A Sudanese woman arrested for wearing trousers and facing a public flogging as punishment, was applauded by democracy activists yesterday after she took a defiant stand against Sudan's rulers and the repressive version of Islam she accuses them of enforcing in Africa's biggest country.
Lubna Hussein, a local employee of the UN's peacekeeping mission, was offered immunity from prosecution as a judge opened proceedings against her for "offences against the public taste". But in a dramatic step she announced to the court that she was sacrificing her UN job and the immunity that goes with it, so that her case would go to a full trial. "I wish to resign from the UN, I wish this court case to continue," she told a courtroom packed with supporters, women's rights activists, human rights workers and a handful of Western diplomats. She had previously turned down the offer of a pardon from the Sudanese President Omar al Bashir. The case will now resume on 4 August.
"First of all she wants to show she is totally innocent, and using her immunity will not prove that," her lawyer Nabil Adib Abdalla said after the hearing. "Second, she wants to fight the law. The law needs to be reformed".
Ms Hussein is a former journalist who has written articles condemning the lack of political and social freedoms under Mr Bashir's regime.
She made her court appearance wearing the same green trousers that provoked her arrest. In another act of defiance she ensured the event would be a public spectacle embarrassing for the military dictatorship, by printing invitations and emailing hundreds of friends and supporters. She said she wanted the public present at her flogging if she is convicted.
There were chaotic scenes and scuffles outside the court in Khartoum yesterday as police tried to limit access and some reporters were briefly detained. Dozens of women wearing jeans or trousers in support of the defendant carried placards that read: "Lashing people is against human rights."
Mariam Alamahdi, a women's rights activist managed to get into the courtroom. Afterwards, speaking to The Independent from Khartoum, she said that Ms Hussein's decision to force the matter to trial was an uplifting and dramatic moment in a case that has drawn international attention to the plight of women in Sudan.
"When she said she wanted to resign from her job and be treated as an ordinary Sudanese citizen it was very moving," she said. "She is real heroine".
Ms Alamahdi, who is also an opposition politician, said police harassment of women in Sudan was commonplace but that few had the means to defy it.
"This kind of thing is going on all the time in Sudan for young women who are weak and unable to stand up for their rights," she added. "It is a means of harassing them and limiting their place in public life by treating them as if they should be ashamed of themselves. Lubna is empowered socially, economically and she is knowledgeable so she decided to refuse a pardon by the President. After all, why should she need a pardon for wearing trousers and a blouse? Then she refused immunity because normal Sudanese citizens don't have this privilege. She has turned this into an issue for public debate and decision".
But last night another Sudanese women's rights activist suggested that the "trouser trial" may have been politically motivated and a pretext for Ms Hussein's political enemies within the Islamic regime.
"This was not just about what she wore, it's because she is so outspoken", said Nawal Hassan, who promotes women's involvement in the Darfur peace process. "She is really very critical of the government in her writings. They just found an opportunity to get her by attacking her clothes. There is little freedom of expression here but Lubna talks openly about the general political situation in the country and this is how they try to control her."
Ms Hassan said the fact that the trouser affair would now go to trial would intensify the international focus on Sudan's human rights violations. "This is not just about Lubna, it concerns all Sudanese," she said. "And it is not just a women's issue, it is about the freedom of speech, freedom of expression, freedom of everything, it concerns all Sudanese. This is an issue of democracy and dictatorship. It is shocking that they have prosecuted Lubna and punished the other women, and she has done us a favour by turning it into a public relations disaster for the authorities. They will have to think twice in future before going after a woman in this way."
Ms Hussein's stand-off with the authorities over their interpretation of sharia began earlier this month when she and about a dozen other women were at a café/restaurant in the Riyadh district of Khartoum. All were wearing trousers although some were Christians from southern Sudan, to whom the Islamic dress code is not supposed to apply.
Police raided the café and ordered the group to a police station. A few days later, 10 of the women were summoned to return to the station where they were given 10 lashes each and fined, after a quick summary trial.
One of those who was flogged was "young and very thin", according to Ms Alamahdi. Ms Hussein and two others involved a lawyer in order to challenge the charges and their cases were sent for trial with a possible punishment of 40 lashes if they are found guilty.
Sudan's ruling party, headed by Mr Bashir, who came to power in a military coup 20 years ago, has implemented sharia vigorously but not always consistently, in the Muslim north of the country. Human rights groups accuse the regime of persistent violations. The President himself is indicted for war crimes in connection with atrocities in Darfur.
Most Sudanese women conform to both tradition and Islamic codes by wearing a full-length shawl in bright colours draped over their clothes and covering the head.
Covering up: Islamic dress code
Iran Women are obliged to cover their hair and wear loose unrevealing clothes in public. Skirts are discouraged and knee-length coats over trousers are the usual option. Those flouting the rules risk lashes and even imprisonment.
Sudan Women in the Muslim north of Sudan, which is ruled under Islamic law, are subject to a dress code which requires head and body covering and frowns on trousers in public.
Saudi Arabia Most women wear an all-enveloping black cloak called an Abaya, a hijab or scarf and frequently a face covering, or niqab. The Mutawwa, Saudi Arabia's religious police, frequently challenge women over clothing although more women are ditching black for colours.
Pakistan Although the law does not require Islamic dress code, there is a large degree of social pressure. In tribal or Taliban controlled areas strict rules are applied.