- No to Oppressing Women Initiative
In July 2009 the young journalist Lubna Ahmed Hussein was one of many women arrested in a Khartoum café by the Khartoum State public order police (POP) for wearing trousers. The officers were looking for women they deemed to be “dressed indecently” under Article 152 of the Public Order Act of 1996 and Article 152 of the Criminal Act, instituted by the Islamist government that took power in 1989, led by President Omar al-Bashir. Soon after coming to power, the president highlighted the need for Sudanese woman to be “ideal Muslim women” and made wearing the veil mandatory in all government institutions. The POP (now called community police) raids parties, cafés, and even homes to search for “immoral acts.” In 2008 at least forty-three thousand women in Sudan were reportedly arrested and lashed on charges of wearing indecent clothing.
In response to the July 2009 events, four women, the journalists Amel Habbani and Rasha Awad and the women’s rights defenders Nahid Jabrallah and Hadia Hasaballah, formed the No to Oppressing Women Initiative (NOW) to campaign against the Public Order Act. During Hussein’s hearing, NOW organized a march outside the court that was attended by dozens of people. At this time Sudan lacked an organized women’s movement despite a long history of women’s activism, especially communist activism. NOW quickly began to be seen as a new women’s movement fighting against a range of oppressions. NOW members protested when a video showing a young woman being lashed went viral. They campaigned when Safia Ishaq, a young Girifna activist, was gang-raped by security men in 2011. More than forty women were jailed for that protest. They have mobilized women to attend the trials of journalists and activists persecuted under the public order laws.
NOW is popular and controversial, because it is a street-based movement that makes a lot of noise. Women activists wear headbands with NOW’s logo, carry posters, and protest in front of the Ministry of Justice and the courts. NOW was one of the first groups to respond to the October 2014 eviction of Darfuri women students [End Page 240] from the Barracks Dormitory in Khartoum. It has provided accommodations and advocated for the students, turning their case into one of international and national concern. NOW continues to hold silent protests and distribute statements on issues through social media.
NOW turned five years old in 2014. It has yet to prove itself as a powerful women’s movement, however, because of a number of challenges. First, the initiative includes mostly “nonpolitical” activists and members of political parties who have imported their party problems. This has caused tensions, because some of the activists are key party figures. Second, religion remains a touchy issue. State authorities stress that the POP is designed to fight “social corruption” and implement sharia law. More conservative members of NOW, supporting a close relationship between Islam and the government, argue that lashing is allowed by Islamic law but stand against the inhumane way it is carried out. Liberals and leftists stand strongly against lashing as a violation of international human rights standards. Third, NOW was born as a street-level pressure group and remains disorganized. It is unable to retain the members it attracts. Several members organize events, fund-raising, and advocacy and manage social media outlets. Fourth, members have little training in digital and personal security precautions and are exceptionally vulnerable to arrest and violence by police and security forces. Members are arrested at practically every street event, which places great emotional, physical, and material pressures on their lives. Young women especially shy away from the group, which government officials and mainstream media label as women who want to get arrested.
There is also a debate inside NOW regarding whether to register as a civil society organization. One group argues that this will give them more resources for work on women’s rights, while another strongly opposes registration, arguing that a pressure group must remain on the street. Registration requires following government laws, regulations, and limits. But activists in the group are not wealthy, and external funders often will not support...