The Year We Change Sudan’s Personal Status Act

On March 8th, just after 1 pm, Sudanese women gathered in front of the Justice Ministry in downtown Khartoum to call for the reform of the Muslim Personal Status Act of 1991 also known as the family law. In solidarity, dozens of Sudanese women had also organized protests in different cities around the world to protest the long-standing discriminatory legislation and show support. Protest because Sudan’s personal status laws guide many critical aspects of life such as marriage, divorce, custody and inheritance.

Article 40 of the law, for instance, states that girls can marry as young as 10 years old with the permission of a judge. This is dangerous to girls, and in most cases, a judge is not even informed. There have been cases of girls forced into marriage younger than the age of 10. A male guardian has to sign your marriage documents, your refusal to marry means that you have to take the matter to court, which is often difficult due to financial restraints facing young women. If you are under the age of 18, you are legally prohibited from filing a petition in the court. 

The reality is that you are old enough to get married at the age of ten but too young to file for divorce before the age of 18. 

Moreover, the oppression continues into the articles on obedience and divorce. Obedience, in this 1991 law, means everything from not being able to work or travel without a husband’s permission. Divorce remains problematic and very difficult to attain as women find themselves struggling in court for years as the law does not view matters such as domestic violence as grounds for divorce. 

The 1991 law has victimized many women as they found themselves lacking protection from violence and fighting legal battles for years against an entire ideology that wants to subjugate them, from the lawyers to the judges who use this law to punish women for daring to demand justice. 

The fight to change this law is not like any other, it is a fight for survival and for the right to live a dignified life. 

Before the protest was organized, women used digital platforms to mobilize and build an infrastructure that can sustain and support this movement. This began when early this year, a group of Sudanese women in Sudan and in the diaspora started a Facebook group called “Be Strong: an initiative to reform the Sudanese personal status laws” that quickly turned into a campaign that wanted to engage in efforts on the ground. 

The group has become a hub for women who were persecuted by the law where they share heartbreaking stories using their real names or using pseudonyms. The stories feature women whose lives were destroyed for daring to seek a divorce, and as a result, their children were taken away from them, sometimes for years. It featured the custody battles inside Sudanese courts in real-time, sparing no ugly details about how the society is very much complicit in this crime. One woman told a story of how she has not seen her children in four years as they live with her ex-husband abroad who denies her visitation rights. 

Nisreen Mustafa from Insaf Center for Legal Consultations reiterates that one of the worst articles in the law is Article 119 (A) which states that the children can not travel without the consent of the guardian. Since men are considered the only guardians, she has worked on dozens of cases in which men kidnap the children while taking advantage of their position as guardians and the mother can not do anything. 

“They only consider it kidnapping if it is a stranger, but there is no article in the criminal law on familial kidnapping, and this allows men to kidnap the children and keep them inside the country or travel with them. We have cases of mothers who have not seen their children in years,” said Mustafa in an interview.

The Facebook group was also partially instigated by the recent death of a prominent young woman who was victimized by the personal status laws. Abeer Abu-Shiba, suffered in courts for years as a result of her divorce from Taha Suleiman, a very famous pop singer. Officially, Abu-Shiba died natural deaths from reduced blood circulation, but for women who are part of this struggle, years of tedious court battles that are financially, physically and emotionally draining can be fatal. 

For decades, Sudanese women have been fighting for legal reform. They have explicitly challenged the public order laws, also known as the morality laws, as well as the Muslim Personal Status Act. Essentially, the first lawyer to challenge the Muslim personal status act was Fatima Abulgasim, a renowned woman lawyer who continues to litigate personal status cases in her office in Omdurman. Abulgasim wrote an article titled “Save Sudanese women from the 1991 personal status laws” just a few months after the act came into existence. At the time, she would go to courts and find women who need legal aid in personal status cases and offer them pro-bono support. 

Over ten years ago, the Sudanese Organization for Research and Development (SORD), a women’s rights organization, has been working to reform the 1991 Muslim Personal Status Act and has. They provided legal aid to hundreds of women as well as drafted an alternative law. As a result, the organization was harassed by the overthrown regime of Omar al Bashir and they were refused official registration for years.

The revolution sparked hope for many women and especially married women and mothers, that change could be a possibility.

In May 2019, during the sit-in in front of the army headquarters in Khartoum, the Sudanese Women’s Aid Organization (SWA) organized single mothers to march to the sit-in demanding reform of this law. Since then, the momentum was always there. For Sudanese women who have been resisting the law since 1991, the revolution has given the movement a significant boost.

In the legal memorandum submitted by the Be Strong Initiative on March 8th, the campaign seeks reform of many of the articles in the 1991 act. The focus is on the articles that impact married women and mothers; however, activists and lawyers who are part of the initiative believe that we should be even more ambitious and repel the entire law and bring forth an alternative one.

“The first step is to provide alternative articles, when it comes to familial kidnapping, we believe that to stop this practice, we need to impose that permission is received from both parents for a child to travel and not just the father,” added Mustafa.

The demands are high, and the women vow to continue fighting. But the backlash began as soon as pictures from the protest circulated on social media. In a group called Galaxy, known for sexism, men asked “what do the feminists want from us?” and many accused them of seeking to repeal a law that is based on Shariah laws. Some even missed the point of the whole protest and began scrutinizing the looks and dress-code of the female protestors.

One thing remains clear, the fight that women are leading in Sudan is never about just legal reform, it is about challenging societal norms that continue to protect, approve and impose discriminatory laws.

Feature photo by Hossam el-Hamalawy

Reem Abbas is a Sudanese Feminist blogger, writer, freelance journalist and a communications and research consultant based in Khartoum, Sudan. She is currently in the coordination committee of the Sudanese Women in Political and Civil Groups (Mansam). Here is her past writings.

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