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Sudan woman risks flogging over uncovered hair

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    Sudanese women walk in Khartoum street. A Sudanese woman says she is prepared to be flogged to defend the right to leave her hair uncovered in defiance of a "Taliban"-like law. (AFP/File)

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    Sudanese journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein talks to the media outside a Khartoum court after a hearing in her 'trousers' case, on September 7, 2009. A Sudanese woman says she is prepared to be flogged to defend the right to leave her hair uncovered in defiance of a "Taliban"-like law. (AFP/File)

A Sudanese woman says she is prepared to be flogged to defend the right to leave her hair uncovered in defiance of a "Taliban"-like law.

Amira Osman Hamed faces a possible whipping if convicted at a trial which could come on September 19.

Under Sudanese law her hair -- and that of all women -- is supposed to be covered with a "hijab". But Hamed, 35, refuses to wear one.

Her case has drawn support from civil rights activists and is the latest to highlight Sudan's series of laws governing morality which took effect after the 1989 Islamist-backed coup by President Omar al-Bashir.

"They want us to be like Taliban women," Hamed said in an interview with AFP, referring to the fundamentalist militant movement in Afghanistan.

She is charged under Article 152 which prohibits "indecent" clothing.

Activists say the vaguely worded law leaves women subject to police harassment and disproportionately targets the poor in an effort to maintain "public order".

"This public order law changed Sudanese women from victims to criminals," says Hamed, a divorced computer engineer who runs her own company.

"This law is targeting the dignity of Sudanese people."

Hamed said she was visiting a government office in Jebel Aulia, just outside Khartoum, on August 27 when a policeman aggressively told her to cover her head.

"He said, 'You are not Sudanese. What is your religion?'"

"I'm Sudanese. I'm Muslim, and I'm not going to cover my head," Hamed replied.

Her dark hair, tinged golden, is braided tight against her scalp with a flare of curls at the back.

Hamed said she was detained for a few hours, charged, and then bailed.

At her first court appearance on September 1, when the case was delayed until later this month, about 100 women and some men gathered to support her.

Many of the protesting women had their heads uncovered, as did Hamed who says she has "never, ever" worn a hijab.

"There are many (who) wear it because they are afraid, not because they want to wear it," she said, speaking at her family's home and dressed in blue jeans which could get her into trouble if she went outside.

Hamed was charged in 2002 for wearing trousers but a lawyer helped her get off with only a fine, rather than a flogging.

Most women do not have the benefit of legal assistance and are too ashamed to tell their families about their arrest under the morality law, leaving them at the mercy of the court and vulnerable to sexual harassment by police, she says.

"Daily, Sudanese women are flogged in the court under this law."

In 2009, the case of journalist Lubna Ahmed al-Hussein led to a global outcry and spotlighted women's rights in Sudan.

Hussein was fined for wearing slacks in public but she refused to pay. She spent one day behind bars until the Sudanese Journalists' Union paid the fine on her behalf.

Others rounded up with her in a restaurant were flogged.

"You are a slut. You want guys to sleep with you. That's why you are wearing like this," another woman, who has been detained twice in Khartoum, remembers police telling her.

"This was very humiliating," said the woman, a professional worker who asked to be identified only as Rania.

She told AFP she was detained but not charged, once for leaving her hair uncovered and a second time for wearing trousers.

"Why women in Sudan cannot have the right to decide what to wear, if they want to cover or not?" Rania asked.

She and Hamed say application of the law is uneven, because at high-end restaurants women can leave their hair exposed without risk of arrest.

Sudan's national police spokesman could not be reached on Sunday for comment.

Asked about the activists' concerns, Rabbie Abdelatti Ebaid, a senior official from the governing National Congress Party, said President Bashir is seeking views from a wide spectrum of society on a new draft constitution for Sudan.

The constitution, from which laws derive, will be designed to take into consideration the will, culture and customs of the people while "respecting the human being", he said.

Hamed hopes the laws will change.

In the meantime she expects to be convicted at trial and says she is ready for any sentence -- including a flogging.

"I take a risk to tell what is happening in our country and I hope that will be the last time a Sudanese woman is arrested by this law."