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.