A petition is circulating for Noura Hussein, a young Sudanese woman, to receive clemency after she was sentenced to death by hanging by a court in Khartoum last week.
Noura was charged with pre-meditated murder after she stabbed and killed a man who raped her six days after she was forced to marry him.
Her case has brought to light the legal discrimination that women in Sudan face regularly. The name of the person being charged may change, but the oppressive laws that discriminate against women of all religious and ethnic identities remain in place.
Four years ago the case of Meriam Ibrahim, a Sudanese Christian woman, caused international outcry after she was sentenced to death for apostasy and adultery. Noura’s case has yet to garner the same level of attention.
Forced into marriage as a child
Noura’s father made a legally binding marriage contract, as her guardian, promising her to a man once she completed her primary education aged 16. Noura refused to marry and ran away for a couple of years, returning only when her father promised her that the marriage had been annulled. She arrived at her family home in Khartoum, only to discover that she had returned in time for a wedding ceremony. Her father had lied to her, and in contravention of Sudan’s constitution and provisions within the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR), the marriage contract was still binding, despite the fact that she had not consented to it.
Noura was transported to her husband’s home, where he attempted on a number of occasions to consummate the marriage. She repeatedly refused. After six days, her husband called three of his male relatives to restrain her whilst he raped her. She informed the police the incident was so violent that the bed was damaged.
The following day, when her husband attempted to rape her again, Noura ran to the kitchen and, while defending herself, fatally stabbed him. Traumatised and in shock, she ran to her parents’ home. Her parents took her to the police station and disowned her.
At the police station and throughout the entire criminal proceedings, the law has been against Noura. Firstly the court accepted the marriage arranged by her father and husband as legally valid, despite evidence that Noura did not at any time give her full consent. Secondly, marital rape is not recognised in Sudanese criminal law, therefore evidence of the violent rape was not taken into consideration. The prosecutor also failed to send Noura for a medical or psychiatric examination, or to record details about the rape – information that would have constituted vital mitigation evidence.
Injustice faced by women under Sudan’s legal system
Noura is now shackled in the death row unit of Omdurman’s women’s prison, while her legal team prepares the appeal papers. She sits in the same prison in which Meriam gave birth while shackled, waiting for the court to review her death sentence.
Four years have passed between the two cases but the discrimination and injustice experienced by Sudanese women has not changed. The law routinely fails to protect women in matters of family law, including issues of inheritance, the arrangement of marriage contracts, and in the enforcement of public morality laws.
“The law routinely fails to protect women in matters of family law, including issues of inheritance, the arrangement of marriage contracts, and in the enforcement of public morality laws.”
Meriam was sentenced to death for apostasy and accused of adultery because she married a Christian man but was born to a Muslim father. In the eyes of the law, Meriam was automatically considered a Muslim, even though her father left the family home when she was a child and she was brought up as a Christian by her mother.
Under Sudanese law, Muslim women are only allowed to marry Muslim men. The same law does not apply to men however; Meriam’s father, a Muslim, was allowed to marry a woman of any faith. Despite marrying out of choice, the first criminal court ruled that Meriam’s marriage to Daniel Wani, a fellow Christian, was null and void – so they were convicted of adultery.
We need to put pressure on the government of Sudan to overturn Noura’s sentence
In Meriam’s case, the Sudanese government eventually responded to international pressure and overturned her sentence. We need to harness similar pressure to call for Noura’s sentence to be overturned, and for mitigating evidence to be considered in her case.
Noura has been in Omdurman’s women’s prison since May 2017. Abandoned by her family, her only visitors are her lawyers and those campaigning for her cause. Sudan’s notorious National Intelligence and Security Service (NISS) officers have already attempted to intimidate her legal team, cancelling a press conference they were due to hold last week.
At her sentencing hearing, the judge offered the family of the deceased the option of condemning Noura to death or compelling her to pay a financial fine. Despite the judge urging them to consider the financial settlement, the family chose the death sentence.
We must go a step further by calling for wider legal reforms to protect women and religious minorities.
The petition for Noura highlights ongoing gender discrimination and inequality before the law for women in Sudan.
Women and girls from ethnic and religious minority groups find themselves subject to vaguely drafted public order laws and are often forced to pay fines or sentenced to lashes for dressing in a manner subjectively deemed inappropriate by public order police. Women human rights defenders (HRDs) also find themselves threatened by police, who use the laws to intimidate them and silence their activism.
For there to be true justice for Noura and Meriam, and the thousands of Sudanese women brutalised by family, criminal and public order laws, Sudan must ensure that domestic law and judicial interpretation of the law is in line with its constitution, and in compliance with its regional and international human rights obligations.
By CSW’s Sudan Advocacy Officer