In the name of God, the compassionate

2009-09-19 14:34

SUDANESE journalist Lubna Hussein’s courage in challenging the absurdity of her trial, sentencing and imprisonment for wearing trousers has spotlighted the penal codes still in force in many Arab and Muslim states.

These codes not only violate the internationally recognised rights of women in several respects but ­also international laws against ­ ­torture.

I still shudder when I remember the provisions of one Arab code that described techniques to use with someone sentenced to crucifixion or how to position a person on a chair for flogging. What made it worse was that this was a revised code, passed in 1994, and not some holdover from medieval times.

The Sudanese criminal code under which Hussein was charged was passed in 1991.

Hard to believe though it is, most Arab states have signed the international Convention Against Torture. The US has too and that did not stop its top officials from sanctioning torture – something for which they may or may not be held accountable.

Not all prohibitions against immodest behaviour in Arab penal codes have been as bizarrely applied as in Sudan. Indeed, women’s groups have made use of such provisions to make the case for protection against sexual harassment in the workplace – in the absence of texts dealing directly with ­harassment.

But too many Arab penal codes still directly violate women’s rights in two major areas: leniency for those accused of “honour crimes” – generally males who kill female relatives accused of indecent behaviour – and waivers of charges against rapists who marry their victims.

The fact that men can kill their womenfolk for so-called honour crimes and get away with it is a scandal that takes place in Jordan, in the occupied Palestinian territories and in other Arab countries. In Jordan, despite campaigns supported by the queen, the legal situation has been only slightly ameliorated. The main obstacle to legal ­reform has come from deputies in the lower house of parliament.

In August the Jordanian justice ministry responded to pressure from women’s groups by saying it would establish special tribunals to hear honour-crime cases. But a country where male relatives kill about 25 women and girls each year cries out for more forceful action. At a minimum the law must be changed and rigorously enforced. As Nadya Khalife of Human Rights Watch put it: “The women of Jordan need protection from these ­vicious acts enshrined in law – not preferential treatment for their killers.”

The penal codes are not the only laws that need reform in the Arab region. Family and nationality codes and pension regulations are also areas where women are still discriminated against and where legal change is slow and erratic. The irony is that in discriminating against women the codes also penalise men and children. For example, when women cannot give their nationality to their foreign-born husbands and their children the whole family suffers; men struggle to find work and children cannot benefit from public schooling.
But there are bright spots. In Algeria sustained pressure from women’s groups has led to an egalitarian nationality code and the codes have been ameliorated in several other countries.

To be sure, the Arab region is not the only one where laws need to be brought in line with global standards. Hussein’s case is a forceful reminder that all countries must live up to their obligations, as UN secretary-general Ban Ki-moon put it.

The UN’s Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights also issued a strong statement against the initial decision to flog Hussein, underscoring that this “cruel, inhuman or degrading punishment” was contrary to human rights standards.

Hussein was not flogged although some other women arrested with her were. She only spent one night in jail because the journalists’ syndicate paid her fine in spite of her wishes. Many in Sudan would like to consider her case “closed”, as the syndicate’s chairperson put it, but the bright light that her stand has focused on the ­conditions women face will not fade quickly.

Equally important, as a Muslim woman Hussein has laid claim to her own interpretation of her religion. This is a real challenge to those in the religious establishment whose narrow interpretations of the texts circumscribe so many of the human rights of women – as is also done in Judaism and Christianity.

But it is especially hard to conceive of the current crop of penal codes as having anything to do with Islam. It is easier to see them as man-made. After all, the Koran begins its chapters (sura) with the words: “In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful.” – The Nation

Nadia Hijab is an independent analyst and a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.

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