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September 09, 2009

What did the 'Pants Pants Revolution' mean?

N105883283749_5029 Sudanese journalist Lubna Hussein was released from prison yesterday, after one night, for refusing to pay a $200 fine for violating an "indecency" law by wearing pants. Lubna had vowed not to pay the fine, to protest a capricious law that ensnares hundreds of Sudanese women every year without explanation. But the Sudan Journalists Union paid the fine for her, and Lubna walked free yesterday afternoon.

With that, Khartoum hopes that it's closed the book on what's been dubbed the "Pants Pants Revolution," a genuine grassroots movement that gained international attention and once again exposed the bubbling discontent in Sudan. Bec Hamilton points out that the journalists union was far from Lubna's savior; it has notoriously close ties to the government. Paying her fine was Khartoum's bid to end this messy little affair once and for all.

The regime's famed crisis management skills kicked into gear. With U.S. special envoy Scott Gration due back in Sudan this week, Khartoum clearly didn't want Lubna's legion of supporters distracting things. With Lubna out of jail, she's no longer as potent a symbol of women's repression. And the fearsom security forces that allowed some pro-Lubna demonstrations to take place outside the courthouse Monday, while the world was watching, will surely not be so permissive of such acts of speech in the future.

Many judge that Khartoum has won this round. It's created a formidable activist in Lubna, who resigned her job with the U.N. mission in Sudan to fight her case, but there are many worthy activists in Sudan who are too rarely heard from because of the government's limits on the press, broadcasting and the Internet. More to the point, most Sudanese are too busy ensuring their daily survival to worry too much about activism.

The one thing that's certain to last from this episode is the image of hundreds of Sudanese women, many wearing pants, marching in solidarity with a brave woman who dared to challenge an unfair, ill-defined and arbitrarily enforced law. Women are repressed in Sudan, but we rarely hear about it with so much attention focused on the war in Darfur. (In his official pre-travel statement, Gration, who's been focusing on Darfur, didn't mention Lubna's case.)

With elections looming and the crisis in the south growing worse, Khartoum is in survival mode. Some protests are tolerable for now, a pressure valve that must be opened from time to time, but as 2011 draws closer space will become much tighter. In that kind of climate I wonder what Lubna Hussein will do next -- whether she continues to take her fight to the streets and to cyberspace, or whether, like so many others, she retreats by force or necessity to the background, joining the millions of silent Sudanese who wait for change but can't demand it.


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Somewhere in Africa was written by McClatchy correspondent Shashank Bengali, who covered sub-Saharan Africa from 2005 to 2009. He's now based in Washington, D.C., as a national correspondent.

Read Shashank's stories at news.mcclatchy.com or send him a story idea.


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