More Sinned Against than Sinning



On 13 May, Intisar Sharif Abdalla was sentenced to death by stoning in Ombada, Khartoum State. She was convicted by Judge Sami Ibrahim Shabo under Article 146 (“adultery”) of the 1991 Criminal Code after giving birth to a child allegedly conceived outside of wedlock. Ms. Abdalla reportedly has two other children, presumably conceived by her husband. Disturbingly, reports on Ms. Abdalla’s age vary from between 15 – 17 up to 20, and she was convicted following the introduction of a confession reportedly obtained after being beaten by her brother. Ms. Abdalla’s trial also failed to meet international standards. The alleged father has denied paternity and has not been charged with a crime.


Following South Sudan’s secession in July 2011, the human rights situation in Sudan has largely remained off the radar, particularly for women. Focus has mainly been placed on the relationship between Sudan and South Sudan. But lack of civil and political rights in Sudan have impacted the extent to which Sudanese enjoy basic human security. This has particularly been the case with gender justice and discriminatory legislation such as the Public Order Laws. These areas have largely been ignored in the complex processes undertaken at high political levels to navigate the future of the country, and there is a danger that political space will be restricted further if a more Islamist constitution forms the basis of Sudan’s post-referendum political dispensation. 



Elements of Ms. Abdalla’s case exemplify the opaque transparency in institutions and lack of legal remedies for human rights violations and their inherently gendered application. For example:


Arbitrary Determination of Age: Ms. Abdalla was determined to be 20 following an examination undertaken in custody. Her age is important as the application of the death penalty to a child is forbidden under international law. The Criminal Code however allows for persons to be considered adults if they have reached maturity, which is often determined on the basis of physical appearance. Sudan also allows for minors to be executed under the 2005 Interim National Constitution (INC), where children are not explicitly exempt from application of the death penalty for “serious offences”, namely hudud crimes which includes zina (“adultery”).Lack of fair trial: Ms. Abdalla initially pled not guilty but changed her plea after reportedly being beaten by her brother, in effect extracting a confession under torture. This was the sole piece of evidence. Under sharia rules of evidence, oral testimony and confessions are prioritised in hudud cases, with forensic evidence often rejected. More disturbingly, Ms. Abdalla reportedly doesn’t speak much Arabic, was only able to access a lawyer after she had been convicted, and doesn’t understand the severity of her sentence. Her four month infant, the product of the adultery, is with her in prison. Under the INC, the death penalty is not allowed to be imposed on pregnant or lactating women and some of her family are filing an appeal to the Supreme Court.Gendered Bias in Sentencing: Ms. Abdalla’s alleged partner has maintained his innocence, and as men’s testimony typically is valued more than women’s in zina cases he will likely not be charged with a crime or subjected to a paternity test. As SIHA notes, it is incredible that “the man with whom she has been accused is able to walk free, showing explicitly the strong anti-woman sentiment and harsh management of family disputes that exists within both the Sudanese judicial system and in society”.


Briefly, it is important to note that under the right conditions, women reporting rape can be charged with adultery. The burden of proof lies with women and male witnesses to corroborate their claim, which is difficult in a patriarchal society that strictly regulates the acceptable boundaries of sexuality. With due respect to Ms. Abdalla and her baby, she may have had little control over her pregnancy. I am just conjecturing and only know the details of the case published above, but many Sudanese women lack control of their reproductive rights. Abortions are only permitted in the case of rape, which goes underreported due to fears of zina charges and stigma, and placing children for adoption carries serious risk. Public Order Police are brutal in interrogations of women caught putting children up for adoption, so women at times clandestinely abandon their children at orphanages such as Mygoma in Khartoum. This abandonment is extremely traumatic and dangerous for babies. The law encourages patriarchal notions of women as pure and mothers to their husband’s children and dissuades women from safe abortions and adoptions. Yet women that elect to raise children born outside or marriage or to unwed mothers may suffer a far worse fate. Ms. Abdalla has already sacrificed a lot.


Blogger Mimz points out that many people have supported the sentencing on social media, and pointed to Sudan’s broader political climate where “dictatorship breeds dictatorship” and the sins of only certain people count amidst a climate of institutionalised racism. We can only imagine the fate of women similar to Ms. Abdalla in the peripheries of Sudan such as Darfur and the Nuba Mountains where there is little attention – or even documentation due to lack of freedom of expression – of human rights violations that happen every day.



Sudan, Women's Rights, South Sudan, Gender, Islam, Sexual Violence