Last week, a Sudanese woman journalist was convicted of public indecency for wearing trousers in Khartoum. Trousers and a hijab — not a bikini, not a mini skirt, not even form-fitting jeans. According to the North Khartoum Court, Lubna Al-Hussein was in violation of paragraph 152 of the Criminal Act, which states, “Whoever commits an indecent act or an act that breaches public morality or wears clothes that are indecent or would breach public morality which causes annoyance to public feelings is liable to forty lashes or fine or both punishments.” It was in the name of this “Islamic” law that the public order police stormed into a coffee shop on July 3rd and arrested Al-Hussein and a dozen other women.
The government of Northern Sudan is ruled under what President Omar Al-Bashir and his comrades deem Islamic law. Yet laws such as the Criminal Act are a mockery of Islam and a total infringement on human and women’s rights. Though the Qur’an specifies modest dress for women, nowhere does it forbid women from wearing pants.
Of the 13 women arrested, though, only three of them challenged their fictitious offense, demonstrating what Irshad Manji calls moral courage. Manji runs the Moral Courage Project at the NYU Wagner School of Public Service where she teaches her students to “speak truth to power and risk backlash for a greater good.” She tells them, “Courage is not the absence of fear … it is the recognition that some things are more important than fear.”
In her relentless fight to bring her case to trial, Al-Hussein exemplifies moral courage at its finest. Determined to draw international attention to the flogging of Sudanese women and have the repressive indecency laws deemed unconstitutional, Al-Hussein resigned from her job at the UN Mission in Sudan, declining the special immunity granted to her. Furthermore, she sent out 500 personal invitations to the flogging. Al-Hussein told BBC, “I’m not afraid [of] pain ... but flog is not pain, flog is [an] insult, insult to humans, [an] insult to women.”
In light of the spotlight on what has become known as the infamous “trouser trial,” the court imposed a fine equivalent to $200 — generously sparing her 40 lashes — in an effort to curb international criticism. Yet in an interview with the Associated Press, Al-Hussein insisted she “will not pay a penny,” and instead has opted for a prison sentence in protest of the law. It is for her selfless audacity that Nicholas Kristof calls Lubna the Rosa Parks of Khartoum.
Al-Hussein’s crusade for justice is a reminder to us all of the personal risks and sacrifices individuals are willing to make so that others can have a better life. And though Khartoum and trouser trials may seem worlds away, moral courage has its place in the Cornell community as well.
In his unyielding defense for free press in Zambia, Prof. Muna Ndulo, law, personifies moral courage. His recent column in Zambia’s popular newspaper, The Post, rightfully challenged the government’s vapid charges against the paper’s editorial board for printing controversial images of a breached birth. For his allegiance to freedom of the press, Ndulo faces charges of contempt from the Zambian government. Yet Ndulo and the editors are committed to fighting their illicit charges, with Ndulo insisting, “I am not afraid.” Like Al-Hussein, Ndulo’s bravery illustrates that fear is not a be all end all. Rather, the suppression of fear is a means to an end for a greater good.
Reflecting on Al-Hussein and Ndulo’s embodiment of moral courage, I realized that we as Cornell students can emulate their heroism on a small scale. In essence, moral courage is challenging your in-group — questioning those very people, beliefs and policies of which you are ostensibly connected. Whether that be challenging your professors’ opinions in class, the University’s policies or your family’s political views, these acts are emblematic of the underlying principles of moral courage. Moreover — unlike Al-Hussein — we at Cornell have the means and the freedoms to lawfully challenge others as well as our own. Then why don’t we do so?