[Editor's Note: This is the second in a series of posts from Elina Hirvonen, author of When I Forgot, about living in Africa. Click here to read the earlier post
Young girls walk around the shiny shopping mall, holding hands and whispering to each other. Outside, the heat of the desert is burning, but the make-up on their faces is flawless. In clothes, all the girls have a similar look: long skirts or skinny jeans, glittery shoes, and tight, short-sleeved T-shirts on top of long-sleeved shirts. And, Muslim headscarf, that matches with the colour of the shirt underneath.
We are in Khartoum, the capital of Sudan, looking at the young people hanging out in the mall. Some of them are on a date at a juice bar (of course, since drinking alcohol is illegal here), some shopping in the trendy boutiques, some of them just meeting friends. The mall has a bowling alley, cinema, and fun fair for kids, and the atmosphere, as anything else in this sand-toned country, feels stunningly surreal.
Sudan is the fifth country on our overland trip from Zambia to Finland. All the countries we have visited have been interesting and at least sometimes lovely, but Sudan feels like entering a new world.
At the border of Ethiopia and Sudan, I was looking at the rifle the immigration official was holding, and my hands were shaking. We had been thinking of Sudan as the most dangerous country on our trip. It was the war-going country with the awful human rights record that we had to pass as quickly as possible. But the guy with the rifle was smiling. "Would you like coffee or tea?" he asked gently. We got two small cups of strong, cardamom-spiced coffee, and the man with the rifle was teaching us Arabic while his colleague went through our car papers. Slowly, my hands stopped shaking.
"What is this place we have entered?" we asked ourselves driving from the border to the capital, Khartoum. The scary-sounding police checkpoints were full of smiling guys in uniforms, who were happy to practice their English. The vendors at tiny desert shops were friendly in a natural, incredibly warm way. "The war in Darfur happens in this country," we repeated when driving through the desert, past dreamy-looking villages built of clay, and dusty markets with men smoking waterpipe and drinking tea.
Forty slashes and an undefined fine: that's the sentence Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein got about two months ago. Her crime? Wearing light green trousers in a public place.
I was reading articles about Hussein's sentence just before entering Sudan. At the border of Ethiopia and Sudan I panicked and bought a long skirt and a scarf to wrap around my head. In Khartoum, watching the trendy girls in their tight jeans and shirts, I was thinking of Hussein. Will her sentence be excecuted? Why was it given?
The sentence is based on Sudanese criminal law, that prohibits "improper dressing in public places." The law does not define the meaning of "improper." The criminal law has been based on Islamic Sharia Law since 1983, and has caused controversy ever since. In the civil war between Southern and Northern Sudan one grievance of the Christian southerners was the implementation of the Sharia Law. The 2005 peace deal says that Sharia law only concerns Muslims. But Lubna Hussein, who defines herself as Christian, points out that this is not the case.
However, it's not really about Muslims and Christians. Ten other women were arrested at the same time with Lubna Hussein. They paid the fines immediately, but Hussein did not agree. She resigned from her job at the United Nations and invited international journalists and women's rights activists to follow her trial. Women from all over the Arab world flew to Sudan to participate in a demonstration supporting Hussein. One of them carried a sign saying, "Lubna's fight is every woman's."
Sudan has long been isolated from the international community, because of the war in Darfur and the country's foreign policy. The 2005 peace deal and the new U.S. government have given the Sudanese people hope that their country's relations with the outside world could finally become friendlier. Public slashing of a now famous journalist could easily smash these hopes. Still, Hussein ended up in prison, and was only released when her union paid a $200 (U.S.) fine. The slashing has not yet taken place. When released, Hussein reminded us all: "There are more than 700 women still in the prison who have no one to pay for them."
At the same time young women walking on the streets of Khartoum, wearing trendy and creative versions of the strict dress code seem to be a constant reminder, that many women do not accept the fundamentalist rules. At parties, the bravest girls let their tummy show between jeans and tops. The style is called "the gap between the church and state."