A TV programme debating women’s rights sparked outrage between affiliates with Islamist groups and women rights activists in Sudan. Death and rape threats against the programme host and one of the female guests appeared in videos and posts in social media and were made by some of the groups in public speeches in the streets of Khartoum.
Shabab Talk meaning “youth talk” is a DW News talk show that recorded episodes in Sudan with the support of local TV station Sudaniya 24. The controversial episode addressed the question “What Do Sudanese Women Want?” and was broadcasted on Wednesday September 18th. It brought together the head of Sudan Scholars Corporation (the country’s religious authority), a government official working on women’s welfare and women rights activists.
In the show, the head of Sudan Scholars Corporation said sexual harassment is triggered by women’s dress. One of the activists, Azza, told him, “but I did not tell you what I have been wearing when I got harassed”. He responded, “But I can see you now before my eyes,” hinting that she was inappropriately dressed and that she had brought it on herself. Azza appeared in the show wearing full sleeves, a maxi skirt and a scarf on her shoulders, in order to display what is deemed inappropriate attire.
Sheikh Osman Salih said that girls develop sexual desire for men the moment they reach puberty and therefore should be married after they reach puberty. He told one of the participants that she was “abnormal” when she said she had reached puberty at the age of ten and did not feel that she needs a partner.
The backlash against debating women rights
Weam Shawgi, a 28-year-old activist, TV host and owner of a small café in Khartoum, was outraged by the comments of the Sheikh, which appeared to justify sexual harassment and child marriage. She told him that even her mother, who is old and goes out fully covered, had been sexually harassed. Shawgi condemned the Sheikh’s argument that “women also sexually harass men” and said that if people “demand equality it should be implemented in equal pay, marriage, custody, and you should ask the police to stop insulting us on the way home because I return home late at 3am.”
It did not take long before there was a huge backlash against Jaafar Abdul Karim, the DW host and Weam Shawgi and what she represents. Sudanese social media were flooded with posts accusing Weam of being non-Muslim, of showing up in the programme naked “although she was wearing a full-sleeved maxi dress,” and of speaking impolitely to the religious leader. Death and rape threats against Weam and the TV host were made public. Fearing for her safety, Weam stopped going out in public after the threats.
Eye witnesses said a minivan with loud speakers and several large men showed up in front of Weam’s café on the evening of Thursday 20th September. They made speeches denouncing women who do not wear hijab.
On Friday 21st September, mosques across the country made a unified speech in which it was stated that Weam is an infidel, that she had attacked Islam, insulted a renowned Sheikh and was contemptuous of Sudanese values. It had a clear message: the DW programme must end and Weam and her supporters should be stopped for the sake of Islam.
Videos from various Friday prayers went viral on social media, bringing more threats to Weam and her family, Abdul Karim the TV host and other women’s rights activists who participated in the show. Some videos showed sheikhs giving public lectures. One addressed a crowd in the main bus station in Khartoum, denouncing the TV host and women’s rights activists and threatening them with sexual abuse and the use of armed force.
The condemnation of the TV show went beyond Weam and the TV host, extending to the local TV station that provided technical support to the DW team. The head of Sudan Scholars Corporation issued a statement saying that he was betrayed by Sudaniya 24 and did not know that he would meet women’s rights activists. The TV station issued a press release clarifying that their role is only technical and that they are not responsible for the views of the guests.
Witnesses reported a heavy police presence at the premises of the TV station on Saturday 22nd September. The US embassy in Khartoum warned its nationals not to venture near the TV station as protests that might turn violent are expected on Sunday 23rd September. In September 2012, the German embassy in Khartoum was attacked and looted and three people were killed while attempting to break into the US embassy in protest against a film deemed offensive to the prophet.
Sudan’s religious authority has examples to follow, but they chose not to
The religious authority in Sudan has been using religion to enforce degrading laws and regulations on women, including monitoring of dress code, legalising child marriage, forced marriage and FGM on a religious basis.
The justification of sexual harassment through women’s clothes has been declared unacceptable by Al Azhar, the religious authority in Egypt and a well-respected institution across the region. In a statement released in August this year, Al Azhar said the progress of societies is measured by women’s safety, and sexual harassment is an offence that contributes to the lack of safety and wellbeing of women regardless of their dress code or behaviour. The statement urged the media to educate the public on reporting sexual harassment and to refrain from displaying materials that promote and justify sexual harassment.
On child marriage, Al Azhar said that it should be handled within the laws and regulations of the society. In Egypt for instance, the law says marriage cannot be permitted for those under 18 and people should obey this law. They responded to allegations that denouncing child marriage is influenced by the Western ideal, citing the fact that Muslim scholars during Osman I’s rule were the first to set the minimum age of marriage at 15 in the nineteenth century. The head of Sudan Scholars Corporation cited a quote on the necessity of girls marrying after they reached puberty which had no grounds in Hadith texts.
In one of the Friday prayer speeches denouncing Weam and the debate, an Imam said the activists should have brought up issues important to women like health and education. Apart from who decides on women’s priorities, the public is becoming aware child marriage poses a barrier to girls’ access to education and can have serious physical and psychological health impacts.
There are many examples of Islamic countries that are friendly to women. The notion that Islam does not necessarily involve undermining women’s rights is at the core of Islamic feminist thought. The argument that Islam does not allow women rights is usually made by extremist groups, whether Islamophobics or the misogynist groups that prefer to hide behind alleged spiritual ideals.