are used in conjunction with incense and chanting to address the Zar spirits, each of whom has a specific identity, and to create a trance-like state in the participants. The inherent power of women's drumming in Sudan is seen by male religious conservatives as dangerous, because of its capacity to arouse excitement, and young men have been known to attempt to destroy the drums because they bring down "devils". The women's use of alcohol and tobacco at the ceremonies, albeit in smaller quantities than their menfolk, is also condemned by extremists, but until the advent of the Bashir regime this was not sufficient to bring the wrath of the authorities upon the practitioners. By 1994, however, the "sheikha" leaders of the Zar had suffered multiple arrests and a full-blooded government campaign seemed intent on its eradication.

Genital Mutilation
Female genital mutilation, already practised comprehensively in northern Sudan, has also spread to the non-Muslim community in the South and West, and among urban migrants responding to social pressure to conform. It is mistakenly regarded as an Islamic practice, and as a safeguard against immorality and AIDS, although it has been suggested by medical experts that the opposite is true. Medical complications regularly result from the practice, which always involves the excision of the clitoris and the outer vaginal labia, and in the severe form most widely carried out includes infibulation - the sewing up of the vaginal orifice leaving only a small outlet for menstrual flow. Keloid formation in the scar tissue, pain on sexual intercourse, retention of menstrual blood and the need for extensive cutting to permit childbirth are commonplace. In the early 1990s FGM was carried out on women in areas of Southern Sudan recaptured from the SPLA by government forces, notably in Eastern Equatoria, where the Popular Defence Force vanguard are understood to have included the practice in their Islamization campaign. This contrasts strongly with the efforts by enlightened women in the 1970s to reduce the extent and severity of the practice.

Women have played a distinctive role in opposition to the regime, and are vital in the safety nets that have been organised to help the families of those who have have been executed, arrested, or dismissed from their jobs. They also engage in the monitoring of human rights inside the country, helping to document abuses. In part because middle class women are not punished as severely as the men, they have formed a vanguard in public demonstrations. Symbolically, they have been most visible in annual protests commemorating the summary execution of 28 army officers in April 1990 for an alleged coup attempt. The women relatives of the dead were arrested on several of these occasions, including when they protested to the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan during one of his fact-finding visits in 1993.

Women - Chapter of A19 Sudan report
"An ideal Sudanese woman is one who takes care of herself, her children, her home, her reputation and her husband" - Lt-Gen Omar Hassan al-Bashir, speaking at a conference in January 1990.

Under the banner of defending "traditions and beliefs", the Sudanese delegation to the September 1995 Beijing Conference on Women declared that it would not accept elements of the conference's proposed declaration, including equal rights for women and freedom from violence, discrimination and coercion. The stance of Sudan's Minister for Social Welfare, Miriam Sirr al-Khatim, in dismissing aspects such as sexual rights, is entirely in line with the National Islamic Front's interpretation of the Islamic faith. It also illustrates the massive setback of women's freedom in Sudan since the Bashir regime came to power.

Sudanese women have a long history of sharing responsibilities with men in all aspects of life, but not of enjoying comparable rights. They have also suffered institutionalised discrimination in favour of males within the family and in the society, and are socialised into regarding their role as bearing children and pleasing their husbands. Women have always been denied the full benefit of educational and health programmes, and even when their rights have been clearly set out in law, they have been thwarted by the traditional dominance of men.

In the family, women face problems with respect to the right to select a husband and the right to divorce, maintenance and child custody, as well as the question of polygamy. In many parts of the country - not only in Islamic society - women are treated as the possessions of men, to be inherited or disposed of accordingly.

In comparison with women in many other African and Middle Eastern countries, however, Sudanese women have become relatively well-represented in public life. Since the 1920s Sudanese women have been part of the modern labour market, with large numbers entering nursing and secretarial work. However, they are paid less than their male counterparts, and face high rates of unemployment. The escalating cost of living has had a particular impact on the household economy run by women, and is worsened by poor provision of basics such as potable water and primary health care.

Sudanese women joined the nationalist independence movement in the mid-1940s. Pioneering women became actively involved in the trades unions and in their own new organisations, the first of which were the League of Sudanese Women and the Society for Promoting the Status of Women. In 1952 the Sudanese Women's Union was founded, and a year later it succeeded in gaining the right for women to vote. It began publishing the magazine "Sawt al-Marra" (The Women's Voice) in 1955, raising awareness and addressing critical questions such as the right of women to choose whom to marry. One consequence was that the Grand Shari'a Judge of Sudan issued a decree stating that a marriage contract is not legal unless it is proven that the bride has been consulted on the terms of the marriage contract and has given her agreement.

The women's movement, led by the SWU in close collaboration with the progressive political parties and trades unions, continued to tackle major concerns regarding the law and women's rights. It raised the issues of equal pay for equal work, pensions, education and maternity leave under civil law, and in the field of sharia law sought to restrict polygamous marriage and abolish "Bait al-Ta'a", which by a court order could force a woman to live with her husband against her will.

One of the founders of the Sudan Women's Union, Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim, went on to be elected the first female member of Parliament in Sudan, and the civilian uprisings against Sudan's military dictatorships in 1964 and 1985 were notable for the participation of women. In 1964 Bakhita al-Hayfan became the first female martyr, shot during a demonstration against General Abboud.

By the 1960s Sudanese women constituted seven per cent of the official modern workforce. While most were nurses, secretaries and teachers, others gained posts as physicians, engineers, judges, lawyers, diplomats, journalists and university professors. The 1969 military government of Ja'afar Nimeiri agreed to put into practice the demands for equal pay and eight weeks' maternity leave, pensions, and maintenance for a divorced Muslim woman equivalent to 50% of her husband's income.

Although the SWU was originally established by privileged urban women, it also pressed for assistance to rural women. In 1970 the Nimeiri government was prompted by the SWU to approve the expansion of health, education and social services along with electricity, water and roads. It appointed a woman as state minister, and others to top positions in the regime's single party, the Sudan Socialist Union. Women joined the Armed Forces, the Police and Prison authorities as officers.

Nimeiri's government changed direction in the 1970s, reversing its socialist-oriented policies and adopting an increasingly conservative stance on many issues. His rapprochement with the Muslim Brotherhood (later NIF) leader Hassan al-Turabi culminated in the announcement of sharia law in September 1983. The regime banned the SWU, arrested its leaders, dismissed its members and killed or detained their husbands. In addition, the benefits gained earlier in social welfare provision were undermined by the stagnation of the economy. The only women's organisation to gain from these developments was "Raidat al-Nahda", the female wing of the Muslim Brotherhood / NIF, whose members advocated gender discrimination on the grounds that a woman's ideal role in society was that of a wife and mother. Its anti-democratic orientation led it to embrace the erosion of women's freedoms as a "good thing".

When Nimeiri was overthrown in the April 1985 uprising, the SWU returned to public life, but the succeeding years of civilian rule did not bring the substantial advances over past achievements that might have been expected. There was, however, a continuing push towards the implementation of laws promoting women's rights. Women played a key role in calling for an end to the civil war, with the formation of the Peace Mothers Society and the National Women's Forum, which was an alliance of many Southern Sudanese women's groups with the SWU and others. Meanwhile, thousands of cooperatives were established to help cope with commodity shortages and the rising cost of living.

NIF Rule - Return to the Harem
The immediate ban on political parties, unions and associations decreed by the National Islamic Front when it seized power in June 1989 extended to women's organisations and to women's participation in public life. Over 100 women's voluntary groups and philanthropic societies registered with the Ministry of Social Welfare were closed down, along with political groups such as the women's bureaux of the Umma, Democratic Unionist and Ba'ath parties. These bureaux had been influential in pushing for provision for women in development programmes

The NIF sacked about 40 per cent of the women working in ministries, corporations and parastatals in the modern sector. Dozens of leading women in trades unions and professional associations were expelled from their positions. Some were tortured or repeatedly arrested and detained. The military-fundamentalist regime was all too aware of their role in promoting women's rights and their opposition to the war, and was determined to remove them permanently.

The return to the era of the "harem" (seclusion of women) was signalled by Bashir's January 1990 pronouncement on the "ideal Sudanese woman". It was followed by the government order in November 1991 for all women to wear "hijab" - what the regime claimed was "Islamic" dress, but was in fact the Iranian-style "chador". Women who refused to comply with the new regulations were subjected to arrest, flogging and humiliation.

Many still resisted the order, and even formed the Association for Defence of the Sudanese Tobe to emphasise their rejection. This association was named after the customary dress of Northern Sudanese women, a length of cloth like the Indian sari, used to wrap around the body except for the face and hands.

In a secretly distributed statement, the SWU declared that the real intention behind the government order was "to enable merchants of the NIF to collect huge financial gains" by obliging women to purchase the imported Iranian dress - "a commercial hijab" - instead of the locally available Sudanese "tobe". The "tobe" had become a symbol of national self-respect and identification for Northern Sudanese women, and already conformed with Islamic standards of modesty - why should it be changed, except for commercial gain?

In its concern to see women return to the home, the regime overlooks the fact that a lot of Sudanese women are obliged to be bread-winners for their families. Opportunities for legitimate income generation are taken away with no thought for the consequences. Many women from the poorer classes work in the markets or set up street stalls selling tea, coffee, sandwiches or peanuts. Often unable to obtain trading licences, they have repeated been the targets of "kasha", a policy pre-dating the regime but enthusiastically employed by it. "Kasha" means taking away suspected offenders in lorries and confiscating their equipment, and functions as a general means of intimidation.

Rape in War
The use of rape as a weapon of war has increased, and the women of the Nuba Mountains and Southern Sudan are particularly at risk. There have been many reliable accounts of the government's encouragement of members of the militia forces to rape and impregnate the women in these conflict areas. In displacement camps in the Nuba Mountains, women are often separated from their husbands, and the children are "educated" with extremist propaganda. The purpose of the exercise is to accelerate social breakdown in the indigenous cultures under attack, and to create a generation of children inculcated with the values of the NIF.

Extrajudicial Killings, Torture and Arbitrary Arrest
In Southern Sudan, thousands of women and children - often already displaced by war - were bombed by the Sudanese Air Force in raids on camps and villages. Elsewhere in the country, women were the victims of military action by the government against "rebels" in the Nuba Mountains of Kordofan, and among the Zagawa and Fur peoples of Darfur.

At the University of Khartoum, an NIF loyalist shot dead a female student who was taking part in a peaceful demonstration against the regime's new administrative and financial policies. A number of impoverished women and children were killed while protesting at the government's destruction of their homes in the unplanned area of Khartoum known as "Dar al-Salaam".

The security forces, the backbone of the regime, carried out systematic harassment of the leaders of the banned women's organisations. This treatment was dealt out to Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim of the SWU, Sarah al-Fadil Mohamed of the Umma Party Women's Bureau, Sarah Nugdallah of the Umma Party, and Rashidah Abd al-Karim, former minister of social affairs and state minister of education in the 1986-89 period of civilian government. Other prominent detainees included Amal Jabrallah, a physician and trade unionist; Thoriyah al-Tuhami, a housewife; and Amira Hassan Mahdi, who was imprisoned for three years. Fatima al-Ginaid was imprisoned with all her children in the remote desert at Shalla prison, Darfur, together with her husband, a trade unionist detained since the coup.

Most notoriously, the security forces took Buthaina Dokah, a nurse at Khartoum Civil Hospital, to a secret detention centre (or "ghost house") and tortured her to the threshold of insanity. The New York-based Fund for Peace reported on 15 May 1992 that "Buthaina was captured in December 1990 ... The security officers gagged her with her bra and strung her up from the ceiling by her hands (behind her back) and feet, and beat her from morning to midnight. She received this abuse for allegedly using a walkie-talkie. Although she was accused of belonging to the Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM), in fact she was a part-time employee with Chevron Company of Khartoum. After about two months in the ghost house, Buthaina was transferred to Omdurman Prison where she was kept another month before being released. Immediately on her release, Buthaina had a mental breakdown. As of February 1992, she was institutionalised in a psychiatric hospital, where she suffers from hallucinations and paranoid delusions."

The testimony of former MP Fatima Ahmed Ibrahim concerning her own treatment highlights the hypocrisy of the regime: "Late in 1990, General al-Bashir declared that he was willing to accept public criticisms of his government. The SWU took the opportunity to submit to the General a memorandum on the living conditions at the time - the scarcity of basic commodities, the arbitrary arrests of women and the suffering of the children, the policies of purging the public service, tortures and the extrajudicial execution of 28 army officers. As soon as al-Bashir received the women's memorandum, I was summoned to the State Security Headquarters, where I was ordered to attend every morning for seven days for interrogation. There I found a number of women and men whom I knew were subjected to similar interrogation for months while forced to attend the place at their own expense."

In spite of these tortures and systematic harassment, the women's democratic movement continued to organise in different ways, and resistance did not cease. Hundreds of women marched through the streets of Omdurman protesting against the economic policies of the NIF. They called attention to the unprecedented hardships imposed on the people, the spread of famine and the impoverishment of the country. They carried with them empty pots and pans, which they banged loudly in an expression of anger and disgust, and raised banners criticising price rises and inflation.

The Ramadan Martyrs' Families
On 24 April 1990, during Ramadan, the government executed 28 army officers and more than 200 non-commissioned officers suspected of involvement in an attempted coup d'etat. They were reportedly machine-gunned and buried in a mass grave. The wives and families of the officers formed a Martyrs' Families' League, and began to campaign actively against the regime. Their goals were: to work together with all democratic forces in Sudan to overthrow the NIF government; to bring to public trial all accomplices in the torture and extrajudicial execution of the officers and soldiers; to locate the secret graves of the martyrs; for the wills of the martyrs to be shown to the families, and for the men's belongings to be returned to their families.

Every month, the Ramadan Martyrs' Families' League met to commemorate the death of their loved ones. These family gatherings were frequently broken up by the security forces. Although no-one was actually killed, many women and children were terrorised with guns, arrested, beaten, insulted and detained for many days.

For the second anniversary of the Martyrs' Day, the families gathered in April 1992 in Sharia al-Qasr, the avenue leading to the Republican Palace. They closed the streets around and distributed leaflets condemning the Bashir regime's violations of human rights. The members, all women and children, entered the palace gates to approach the statue of the Unknown Soldier. Security men arrested 23 women, of whom one was severely ill, an eight-year-old girl, and the mother of a newborn baby. They were held in Omdurman Prison for more than a month without charge or trial, and were only released because of immense national and international pressure on their behalf.

Among those arrested and tortured were Magda Awad Khogali, sister of Captain Mustafa Awad, her sister Manal with her infant Mona, and their mother, Jarah Osman. Also held were the widow of Colonel Bashir Mustafa Bashir, the sister of Colonel Ismat Mirghani Taha, the widow of Brigadier Osman al-Sayed Balol, the widow and sister of Lt-Col Abd al-Moneim Hassan Ali Karrar, and the sister of Captain Mudathir Mohamed al-Mahjoub.

In 1993 Dr Gaspar Biro, the UN Special Rapporteur on Human Rights in Sudan, was in Khartoum holding meetings with victims of the regime and investigating allegations against the Sudanese government. Members of the Ramadan Martyrs' Families' League - women and children - met Dr Biro at the gate of the United Nations building to give him a memorandum about the Ramadan 1990 killings. They were attacked by security officers, beaten and carried off in police cars to Omdurman Prison, right in before the eyes of the Special Rapporteur.

The League has established two branches abroad, in London and Cairo, to take part in the continuing struggle to restore democracy and free Sudan of the rule of the NIF.

Women and Law

The Morality Police
Among the many security organisations created by the National Islamic Front regime to maintain its control over the population, there are several which focus their attention on women. The primary task of the NIF-loyalists of the Popular Police is to carry out surveillance. They are empowered, in the same way as the State Security apparatus, to arrest without charge and to imprison without trial. Where women are concerned, they have a particular interest in enforcing the "hijab" dress code.

The Salvation Popular Committees, established in every section of every town, report to the authorities and directly to the courts about the loyalty of local people to the NIF. They also concern themselves with women's conformity to the regime's code of behaviour, as do the Public Order Police. A woman who has waited "too long" in a bus station risks arrest by the Public Order Police on suspicion of immorality.

A militant religious body called "The Group to Enjoin Good and Forbid Evil", in addition to keeping watch over the public - especially women - is authorised by the NIF to flog offenders.

Discriminatory Laws
New legislation introduced by the NIF regime discriminates against women in Sudan by means of the criminal law, the law of prosecution and the law of criminal procedure, introduced in the 1991 Penal Code.

The first blow was the reduction of the age of criminal responsibility, formerly set at 18 years in the 1974 Penal Code. This has now been redefined in terms of attainment of puberty, usually around the age of 13 or even younger. The 1974 laws deemed it a criminal act to contract a marriage with a girl less than 14 years old, irrespective of her consent. Sexual relations outside marriage with any girl below 18 years of age were punishable by law. These provisions were regarded as protecting girls from early marriage and teenage pregnancy.

In place of this protection, the government has encouraged mass weddings and allotted grants of several thousand Sudanese pounds to each couple taking part. These mass weddings, although they overcame the existing problems of expensive dowries for the brides and were welcomed by some young people, were regarded by the Sudan Women's Union as humiliating for the women involved in these "production line" affairs. The SWU says the institution has been widely abused for the sake of convenience, and many divorces were registered soon after the marriage ceremony.

Meanwhile, traditional Sudanese weddings have come under increasingly tight control. Permission for many wedding parties has been refused because of the regime's preoccupation with security and ideology, and others have been limited under the Public Order Act. The law has been used to forbid males and females to mix at such parties, and to ban dancing and music at the whim of government officials. The former Minister of Interior, Abd al-Rahim Muhammad Hussain, arrested two girls with their parents because, in his view, "they were not decently dressed".

Rape has become virtually impossible for a woman to prove, and if she reports a rape she risks being accused of complicity. The law of prosecution requires male witnesses to give evidence in order to prove an act of rape before the court. For "huduud" crimes, the testimony of women is not accepted. In the absence of male witnesses, even if there are female eye-witnesses, the wrong-doer may be released, and may even bring charges of defamation against the plaintiff. The penalty for such defamation is 80 lashes. A judge will often advise a woman plaintiff against proceeding with a case of rape, because of the risk to the woman.

An unmarried woman who admits to sexual relations or becomes pregnant can be tried for a "huduud" crime for which the penalty is 80 lashes. If she is married, or has previously been married, the crime is adultery and the penalty is execution.

Under the 1974 Law of Criminal Procedure, the plaintiff was allowed to withdraw his or her complaint at any stage of the investigation of a case, and magistrates were obliged to dismiss the case accordingly. Only written complaints were permitted. If a case of adultery by a married woman was reported by a third party, the case would only proceed if the husband willed it, and he was free to withdraw his complaint. When a wife deserted the home to live with another man, or became involved in sexual relations with someone else, the husband might file a complaint. However, when it came to court, although the woman might be found guilty, the matter would be handled in a way that encouraged reconciliation, in order to preserve stability in the community and ensure the welfare of the children. Public criticism of the woman would ensure the preservation of male dignity, but no further action was considered necessary.

The new laws treat female adultery as a "huduud" crime even if the husband wishes to reconcile with his partner. An adulterous woman can be stoned to death, or imprisoned and separated from her.

A new "family law" was introduced in 1991 which reinforced male dominance over women by requiring women to obtain their husband's consent before visiting her family or friends. In Central State and Eastern State, additional regulations were brought in at provincial level to restrict women's movement in the streets to certain hours of the day. This humiliating treatment lowers the status of women and puts them under permanent suspicion.

Section 152 of the Criminal Law 1991 punishes acts of "gross indecency" with 40 lashes. The interpretation of what constitutes indecency is left to the arresting authority. Sentencing is at the discretion of the magistrate, who is supposed to take into account the religious beliefs of the accused. In practice, members of the Popular Police arrest women for wearing what they consider to be indecent dress, which can be any dress other than the "hijab". They are also quick to allege indecency when a woman is accompanied in public by a male not related to her. Detention in police stations often leads to the arrested woman being verbally and physically humiliated, and sometimes to actual assault.

The right of women to travel freely has been greatly reduced by the Bashir government. Women are prohibited from leaving the country unless they are accompanied by a "muharram" or approved male guardian. The Ministry of Interior exercises total authority over applications by women for permission to travel, using a committee largely composed of NIF loyalists. If a male guardian is available, he must appear in person before the committee to give his consent. Even then, the authorities are empowered to prevent the woman from obtaining an exit visa. The exceptions to these tight limitations are women supporting the regime, particularly those from NIF women's organisations, who can travel without hindrance.

The status of women in Sudan will not begin to improve until the discriminatory behaviour of the National Islamic Front is ended and the legal system restored to international norms. Women are entitled to equal rights under the law, whether as plaintiffs, witnesses or as the accused.

The Government of Sudan must recognise, in full, those international human rights laws which specify the equality of men and women. The powers of groups such as the Popular Police force to carry out arbitrary arrests of women must be removed, and the vague, easily distorted "family laws" and "indecency" laws restricting the movement of women must be abolished. The age of criminal responsibility should revert to 18 years.

A thorough investigation is needed into the widespread use of rape and sexual abuse against women by members of government forces. Although these practices did not begin with this government, they have increased dramatically.

The welfare of children must be a priority, for example where the imprisonment of women is concerned, and in conflict situations. Children's vulnerability must be respected in accordance with the International Convention on the Rights of the Child.