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Sudan: Sharia, women & religious freedom

WASHINGTON (BP) — A Sudanese business owner and women’s rights activist defied a police demand this fall that she cover her hair to satisfy their application of Sudan’s laws on personal dress. Amira Osman Hamed now faces the prospect of corporal punishment in the form of 40 lashes if convicted of the charges brought against her. Her hearing was postponed earlier this month while the government prepared a response to her challenge to relevant portions of its criminal code.

Hamed’s case highlights how Sudan’s women bear the brunt of a brutal legal system rooted in a draconian interpretation of Islamic (Sharia) law and corresponding hudood (classes of crimes with set punishments). The same regime which openly harbored Osama bin Laden and other international terrorists nearly a generation ago continues to trample on the fundamental rights of its own people, including the right to freedom of religion or belief.

In accordance with the recommendation of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom, the U.S. government continues to designate Sudan as a country of particular concern, marking it a world-class violator of religious liberty. For Sudan to merit the withdrawal of this designation, serious reforms are needed, and the United States and other nations must do more to help instigate change in decades-old practices.

Khartoum laid the foundation for its freedom-abusing system 30 years ago in September 1983 when it imposed Sharia on its people, including non-Muslims in the predominantly Christian and animist south. Imposing Sharia helped ignite Sudan’s 20-year north-south civil war, leading to the deaths of more than 2 million Sudanese and to South Sudan’s secession in 2011. Khartoum’s action continues to fuel support for anti-government rebels in the country’s Southern Kordofan and Blue Nile states.

Under the Sudanese regime’s interpretation of Sharia, floggings and amputations have been instituted for criminal offenses and broadcast on television.

In 1991, two years after seizing power in a bloodless coup, Sudan’s current president, Omar al-Bashir, made a bad situation worse, implementing the current criminal code which applied punishments not only to criminal conduct but to harmless personal behavior, irrespective of faith or belief.

The 1991 Criminal Act identifies and harshly punishes infractions, including hudood offenses which violate “public order.” Such offenses include apostasy (ridda), adultery (zina), defamation, unchastity (qazf), drinking alcohol, armed robbery (hiraba) and capital theft. These offenses carry fixed sentences that include death by hanging, stoning, crucifixion and flogging. 

In a profound attack on religious freedom, those convicted of apostasy, for example, may be sentenced to death.

Under the guise of protecting morality and preventing the co-mingling of the sexes, which is deemed “prostitution,” government officials have deployed the public order regime against unmarried men and women alike who dare to share office space and taxi rides or attend parties together. But the public order regime disproportionately harms women and girls, especially those from religious and ethnic minority communities.

Each year, hundreds of Muslim and Christian women and girls are flogged for “indecent or immoral dress.” Because the law fails to define “indecent” dress, arresting officers and prosecuting judges are free to impose their own views arbitrarily on others. In Hamed’s case, authorities deemed it “indecent” to refuse to wear the hijab or Muslim head scarf. Such actions are contrary to international religious freedom standards which clearly protect the right of Hamed and others to wear or not wear religious dress.

How should the United States respond to these abuses of religious freedom and other human rights?

First, it should spotlight the plight of Amira Osman Hamed and women like her.

Second, our government and our allies should urge Sudan to abide by international standards of freedom of religion or belief by amending or repealing the 1991 Criminal Act and subsequent laws and practices which infringe on religious liberty and related rights.

Lastly, the U.S. should make clear that normalization of relations with the United States hinges on respect for religious freedom and other human rights. Simply stated, a regime that fails to renounce the use of terror against its own people cannot be trusted to cease its support for terrorizing citizens of other nations.

Amira Osman Hamed and others in Sudan have taken a courageous stand for freedom and we must stand with them.
Robert P. George is chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He holds Princeton University’s McCormick Chair in Jurisprudence. This article first appeared in the Washington Times on Nov. 25.

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  • Robert P. George