Sisterhood of the Hot Pants: the Media’s Coverage of Lubna al-Hussein

Lubna al-Hussein’s recent trial for wearing pants has received a lot of attention in the media. Most of the attention has been focused on the “backwardness” of indecency law that apparently prevents women in Sudan from wearing pants in public. The law itself doesn’t actually describe what is “indecent” but it seems to be understood that the indecent clothing in this case was al-Hussein’s pants.

Lubna al-Hussein. Image via New York Daily News.

Lubna al-Hussein. Image via New York Daily News.

This story did not initially spark much interest on my part, not because I don’t find the idea of flogging women for wearing pants to be ridiculous, but partly because al-Hussein’s battle is one among many that Muslim and Sudanese women fight everyday. In fact, I was actually surprised that it received so much attention, especially considering that al-Hussein isn’t the first woman to be arrested under the indecency law, and also considering that she is one of three women who decided to go to trial. That al-Hussein has received so much attention is testimony to the influence that she, as a U.N. worker, has. Her influence is more than her co-defendants’ and much more than the numerous women who have pleaded out their cases and been flogged.

The bigger reason for not initially paying much attention to the story, however, is because the story is portrayed as being part of a much larger narrative of an evil Islamic society resistant to modernity, change, women’s rights and human rights. You would be hard pressed to find any story on Lubna al-Hussein that didn’t mention Shariah or “Islamic Law”.

Currently, there is much interest and concern about al-Hussein and women in Sudan. Feminists are standing in “solidarity” with Hussein. However, this current awareness will fade and the story will become a distant memory, much like the stories of the anonymous girl in Pakistan who was flogged earlier this year and the woman in Qatif who was raped and received lashings for being alone with a man. These stories captured the short attention span of the main-stream media not because of women’s rights or a real concern for Muslim women, but because they play so neatly and conveniently into an overall narrative of the deficiency of the Muslim world.

Al-Hussein contends (rightly, in my view) that wearing pants does not contradict Islamic principles of modesty. If one positive effect does come from the coverage of al-Hussein’s trial, it may be an examination of this law by Sudanese and what this law means for Sudanese women. If Sudanese courts determine that this law violates the spirit of Shariah and the rights of women, perhaps the stereotypes that media have placed on this story will ultimately be worth it.

  • http://forsoothsayings.blogspot.com forsoothsayer

    i don’t quite understand what your objection is – so what if this story received disproportionate media attention? it’s still appalling, and just because other appalling stories did not receive as much exposure does not make it less so. and whether or not it “plays into an overall narrative of the deficiency of the Muslim world” – it is not false. yes, women in muslim parts of the world are routinely punished for such ridiculous infractions. no amount of loose allegations of bias will make this less true. so why not feature it, whatever the spin? it’s not like it’s not true. sudan does have some backwards, anti-human rights laws, and the pretext given for them IS in fact sharia. how is this being misrepresented?

  • KC

    “The bigger reason for not initially paying much attention to the story, however, is because the story is portrayed as being part of a much larger narrative of an evil Islamic society resistant to modernity, change, women’s rights and human rights”

    I know that having your head in the sand regarding human rights abuses in the “Muslim” world, and an obsession with the slightest imagined human rights abuses in the West are prerequisites for writers at MMW; but I don’t know how else to describe a country where people are flogged for wearing pants.

    Putting aside for a moment that corporal punishment is a barbaric practive regardless of the crime it is intended to punish, how else do you describe a place where punishment is handed out for wearing pants other than anti-”human rights”, anti-”women’s rights” and anti-”modernity”.

    What is particularly sad is that her “argument” is that Islamic modesty does not require wearing pants. What about arguing that one shouldn’t have a religion forced upon them by the state? That is the real issue.

  • Person

    The fact that flogging is being handed out for wearing pants is horrendous and a violation of human rights in my opinion. However, I find that it is also very problematic that a city outlawed sagging. At the heart of both issues is the rights of people to wear what they please so long as it causes no harm to or infringes on the rights of others, and the extent to which indecency laws should impose on those rights.
    I am kinda put off by the first two comments for several reasons. For one, anytime the words “barbaric” or especially “backwards” are thrown around, their is a huge chance that the story is going to be framed in a racist, xenophobic, Civilized West v. Evil/Oppressive East, and White Man’s Burden way. The words themselves basically derive from the belief that Western white civilization is the best and the standard all other should be compared to. They are also used to dehumanize and justify the “salvation” of WOC from MOC.
    Also, I think the first two comments (esp. the second) missed the point of the article, or at least what I took away from it (which admittedly may be very wrong). For me, it examined how one of the only reasons the woman in question has a name is because she works with the UN. Whereas, you hardly ever hear backgrounds of other women who are held up as poster children for why the “Muslim world” is so cruel and “backwards”. We rarely here about their occupations or backgrounds in any capacity, only what happened to them is relevant and that the punishment or crime was perpetuated using an interpretation of Shariah law as justification and/or was done by Muslims, usually men.
    Also, it examines that when stories like this are presented they almost always fail to mention that women in these countries and areas fight back every day and that in many cases it is part of an organized effort that has been going on for years without the help or “solidarity” of western/white feminists. However, from the way the media portrays stories like this you might expect women in these areas to have been sitting around looking pitiful waiting for the Great White Hope to come and save them. I also find it more than a coincidence that stories of the plights of women in the “Muslim world are getting so much attention when we are waging war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq and still racially profiling SE Asians, ME, Muslims and people with brown skin like it’s no tomorrow whereas we are not so obsessed with the hardships and resistance of other groups such as LGBTQ, poor people, racial/religious minorities in other parts of the world.
    In addition, this story will be forgot about soon and all this outpouring of sympathy, “solidarity”, and head shaking along with it. As the writer said, not because the problem will disappear but because there is little real interest in human rights in the “Muslim world” that doesn’t play into a certain discussion frame. There are unfortunately too few people interested in the activism of women in this region, and it is more palatable and convenient to act as though they have little agency and are incapable of waging their own battles and if need be spilling their own blood. Not to mention the underlying assumptions that “these people” are “barbaric” anyway and that stories such as this is commonplace and it is simply in their nature. What makes this story remarkable is that one of the women actually gets to be a human being and not a poster child.
    Also, that some countries/places try or consider banning items associated with Muslims such as hijabs, niqabs, burkas, and what are described as hijab-conforming bathing suits is just as ludicrous to me as the banning of pants for women but the discussion (if any) surrounding those bans or proposed bans is completely different. When the same people who treat feminist/women rights orgs. in Muslim majority countries like they don’t exist or shouldn’t be looked to for leadership on the issue of womens’ rights (except when they agree with popular Western discourse) and openly support bans on certain articles of clothing turn around and decry a ban on pants my BS meeter starts to go off.

  • Person

    For beginners, you can describe it as a country with a jacked up law. The US has capital punishment, a racist and classist justice system, and disparages in sentencing that target POC and the poor but it is rarely described as “barbaric” or anti-”modernity”. Even when innocent ppl are executed or released after ten years for a crime they didn’t commit it is a tragedy, but not something that makes an entire nation barbaric.At most, the POLICIES are described as such but not the country. The same thing can be seen in talking about police v. criminals. When a black criminal shoots at cops he is a monster and barbaric. When cops violate the rights of POC including unjustified or excessive shootings their actions may be described as bad but not them. The terms barbaric and modernity are by their very natures racist and Eurocentric. Apparently being a Muslim male in Sudan makes you guilty,guilty,guilty.
    Also, I apologize for the long post, Got a bit carried away and feel bad that it’s longer than the OP.

  • KC

    “The US has capital punishment, a racist and classist justice system, and disparages in sentencing that target POC and the poor but it is rarely described as “barbaric” or anti-”modernity”

    A few problems with that:

    1) People COMMONLY describe the application of capital punishment by, and inequities in the US legal system as “barbaric”. In fact I distinctly remember my father using that exact word in a dinner conversation within the past month.

    2) The U.S, for all its failings, does not have laws against pants and does not (legally at least) apply corporal punishment. ‘Nuff said.

    “The words themselves basically derive from the belief that Western white civilization is the best and the standard all other should be compared to.”

    I dont get it. Are you saying that the practice of flogging people for wearing pants is an equally valid cultural practice entitled to respect and deference?

    No the words derive themselves from the practice of applying corporal punishment against people for wearing pants. They are applied to a practice not a society. I have no qualms or concerns about an undue sense cultural superiority in saying that flogging someone for wearing pants is barbaric.

    For some people (like you and the writers here) it seems that any criticism emanating from the west and directed at anyone else is prima facie invalid because of the source regardless of the facts. Any criticism that is made of barbaric practices in various countries is turned on its head into an example of western feelings of cultural superiority.

    The simple fact is that flogging someone for wearing pants is “barbaric”. Full stop.

    “Whereas, you hardly ever hear backgrounds of other women who are held up as poster children for why the “Muslim world” is so cruel and “backwards”. We rarely here about their occupations or backgrounds in any capacity, only what happened to them is relevant and that the punishment or crime was perpetuated using an interpretation of Shariah law as justification and/or was done by Muslims, usually men.”

    There are over 6,000,000,000 people in the world, thousands or millions of whom are having their human rights abused to varying degrees and in varying ways and its impossible to give a soapbox to them all to tell their life story. The relevant fact is that they are punished in a barbaric manner for a non-crime.

    The fact that a UN staffer is able to bring a barbaric practice to light should be applauded not derided because of her privileged position.

    “For me, it examined how one of the only reasons the woman in question has a name is because she works with the UN. Whereas, you hardly ever hear backgrounds of other women who are held up as poster children for why the “Muslim world” is so cruel and “backwards””

    Make up your bloody mind. On the one hand you complain that the story creates a “narrative of an evil Islamic society resistant to modernity, change, women’s rights and human rights” and on the other hand complain that we dont see enough stories demonstrating a clear resistance to modernity and human rights.

    “However, from the way the media portrays stories like this you might expect women in these areas to have been sitting around looking pitiful waiting for the Great White Hope to come and save them.”

    You’re reading waaaaaaayyyyy to much into this. Nowhere in the short article that is linked to does the author even approach anything close to that suggestion.

    “Also, that some countries/places try or consider banning items associated with Muslims such as hijabs, niqabs, burkas, and what are described as hijab…openly support bans on certain articles of clothing turn around and decry a ban on pants my BS meeter starts to go off.”

    To date ZERO western countries have “banned” hijabs, and only a handful have even discussed banning niqabs and burkas. No concrete action has been taken so this is a total red herring. On the other side of the ledger is the numerous accomodations have been made for Muslim attire and practices in western country ranging from prayer rooms in universities, to human rights bodies affirming the right to wear traditional dress, to segregated swim times (which I oppose), to public funding for building mosques.

    The corolary of this alleged western narrative of the evil, “barbaric” muslim is the narrative of the irreemably evil, xenophobic, and rights abusing west that prevails among some commentators.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ KC: Do not forget that less than 50 years ago, in the United States, women were not allowed to wear pants. NOT ALLOWED. Women were REQUIRED to wear skirts to school and work, and if they didn’t they were fired or sent home. It’s not flogging, but it’s not freedom.

    Uh. France and Turkey have banned hejabs in public institutions. Germany does not allow them in most public institutions, and the rest of Western European countries are currently discussing bans on top of unregulated discrimination against hejabs and niqabs.

    And don’t bring your “On the other side of the ledger is the numerous accomodations have been made for Muslim attire and practices in western country ranging from prayer rooms in universities, to human rights bodies affirming the right to wear traditional dress, to segregated swim times (which I oppose), to public funding for building mosques.” in here–these accomodations have come after a 400% rise in violence and discrimination against the very people that are sometimes getting accepted.

    The problem is not the fact that people are exposing this bastardization of Shariah law, it’s that western news outlets are not really concerned with al-Hussein or the Qatif girl. It’s with the fact that they crow over these stories, they proudly proclaim that this is “barbaric” as in “those Muslims are barbaric”, and the fact that THIS IS SHARIAH-NO-IFS-ANDS-OR-BUTS-THIS-IS-HOW-”THOSEPEOPLE”-ARE-AND-LIVE.

  • luckyfatima

    “The bigger reason for not initially paying much attention to the story, however, is because the story is portrayed as being part of a much larger narrative of an evil Islamic society resistant to modernity, change, women’s rights and human rights”

    I get you.

    When was the last time anything positive or just regular was written about Sudan or Sudanese women. The only time anything ever appears in the Western media about Sudan and most Muslim countries is nearly all about terrorism or women or sexual minorities being oppressed/whipped/stoned/etc. These are important stories to tell. However, the way in which they are told and the role these stories are singled out and sensationalized is part of a larger Islamophobic propaganda campaign.

    So I was cringing away with you when I saw this story spread across the media. Equally outraged, talking about it among fellow Muslim women, but not wanting to discuss it with others who facetiously ask “Is it true that in Islam you can’t wear pants?” “Is it true in Islam you can get flogged for wearing pants.” Which is just the tip of the iceberg and somewhere deep down in that iceberg is “These Muslims are subhuman because they don’t let women wear pants, so let’s turn a blind eye when our governments invade their lands, kill their people, etc. The women would be liberated and allowed to wear pants if we go there and save them, anyway. Let’s go drop bombs on them” or “We should put them all in internment camps and ship them back to whichever Stan they came from. They flog women for wearing pants. What kind of cretons are they?”

    So yep, I hope this woman wins her battle, I hope the attention the story is getting has some benefit to Sudanese women, but most likely it will backfire and this kind of Western attention will make everything worse for Sudanese women. I also found the above article interesting since it touches issues of class and privilege and access to influence and support.

  • KC

    “Do not forget that less than 50 years ago, in the United States, women were not allowed to wear pants. NOT ALLOWED. Women were REQUIRED to wear skirts to school and work, and if they didn’t they were fired or sent home.”

    I’m sorry but we don’t live in 1959 United States. There were lots of things wrong with 1959 United States. Whats your point?

    “Uh. France and Turkey have banned hejabs in public institutions. Germany does not allow them in most public institutions”

    1) Turkey is a majority Muslim country so I don’t know how this relates to the amorphous “West”.

    2) France is one country and its ban is not universal and only applies to public institutions. I’m not going to excuse France’s ban but its hardly an example of this brutally oppressive West that is commonly portrayed on this site.

    3) Now who is “lumping” countries in together by the way.

    “these accomodations have come after a 400% rise in violence and discrimination against the very people that are sometimes getting accepted.”

    These accomodations are also a direct rebuttal of this caricatured west that is oppressive of Muslims that is portrayed on this website.

    For what its worth, in my country, Canada, Jews are still the largest target for hate crimes despite being less numerous than Muslims.

    “The problem is not the fact that people are exposing this bastardization of Shariah law, it’s that western news outlets are not really concerned with al-Hussein or the Qatif girl. It’s with the fact that they crow over these stories, they proudly proclaim that this is “barbaric” as in “those Muslims are barbaric”,”

    Aren’t we quick to impute motive to the entire media and finish people’s sentences int he process. Where in the article linked to does the author call the Islamic world barbaric? Nowhere. What from the article could possibly cause you to think that no one is really concerned about the girls? Nothing. The fact is YOU DON’T HAVE ANYTHING. You’re playing the faux victim role and imagining these grand conspiracies against Muslims and the “Muslim world”. You impute hostile and incompassionate motives in a blanket manner in the EXACT same way as someone who thinks all Muslims are violent people who want to kill westerners. You’re no better than them.

    What is your solution? Ignore the stories? The fact is that flogging people for wearing pants is “barbaric”. I don’t care if its Muslims, atheists, jews or buddhists practicing it. Its wrong and should be exposed. This whole playing the victim game that is so common on this site it getting pretty lame.

  • http://www.rlayla.blogspot.com Rochelle

    “…not wanting to discuss it with others who facetiously ask “Is it true that in Islam you can’t wear pants?” “Is it true in Islam you can get flogged for wearing pants.”

    The people at whom you should be pissed off is not the Western media who ask such questions but the Islamic fundamentalists who create the reality in which these questions are raised in the first place.

    I’m sick of hearing criticisms about Western media relating to atrocities in the Muslim world. Why don’t you turn your attention to the people who actually commit such atrocities? Aren’t they the ones giving Islam a bad name? Aren’t they the ones eliciting Islamophobia and racism? Aren’t they the ones who are trying to dominate Muslim culture, excluding all other Muslim voices, like yours and mine, who know that pants are allowed in Islam?

    I understand your concerns and skepticism that the Western media cares about Lubna al-Hussein or if its really a cover for Islam-bashing. But the root of the problem is not the Western media, BUT THE PEOPLE WHO ARE FLOGGING LUBNA IN THE FIRST PLACE!!!!

    Articles like these come off as apologetic, because the focus of blame is on the REACTION of the situation, not the situation itself.

    I’m sick of the apologizing for the actions of these people. The situation happened, and its disgusting. That’s not to say that disgusting things don’t happen in the West, but that point is irrelevant. I’m tired of hearing “well human rights abuses happen everywhere so we shouldn’t care when they happen in Muslim countries.” Bullshit. There is nothing that can justify the act of flogging a woman for wearing pants. Shit like this happens everyday — whipping, stoning, honor killing, and so on — and I’m so tired of critiques like this that minimizing the problem by either comparing it to the West or arguing that it does not represent Islam. It’s a serious problem. And it should be MORE appalling to Muslims because it gives their religion a horrible reputation.

    And bless Lubna al-Hussein for using her privileged position to bring attention to other women at risk for the same fate.

    Finally, I would just like to say that comparing Lubna al-Hussein’s flogging to the ban of hijab in France is absolutely ludicrous and insulting to all the women who are flogged or imprisoned for wearing clothing of their choosing. The hijab ban in France is WRONG, but let’s face it — women don’t get whipped if they don’t abide. My cousin was beaten by basij in Iran for showing a strand of hair so please do not throw salt on that wound by minimizing it through sophistry.

  • rabiaahhh

    at KC,

    I”’m sorry but we don’t live in 1959 United States. There were lots of things wrong with 1959 United States. Whats your point?”

    I think Fatima’s point, ,which you clearly missed i might add, is that the SAME patricarchal demands on women and thier bodies occured in a western country, even though the societal repercussions were different. Flogging is flogging, yes, but women it`s just a different style of the same crap. to say otherwise is just plain lying.

  • rabiaahhh

    correction: i meant to say that flogging is flogging, however that doesn`t mean that women in 1959 U.S weren`t mistreated in other just as severe ways. it`s just a matter of style, simply. to say otherwise, is just plain false.

  • KC

    Rabiahhhhh – Who is missing the point? My point is that it isn’t 1959. In 2009, western women can more or less whatever they want. If you want to compare levels of “patriarchy” in 2009 Sudan to those in 1959 United States go ahead but that is a moot argument since it is 2009. In 2009, there is no comparison between the level of patriarchy and oppression of women in the United States and Sudan.

  • Dude

    2) The U.S, for all its failings, does not have laws against pants and does not (legally at least) apply corporal punishment. ‘Nuff said.

    Dunno. Having seen some of the ridiculously long sentences passed around in the US, and the treatment of prisoners in some prisons, I know that if I were found guilty of some of them, I’d prefer flogging.

    There are worse things than corporal punishment.

    For some people (like you and the writers here) it seems that any criticism emanating from the west and directed at anyone else is prima facie invalid because of the source regardless of the facts.

    This is a blatantly false statement.

    @Rochelle”
    Why don’t you turn your attention to the people who actually commit such atrocities?

    Because the purpose of the site is explicitly to critique media representations of Muslim women.

    It is not the goal of MMW to criticize atrocities (although I’ll grant it does happen by the contributors on occasion).

    Now granted there is a bias on this site towards English language sources – likely because of the languages spoken and the target audience.

    That’s why.

    Aren’t they the ones giving Islam a bad name? Aren’t they the ones eliciting Islamophobia and racism?

    Yes, but they are not solitary agents. It’s like saying, “Why don’t we focus on the African Americans who commit crimes in much higher proportion than they represent in the population? Isn’t it their fault that there is racism against them?”

    But the root of the problem is not the Western media, BUT THE PEOPLE WHO ARE FLOGGING LUBNA IN THE FIRST PLACE!!!!

    Yes, and just a few MMW posts ago, it was explicitly pointed out that this is a problem in certain non-Muslim societies in certain parts of Africa (with an example given). And therein you’ll find remarks about why the deeper reasons for this problem are not Islamic.

  • Dude

    Whoops! Forget to close the bold tag…

  • Kathy

    KC – I really don’t get what your point is. The goal of the article in my understanding was to examine how a range of deeply entrenched stereotypes about Muslim women are reflected in the coverage of the Lubna pants saga. The author is not advocating flogging for pants wearing, nor going through a blow by blow account of ‘how the West is worse than the East as reflected in women’s dress codes’. Everyone here agrees that flogging people who wear pants is bad.

    That said, there is an important, in fact vital role for identifying the discriminatory tone of popular reporting on the issue. I (and I imagine the writers of this site) believe in the powerful political impact of popular culture. It envelops our lives and frames how we comprehend politics in a myriad of ways.

    So the hackneyed ‘but you mock the Great West on this site’ tone of your comments I find a bit annoying.

  • TopSecret

    KC, just an fyi… if you don’t agree with them you get labeled a ‘point misser’…

    And aother POV… some Islamic scholars say that pants are not considered hijab…I agree that we should not beat a woman for wearing pants, but if its the law in that country, and she is a muslim she is obliged to follow that law.

  • http://www.stop-stoning.org Rochelle

    To OP and rest of commentators:

    “You would be hard pressed to find any story on Lubna al-Hussein that didn’t mention Shariah or “Islamic Law”

    That’s because the justification used by the prosecution in Sudan is based on (their interpretation of) “shariah” and “Islamic law.” I guess my bottom line criticism with this article is this: You rightfully find troubling the framing of this debate with Western media sources. The essence of Islam does not permit flogging of women for wearing pants, and yet this is how it is represented. Fine. However, what are the roots of this framework and articulation? Is it the Western biased media who are framing the reality? Or, as I maintain, is it really the ISLAMIC FUNDAMENTALISTS who are framing the issue, and articulating it quite well, and the media who are, as a consequence, ratifying this articulation?

    —-

    @dude: Its a day of absurd comparisons, isn’t it?

    “I’d prefer flogging.”

    Really? Get flogged first, then we’ll talk. USA prisons are legitimately fucked up, but do any kind of first hand independent research on the conditions of USA prisons versus flogging and you will see this comparison is absurd.

    “Why don’t we focus on the African Americans who commit crimes in much higher proportion than they represent in the population? Isn’t it their fault that there is racism against them?”

    Wow.

    Just… wow.

    You’re comparing Islamic fundamentalists who torture women to Black Americans. Nice. I’m sure the African American community would really love to hear that comparison.

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything more absurd and racist since I watched Fox news.

    First off, Black americans do not commit more crimes than White americans. They are in prison disproportionately. There’s a difference.

    I understand the point you’re trying to make, being that a more useful exercise in defeating fundamentalism is to look at the root causes of the fundamentalist expansion (e.g. socioeconomic causes.) One could make a legitimate comparison between the socioeconomic roots of extremism in general (Black extremism and Islamic extremism.) Maybe.

    But to argue that torture is acceptable under less than ideal socioeconomic/political circumstances is really troubling. It implies that Muslim societies are not ‘advanced’ enough to abolish torture. That they are not smart enough to deal with their disadvantage without torture. That torture is unacceptable, except for them.

    I’m holding Muslim societies to the same standards as every other standard. I don’t really give a flying fuck what your circumstances are. You don’t flog people wearing pants. K?


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