LGBTI rights in Sudan: history and analysis

This article by Ghareeb, a member of Sudanese NGO Freedom Sudan, was originally published under a different name in LGBT Asylum News on 15 August 2011. It has been edited for publication in this issue.

In 2009, a Sudanese website called Rumat Alhadag posted an article about the establishment of the Sudanese LGBT Association Freedom Sudan and its goal to improve the rights of LGBT individuals in Sudan. A quick analysis of the replies to this article reveals the following: There were 39 replies (repetitions were not counted). While only four replies reflected positive attitude toward homosexuality and homosexuals, 33 replies displayed a negative — many times very aggressive — attitude toward the issue. However, one reply acknowledged its existence without showing a clear attitude and another one only displayed a surprised feeling. Words used to describe homosexuals included: ‘dregs’, ‘decadents’, ‘immoral’, ‘animals alike’ and ‘salacious’ with calls to for them to ‘be expelled to an empty jungle’, ‘buried alive’ and pursued ‘by authorities’.

Before the establishment of Freedom Sudan in 2006, homosexuality was a taboo subject and not many people dared to talk about it publicly; if they did so they would then have to face fierce and sometimes personal attacks from society members. Even if they displayed a judgmental negative attitude toward the issue they would probably be labeled with descriptions like ‘profligate’ and ‘excitement seekers’ and accused with ‘attempting to distort the image of Sudan’.

Sexual behavior in Sudanese culture is strongly linked to honour (the honour of the individual and the honour of the group are inseparable). The concept of ‘honour’ is a great and dangerous deal in Sudan, it pushes many people to lie even to themselves if necessary in order to protect it. That is why these attempts to talk freely about homosexuality were met by such enormous denial and aggressive attacks. Even until now after it has started to become less and less a forbidden subject, many people still think that this issue shouldn’t be discussed openly and should be dealt with secretly by security measures only, since, according to these voices, these ‘deviants’ represent only a very small and closed group in Sudan and no one supports them.

Homophobia in Sudan

In the highly charged political climate of Sudan, many political and religious movements seized the opportunity of the already existent negative public attitude toward LGBT people and the shock caused by the formation of an association for LGBT individuals and also the appearance of LGBT groups on Facebook (i.e. ‘Gay Story in Sudan’, ‘Sudan Next Top Gay’, ‘Sudanese Gays’ and others) to use as an argument against other opponent groups.

Those who consider themselves to be moderate or even liberals or progressive thinkers blame the hypocrisy of the National Conference Party (NCP)* government and its supporters which, as they like to prescribe, while raising the logo of the ‘civilised Islamic project’ have created a proper atmosphere for ‘extraneous and deviant phenomena’ like the ‘spreading’ of homosexuality by forcing a puritanical form of Shari’a** (which was prominent during the ‘90s then started to weaken afterwards) that inhibit the mixing of males and females in public and academic life. This caused the elevation of sexual oppression among both sexes and pushed them to search for the ‘alternative’ (by which they mean homosexuality).

Many of them like to adopt the opinions of some journalists and social thinkers like Mariam Othman and Hanan Aljak who described homosexuality and bisexuality as psychological ailments and attributed them to different factors, such as sexual assaults during childhood; physical or emotional absence of the parent from the same gender; and other socio-economic factors like poverty, ignorance and the rising costs of traditional heterosexual marriage.

Ironically, extremists and fundamentalist Islamist groups like Ansar Alsunna (which has close ties with Saudi Arabia and the thinkers of the strict Hanbali School of Islam which prevails there) also blame the NCP government for its failure to sufficiently implement the Shari’a. They also don’t forget to aim their arrows at their natural enemies (the liberals) for calling for more freedom in the society and separation of religion from politics.

Meanwhile, the NCP seems to be using the issue tactically against its opponents like in the famous case of the journalist Lubna Hussein who was arrested in August 2009 along with other women in a restaurant in Khartoum for wearing ‘indecent dress’ (in her case, trousers) in a public place — thus breaking the notorious article 152 in the Sudanese law ‘Indecent Acts’.

By law, the other women were flogged with 40 lashes each, but Lubna was excluded from the sentence. Her immunity was due to her working for the United Nations Mission in Sudan, however she challenged the authorities by refusing to pay a fine and called for the abolition of article 152. Her case caused great embarrassment to the NCP government which was faced with not only international calls from human rights organisations to release Lubna and remove the above mentioned article but also with demonstrations inside Sudan which supported Lubna and her cause.

When the preparations of these demonstrations were taking place, an article was published in Alwifaq newspaper (known to be pro-government) under the title ‘And with the aid of western embassies, demonstration by prostitutes and homosexuals for the abolishing of the public order law’ in which the writer mentioned that a demonstration was going to be organised by prostitutes and homosexuals benefiting from the case of the journalist Lubna with the aim to reach the UN headquarters in Khartoum and to hand in a petition requesting pressure on the government to remove the public order law.

The article was largely condemned and the government was accused of attempting to abort the demonstrations in support of Lubna and prevent supporters from gathering by sending a message via this article that whoever goes to this demonstration is either homosexual or a prostitute. In other words, using public homophobia as a weapon against opponents’ demonstrations.

In the middle of all this political exchange, public opinion becomes more congested and homophobia exacerbates. So it wouldn’t be a surprise to find a group on Facebook named (when translated into English) ‘fighting homosexuals and those who call for sex in Sudan on Facebook’ which incites the visitors to help in closing Sudanese homosexual groups by clicking ‘report/block this person’ on their page.

Even many individuals who are supposed to be objective considering their position display obvious prejudiced non-professional opinions which could be sometimes completely wrong. For example, in the forum of the Sudanese universities of public health graduates and public health officers (SUPHOF) some members put homosexuality side-by-side with increasing cases of AIDS in Sudan. Additional homophobic statements were made by some members of the National Program for the Prevention of AIDS, where some described homosexuality as a ‘negative mutation’ in sexual practices in Sudan, saying it also contributed to the high increase in AIDS in Khartoum state.

Although they mentioned concurrently that whereas the known HIV cases reached around 10,000 (the estimate is 88,000 cases), the number of homosexuals known to them was only 715 and the estimate prevalence of HIV virus among them was 7.8% — which means, according to their own figures, that there are only around 56 homosexuals infected with HIV. This contradicts their argument about homosexuality and AIDS spreading. The danger with these statements is that it came from a health program that is supposed to be objective and shouldn’t discriminate against any group in order to promote early voluntary examination amongst the community.

Shadows from the Past

For me, fundamental Islamic teachings haven’t been enough to explain all the hatred and discrimination practiced at both official and popular levels against homosexuals in Sudan, so I have searched for the missing part in the past and only then the picture started to become clearer to me.

Mr Shawgi Badri is a popular Sudanese writer and historian well known for his bold style in writing. Although he displays a frankly negative attitude toward homosexuality and considers it a problem, he still acknowledges both its presence and its historic existence in the Sudanese community — opposite to the public mainstream. This attitude has brought him many accusations of being ‘non-loyal to the country’ and ‘a non-modest man who passed the seventh decade’. The reader can only imagine, if this is what a man who himself disapproves of homosexuality had to face, because he spoke freely about it, what do homosexuals have to face on a daily basis?

In a post on the website, Badri wrote a brief glance at the history of homosexuality since the Fonj Sultanate in Sinnar until the 80s passing through the era of ‘Almahadia’ in the late 18th century, the years of British colonisation and the period after independence. He referred to global historical figures who many people tend to believe were gay like Alexander the Great, Richard the Lionheart, the First Earl Kitchener and Leonardo da Vinci. He compared them to homosexuals in Sudan using the following statement which I think is the key statement in his article: ‘For those people there were choices, however what is practiced in Sudan is a process of enforcement and humiliation’.

He gave the following examples:

  • His schoolmaster used to force some of his classmates to have sex with him before he was caught.
  • Many areas in the capital Khartoum were not safe for boys and young men to walk in after dark and even in the daytime some kids were harassed or even raped. Badri himself was subjected to harassment and many attempts but his strong physique and his aggressive behavior during adolescence protected him from these attempts.
  • Some of this harassment took a ‘class hatred’ nature being carried out by some men of low socio-economic status against kids from families of high socio-economic status just to break their spirits and be ‘well remembered by them when they grow up’.

Another very alarming statement made by him which is relevant to the status quo:

Sudanese youth in high schools and universities who were harassed or forced under fear, stimulation or threatening to have sex they found a shelter in the Islamic Brotherhood Organization which embraced them and offered them protection. Some of those were filled with hatred against the society and the others because they did not perform these acts by their own will and that might explain their dark behaviors when they reach power.

Badri once heard the mother of one of his classmates complaining to their neighborhood grocery man, ‘what shall we do if the Minister of the Interior parks his car beside our house, climbs it and cries out for our kid from behind the wall?’. It is obvious from what is mentioned above that homosexual acts in the minds of many Sudanese are linked to sexual harassment, child abuse, class hatred and marital infidelity as Badri summarised it at the beginning as a ‘process of enforcement and humiliation’.

I failed to find one known example of a man to man or a woman to woman relationship described as being based on mutual love and respect between the two partners. If this is the case, no wonder where all this anger came from. Who knows, perhaps the men who are today eagerly chasing LGBT individuals are the children of yesterday whose innocence was brutally taken from them by past monsters. It made me ask myself the following question: to what extent is the reality today different from the past? Well, I am still in the process of finding out the answer.

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