When a Sudanese teenager was sentenced to death last week for killing her husband, who had allegedly raped her, activists knew that a new fight had begun for women’s rights in Sudan.
Noura Hussein, 19, received the sentence for the “intentional murder” of the man her father had forced her to marry.
“Noura is facing death. Her case has brought us close to an execution,” said Sudanese women’s rights activist Wini Omer, who witnessed the sentencing on May 10.
“The situation is dangerous and necessitates taking women’s rights more seriously so that we can protect them,” she said.
Hussein’s case has triggered outrage, with activists launching a campaign called “Justice For Noura” and the United Nations’ women’s agency appealing for clemency.
The teenager’s plight has also focused attention on issues facing women in Sudan such as marital rape, child marriage, forced marriage and the arbitrary application of Islamic law, along with tribal traditions that often target women.
Rights group Amnesty International says Hussein was forcibly married at the age of 16, and that when she refused to consummate the marriage, her husband invited two of his brothers and a male cousin to help him rape her.
When he tried to rape her a second time, she stabbed him to death, said Amnesty.
Sudanese law allows children above 10 to be married.
“In our arguments we raised the issue that it was a forced marriage and that she was raped,” Hussein’s lawyer, Adil Mohamed al-Emam, told AFP.
“The court discussed it but did not recognise that she was raped.”
Emam says he will appeal against the sentence.
Days after Hussein was sentenced, another Sudanese woman was lashed 75 times at a police station in the Sudanese capital after a court found her guilty of marrying without her father’s approval.
Omer has also faced the wrath of Sudan’s controversial public order law, which she says primarily targets women.
In one case a prosecutor accused her of “indecent dressing,” although she had worn a skirt, top and headscarf whilst waiting for a bus on a Khartoum street. A court found her not guilty.
In a second case, Omer said she was accused of prostitution after police stormed an apartment where she was with friends. She was detained for five days.
“Women in Sudan have been systematically oppressed since 1989,” Omer told AFP, referring to the year when President Omar al-Bashir seized power in an Islamist-backed coup.
“It is the regime’s ideology that discriminates between men and women,” she said, dressed in a black top and leggings.
Activists want Sudanese laws to be amended, particularly the security act, which gives security agents sweeping powers to make arbitrary detentions.
“It’s not about the judge, the problem is with our laws themselves,” said leading human rights activist Mudawi Ibrahim Adam.
“Imagine you can be detained up to nine months without charges under the security act,” he said.
He was detained for several months amid a crackdown on opposition activists in 2016.
Even before Hussein’s sentence, rights activists had been urging Washington, which in October lifted decades-old sanctions against Khartoum, to push the Sudanese authorities to allow women more freedoms.
“We are trying to cooperate with the government to assure them that allowing more freedoms enhances the society,” Steven Koutsis, top US envoy to Khartoum, told AFP at an event in March to honour courageous Sudanese women.
He said there was a will within the government to improve the human rights situation in Sudan.
“But that is tempered by fears (about) how to react to threats of instability,” he said, adding that for Washington, human rights included women’s rights.
Sudanese officials claim that many issues facing women are to do with the African country’s centuries-old traditions, often tribal in nature.
“Had Noura gone to a court right at the beginning when she was being forced to marry, she would have been protected,” insisted Abdulnasser Solom, an official from the government’s Human Rights Commission.
But activists say Hussein’s case is just the tip of a vast iceberg.
“There are tens and thousands of cases like Noura in our community that no one knows about,” said leading women’s activist Amal Habbani, who was detained for weeks for participating in opposition protests in January.
Sudanese laws do not consider women as human beings who can take their own decisions, she said.
“Bad laws create a bad environment in which women get oppressed,” Habbani said.