Sudan's Liberalization for the Chosen Few

On the outskirts of El Fasher in North Darfur, women ride donkeys on the road to Khartoum, Sudan.

It almost sounds like another revolution in Sudan: The crime of apostasy scrapped, female genital mutilation banned, alcohol allowed. But what lies behind Khartoum's legal amendments, and who will actually benefit?

Sudan's ruling body, the Sovereign Council, has ratified a law banning the widespread practice of female genital mutilation (FGM). This was only one of several modifications to the country's criminal law. They also include the decriminalization of apostasy, which so far was punishable by death; non-Muslims will be allowed to consume alcohol; and traveling with children will now require the authorization of both sets of parents, and no longer only the father's.

The ongoing reversal of four decades of hard-line Islamist policies and Sharia law -- one year after a popular uprising toppled autocrat leader Omar al-Bashir -- is being hailed across the world as much-needed progress. Independent analyst and academic Magdi el-Gizouli agrees that latest changes to the law are indeed important but should be taken with a grain of salt: "I think it requires a bit of qualification," he told DW, highlighting his fears that the government's measures could further divide and polarize Sudanese society.

The academic and fellow of the Rift Valley Institute is skeptical about the practical effects of the announced changes, and thinks the new government is paying lip-service to those, who want see change on paper.

Take the scrapping of the crime of apostasy: The death penalty for reasons of belief was applied only once against an elderly man, even before al-Bashir came to power in 1989. "There was the case of this young woman in 2014 [Meriam Yehya Ibrahim Ishag], who converted to Christianity and was put before a court. However, international pressure and local pressure averted any judgment and she eventually left the country."

Criminalizing FGM may not be the solution

The law criminalizing apostasy was an instrument the state wielded against political opponents. "Striking it off the books would mean that the government will not prosecute you for changing your religion. That is sort of a marginal event anyway. It doesn't happen very often that people switch religions," el-Gizouli told DW.

The analyst agrees that banning FGM is an important step by the government. But he doubts that using the law is the right way to fight this kind of violence against women and girls. The issue remains controversial. "It's not the first time that a government has issued a law to decriminalize FGM. It's somehow a sign of progressive governments or self-defined progressive governments."

Both previous attempts at banning FGM, first during colonial times and later in the 1970s, produced no tangible results, and were met with fierce resistance by the population. According to a 2014 report by UNICEF, Sudan's FGM prevalence rate is still at 86.6%.

"This third attempt carries the risk of criminalizing the poor, in the sense that it is not clear yet from the letter of the law who will fall under its jurisdiction. Is it the mother, the midwife who practices FGM, the doctor in the hospital?"

According to el-Gazouli, the ban interferes with deep-rooted socio-cultural norms in Sudan: "I'm not sure legal means are the best way to fight something that happens in homes, and is considered a cultural practice," he said.

Protecting mothers' rights

DW correspondent Alsanosi Adam also sees a certain danger in this amendment being used for political ends by conservative forces. "They will try to say that the present government are not Muslim, and that they are acting against Islam," Sudanese activist Rua Osman told DW. She believes it won't be easy for society to accept the changes: "We need laws to protect us from that that society," she pleads.

Osman welcomes another measure taken by the ruling council: In future, both parents of children will have to authorize travel if only one parent is travelling with their children. To date, it was only the father who was allowed to give a mother authorization, but not the other way around. This made life particularly difficult for divorced women: "It is a good start in protecting mothers' rights and giving mothers their rights over their children," Osman said.

Analyst el-Gizouli is more skeptical about the move: "We're talking about traveling by crossing through an airport. It is a step forward, there is no doubt about it. However, most of the women who are affected by these problems don't travel through airports," he stressed.

Another change in the criminal code is an amendment of a law that punishes prostitution. Sexual intercourse for money will now only be punishable if it takes place in a location that is dedicated to the sale of sexual favors, such as a brothel. "If you're a well-off client, who drives a big car and has a nice apartment, the law will not apply to you," says el-Gizouli, adding that impovrished women forced into prostitution are not protected by the legal amendment -- even in their own homes.

Pleasing western donors

In short, "for the lifestyle of a certain segment of the population in Khartoum, these are welcome changes," says el-Gizouli. But he also sees a certain lack of scrutiny of the measures among those who are applauding them: "For the audience that welcomes these changes, the details are a bit inconvenient," he adds, meaning Western donors, who have long pushed for more progressive laws in Sudan. El-Gazouli has no doubts that the transitional government is serious about the changes. But he also says that they echo "things the West likes to hear."

Last week, international donors pledged $1.8 billion (€1.6 billion) to kick-start the ailing Sudanese economy. This is short of the $8 billion prime minister Abdalla Hamdok says are needed to help out the country. On Monday, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) said that Sudan's economy will continue to contract this year, while overall inflation will reach 10%. Debt levels are forecast to grow rapidly to 258 percent of the Gross Domestic Product.

A further deterioration of the economy is likely to exacerbate the ongoing anti-government protests in a country, which expected more from those charged with introducing democracy in Sudan.

Alsanosi Adam contributed to this article

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