Sudan Bans FGM As It Breaks With Hardline Islamist Policies

Sudan is breaking with hardline Islamist policies as it announces it will ban female genital mutilation (FGM), cancel prohibitions against religions conversions from Islam, allow women to travel with their children without the permission from male family members, and permit non-Muslims to consume alcohol. This is a decisive break from almost four decades of hardline policies under the former Islamist government that limited the freedom and rights of women and non-Muslims. The move has created hope for more robust protection of personal liberties as Sudan moves towards scheduled democratic elections in 2022.

The new laws mean that Sudan’s non-Muslim population will no longer be criminalized for drinking alcohol in private, said the Justice Minister, Nasredeen Abdulbari. Non-Muslims can now legally drink, import, and sell alcohol. For Muslims, the ban will remain. Under Islamic law, the punishment for offenders is typically flogging. Sudan will also ban the practice of “takfir”, a controversial accusation denoting ex-communication, as one Muslim declaring another Muslim, or any individual, as a non-believer. This can lead to a potential death sentence. “The takfir of others became a threat to the security and safety of society,” Abdulbari said.

Abdulbari also told the media that “we [will] drop all the laws violating the human rights in Sudan,” when announcing the decision. According to the Minister, the motive behind the move is to protect the rights of the country’s non-Muslims, who make up about 3% of the population. “As a government, our work is to protect all Sudanese citizens based on the Constitution and based on laws that should be consistent with the Constitution,” Abdulbari told state television. In its statement, the Justice Ministry said that FGM “degrades the dignity of women.” In 2014, a UN survey found that about 87% of Sudanese women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 have been subjected to FGM. Under the new law, anyone found guilty of performing FGM will face sentencing of to up to three years in prison. This move is a big win for human rights activists who have long sought to impose a ban on FGM.

Many human rights groups and pro-democracy groups around the world are happy with Sudan’s announcement. With upcoming democratic elections scheduled for 2022, the new laws have stirred hope for stronger protection of personal liberties in Sudan. However, some rights groups warn that the practices the law aims to reverse remain deeply entrenched in a conservative society, and enforcement will pose a challenge. In order to establish a more just, democratic society in Sudan, these new laws must be followed through with strict enforcement and wide publicity. In addition, the upcoming 2022 general elections must be held in a genuine, fair, and free way to encourage further change in Sudan. While many additional steps need to be taken to enforce the new laws and keep Sudan on the right track, the series of moves has pleased most international observers.

Sudan has practised strict Islamist laws for several years. Alcohol has been banned in Sudan since the former President Jaafar Nimeii introduced Islamic law in 1983. The new law comes after the ousting of long-time ruler Omar al-Bashir last year, following protests. A transitional government took over after al-Bashir was toppled, and they have faced stiff opposition from conservatives who thrived under the former regime. However, Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has accelerated the pace of reforms following the urges for faster change from pro-democracy groups. During Bashir’s rule, some believed that forms of FGM were religiously allowed, arguing that the only debate was over whether it was required or not. After he took power in 1989, Bashir reinforced Islamic law, seeking to increase his support among Sudan’s powerful conservative factions. His extension of Islamic rule and introduction of public order laws criminalized a wide array of activities and behaviours, including drinking alcohol and wearing revealing clothes for women. Those who broke the rules faced fines, prison sentences, and public lashing.

Sudan’s move to break with Islamist policies is a promising change as the government attempts to broaden personal freedoms during a delicate democratic transition. Further steps must be taken to enforce these new laws and promote change during the 2022 elections, but overall, the move is a win for human rights organizations worldwide.

Hallie Kielb