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Wednesday, 20 December, 2000, 18:14 GMT
Sudanese women sue over work ban
Sudanese women soldiers marching
Women can be soldiers but not petrol attendants
By the BBC's Caroline Hawley in Khartoum

One Sudanese woman activist describes it as "the case of the century".

If they get away with this, they might try to stop us from doing other jobs next

Activist Aziza Esmat
When the governor of Khartoum, Majzoub Khalifa, issued a decree last September banning women from certain jobs, women activists revolted and took legal action.

The decree forbids women to work as petrol station attendants or in jobs in hotels and cafeterias where they might be exposed to male flirting.

After hearing both sides' arguments, Sudan's Constitutional Court is expected to issue its much-awaited ruling early next year.

Test case

The governor says he took the decision in line with Islamic traditions and to protect women from potentially harmful effects of working with petrol.

Woman petrol attendant
A vanishing sight in Khartoum?
The women say they do not want his protection and that the decree violates the Sudanese constitution which promises equality.

"This case is important to all women," says Aziza Esmat, one of the women lawyers challenging the governor's decision.

"If they get away with this, they might try to stop us from doing other jobs next."

Progressive Sudan

Sudan is, in some ways, more progressive towards women than many other Arab countries.

Women, dressed in the traditional Muslim headscarf, serve in the military, and in 1964, Sudan became the first Arab country to allow women judges.

I think it [the ban] is unconstitutional and has nothing to do with our traditions

Presidential adviser Suad el-Fateh
It now has five women sitting in the High Court, although activists complain that none have been appointed over the past decade of President Bashir's Islamist regime.

But President Bashir earlier this year took the significant step of appointing a special adviser on women's affairs, Suad El-Fateh, who is fiercely opposed to the governor's decree.

"I was very upset about it," she says. "I think it is unconstitutional and has nothing to do with our traditions."

A favour to whom?

The governor has defended his decision. "We are doing them a favour, protecting them socially and medically," he insists.

Presidential adviser Suad el-Fateh
Presidential adviser Suad el-Fateh opposes the decree
Surprisingly, women activists believe that the governor has done them a favour, although not quite as he intended.

"Women have come together and are saying "Enough!" says women's activist, Madga Senousi.

If the women win the case, activists say they will start trying to challenge the country's hated "public order" laws in the courts as well.

"There are still a lot of cases," says activist Amna Ahmed Rahama.

"And sometimes they are very severe. Girls are hit or arrested for wearing trousers or not covering their heads."

Plight of Christians

The women's prison in Omdurman across the Nile from Khartoum is full of women jailed for violating another of the country's public order laws - its alcohol ban.

Jailed mother and baby
Most women prisoners are from the south
It now holds more than 900 women, many with babies.

The vast majority of them are poor southerners, either Christians or animists, displaced by the long-running civil war.

Alcohol brewing, which is part of their culture, is one of the few ways they can find to make ends meet in Sudan's war-wrecked economy.

The women's prison, as well as the governor's decree, are both high on the agenda of Sudan's newly invigorated women's movement.

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See also:

06 Jun 00 | Americas
Call to action on women's rights
06 May 00 | Africa
Analysis: Power struggle in Sudan
17 Jan 00 | Africa
Sudan's decades of war
24 Nov 00 | Africa
Sudan celebrations continue
19 Jul 00 | Country profiles
Country profile: Sudan
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