A Sudanese journalist sent out hundreds of invitations to people to attend her trial today where she is accused of indecency - and threatened with 40 lashes - for wearing pants.
Earlier this month Lubna Ahmed Hussein, who also works for the UN Mission in Sudan, was having dinner in a restaurant with12 other women. The meal was interrupted when 20 to 30 police officers came in and arrested them for wearing pants.
Not hot pants. Not shorts. Rather long dress pants, which the police said ran afoul of the largely Muslim country's strict sharia law.
Several of the women took their punishment, 10 lashes and a $100 fine, on the spot.
But Hussein refused. She saw the charge as an opportunity to highlight a law she calls inhuman. If convicted she will have to pay a fine and receive 40 lashes.
In preparing for today's trial, Hussein printed out 500 invitations and sent emails asking people to come and support her. Because Hussein works for the UN Mission in Sudan, she could have claimed immunity from prosecution, but she waived that protection today in front of a packed court room.
"I want to change this law, because hitting is not human," Hussein told the BBC. "Also it does not match with Sharia law."
Hussein claims that there's nothing in Islam which forbids women from wearing pants. Some of the women arrested were not even Muslim, and therefore would not be subject to Sharia law anyway, she said.
The case was adjourned until next week.
This is not the first time Sudan's strict laws have been in the spotlight. Two years ago, 55-year-old British school teacher Gillian Gibbons was charged with the crime of insulting Islam after naming her classroom teddy bear Mohammed, the name of Islam's highest prophet. Gibbons spent a week in jail and was deported before her sentence, which also included 40 lashes, was carried out.
Iran, Afghanistan and other Muslim countries also have very strict dress codes, but there are non-Muslim countries in Sub-Saharan African where women's attite is under moral, if not legal, scrutiny.
Last year Uganda's ethics and integrity minister held a press conference devoted to the indecency of mini-skirts. He said they were akin to running around naked and that women wearing them were a major cause of traffic accidents, due to Ugandan men being "weak mentally." He proposed passing a law making them illegal. http://blogs.abcnews.com/worldview/2008/09/is-the-miniskir.html
The law didn't pass, but the debate over what's considered "indecent" rages on, not only in Uganda and Sudan, but throughout the Sub-continent.
In South Africa women have taken to the streets protesting sexual harassment and rape by the country's taxi and bus drivers. The drivers claim women wearing mini-skirts are "asking for it," and are rarely prosecuted for their crimes. In Kenya, the Mungiki sect, often described as a criminal gang priding itself on being based on Kikuyu tribal traditions, have publicly stripped women wearing mini-skirts, pants, or any other form of dressing members decide is indecent.
What all these places have in common, whether based on religion or tradition, is an on-going clash over whether a woman's clothing affirms or threatens the society's values.
Sudan's law says wearing pants is a Western tradition and a crime against Islam. Lubna Ahmed Hussein says that violates hers and every woman's human rights. The debate may be playing out publicly in a Khartoum courtroom.