By Eleanor Beevor
The case of Noura Hussein, the 19-year old Sudanese woman who killed her husband after he had raped her, and was subsequently sentenced to death herself, drew a staggering international outcry. But now, the death penalty has been withdrawn, and Noura’s case has led to what looks like a significant legal milestone for rights of women in Sudan.
Noura Hussein was 16 when she was forced into an engagement with Abdulrahman Mohamed Hammad, a man 16 years older than her. Hammad had reportedly approached her father about marrying her when she was much younger, and still a high-school student.
However, Noura insisted that she wanted to finish her education in order to qualify as a teacher. Yet her family insisted she marry Hammad, so Noura fled to a relative’s house in eastern Sudan to escape the marriage. She later said that the idea of the marriage had led her to contemplate suicide. She stayed there until April 2017, when her family called her to tell her that they had cancelled the marriage agreement, and she could come home. But when she returned, she found that she had been tricked, and was forced to undergo the wedding ceremony.
Hating herself after rape!
Noura refused to have sex with her new husband for several days. She tried to escape the flat one night, but found the door locked. After several days, her repeated refusal to have sex was followed by a brutal rape. It involved Hammad’s two brothers and his cousin holding her down as Hammad raped her. Her mother later told the press that Noura had “hated herself” after the rape.
But when Hammad tried to force himself on her again the next day, Noura stabbed him several times, reportedly with a knife kept under her pillow. Her mother said that she had been keeping the knife in order to stab herself if Hammad tried to rape her again. But in the struggle, it was Hammad who was stabbed to death.
Noura forced into marriage (Twitter)
Noura panicked and told her family what she had done. They went to the police to explain, but Noura was arrested and imprisoned. In May 2018, a Sharia court in Khartoum sentenced her to death by hanging, despite her attorney’s plea that she had acted in self-defence. The father of the deceased Hammad, interviewed in a Sudanese newspaper, insisted that Noura had consented to the marriage, and that her crime was one of pre-meditated murder. Yet her attorney’s plea for a medical examination to prove the rape was rejected twice by the court.
But then Noura’s story went international. The campaign against her death sentence began with grassroots human rights campaigners such as the Afrika Youth Movement campaigning outside the courthouse, and with Sudanese lawyers mounting arguments in her favour.
International NGOs soon joined the campaign as well, and organisations such as the EU offered their support. Soon, celebrities such as Naomi Campbell and Emma Watson were taking part in an online campaign with the hashtag #justiceforNoura. A petition to the Sudan Government to spare Noura the death penalty received over 1.5 million signatures.
And it seems to have worked. On June 27th 2018, Noura’s death sentence was overturned in a court of appeal in Khartoum. Instead, she was sentenced to five years in prison, and a fine of 337500 Sudanese Pounds. Al Bawaba spoke to Judy Gitau Nkuranga, a Nairobi-based human rights lawyer with the charity Equality Now, one of the leading organisations in the Justice for Noura campaign. Ms Gitau Nkuranga believes that this ruling marked a significant legal precedent for women’s rights in Sudan:
“We feel this case marks a turning point in Sudanese jurisprudence on cases of women and girls who have been victims of sexual violence. This is because the advocacy around Noura’s case brought to the world’s attention to the fact that it is still ‘legal’ in Sudan to marry a girl as young as 10 years of age. This is unacceptable and the advocacy and the global campaign on the case made sure the Sudanese government, including their courts system, heard this message loud and clear.
It is our observation that the court was mostly persuaded by a robust appeal which was filed by Noura’s lawyers, as supported by human rights organizations coupled with a meticulous campaign that brought the case and the unfair laws underpinning it to the global stage. The courts were placed under pressure to do justice not only in their own eyes but through the eyes of the millions who were waiting and watching.”
For human rights organisations, this is considered only a partial victory. They have argued that five years in prison and a large fine, paid to the family of the deceased, is still too high a price to pay for Noura Hussein’s act of self-defence. Moreover, there will still be a great deal of conservative resistance to changes to child marriage laws, or to outlawing marital rape. But at least for Noura herself, the announcement of her death sentence being withdrawn was a truly happy moment. Nkuranga added:
“Our partner on the ground tells us Noura was elated and happy on receiving the news of the appeal. The surrounding prisoners spontaneously burst into celebration as well.”
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