Sudan is to ban female genital mutilation (FGM), cancel prohibitions against religious conversion from Islam and permit non-Muslims to consume alcohol in a decisive break with almost four decades of hardline Islamist policies, its justice minister has said.
The transitional government which took over after the Sudanese autocrat Omar al-Bashir was toppled last year has faced stiff opposition from conservatives who thrived under the former regime but the prime minister, Abdalla Hamdok, appears to have accelerated the pace of reforms following calls from pro-democracy groups for faster change.
Last week the finance, foreign, energy and health ministers were replaced as part of a reshuffle and Sudan’s police chief and his deputy, both seen by pro-democracy groups as close to Bashir’s regime, were also fired.
Hamdok, who leads the administration of technocrats under an awkward, 39-month power-sharing agreement between the military and civilian groups, said the reshuffle was intended to “advance the performance and execution of the transitional period’s missions and respond to accelerated economic and social changes”.
The new laws announced this weekend mean that Sudan’s non-Muslim minority will no longer be criminalised for drinking alcohol in private, the justice minister, Nasredeen Abdulbari, told state television. For Muslims, the ban will remain. Offenders are typically flogged under Islamic law.
Alcoholic drinks have been banned in Sudan since the former president Jaafar Nimeii introduced Islamic law in 1983, throwing bottles of whisky into the Nile in the capital Khartoum.
Sudan will also ban the practice of “takfir”, by which a Muslim can be declared apostate by another and so subject to a potential death sentence. “The takfir of others became a threat to the security and safety of society,” Abdulbari said.
Campaigners have long sought to impose a ban on FGM. A UN-backed survey in 2014 estimated 87% of Sudanese women and girls between the ages of 15 and 49 have been subjected to FGM. Most undergo an extreme form known as infibulation, which involves the removal and repositioning of the labia to narrow the vaginal opening.
Anyone found guilty of performing FGM will be sentenced to up to three years in prison, according to a copy of the new law.
FGM “degrades the dignity of women”, the justice ministry said in its statement.
During Bashir’s rule some Sudanese clerics said forms of FGM were religiously allowed, arguing that the only debate was over whether it was required or not.
While many were elated by the the law’s long-awaited passing, rights groups warned that the practice remained deeply entrenched in the region’s conservative society and that enforcement posed a steep challenge.
In neighbouring Egypt, for example, where genital cutting was banned in 2008 and elevated to a felony in 2016, a government survey still found that nearly nine out of every 10 Egyptian women had undergone it.
Other veteran activists questioned the timing of the ratification, saying the coronavirus pandemic puts them at a disadvantage since they cannot mobilise awareness campaigns or police training in a country under lockdown.
“Currently there are fuel shortages and long daily power cuts as well as rising infections of Covid-19,” said Nahid Toubia, a leading Sudanese women’s health rights activist specialising in ending FGM. “Communication and people’s mobility are severely hampered. These are not the conditions where advocacy for legislating against FGM is a priority or even possible.”
There have been more than 10,000 cases of Covid-19 confirmed in Sudan and 649 deaths.
Still the move, both symbolic and consequential, has stirred hopes for stronger protection of personal liberties as Sudan moves towards democratic elections scheduled for 2022.
In another change, women will also no longer need a permit from male members of their families to travel with their children.
Though some have criticised the pace of reform, the new government has made a series of moves that have surprised and pleased many international observers.
One was to put Bashir on trial for corruption, and even signal that the former dictator might eventually be transferred to the international criminal court to face charges of genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity for atrocities committed by pro-government forces in Darfur.
In the Darfur conflict, rebels from the territory’s ethnic central and sub-Saharan African community launched an insurgency in 2003, complaining of oppression by the Arab-dominated government in Khartoum.
The government responded with aerial bombings and unleashed militias known as the Janjaweed, which are accused of mass killings and rapes. Up to 300,000 people were killed and 2.7 million were driven from their homes.
Last month one of the most notorious Janjaweed commanders involved in the wars in Darfur was arrested in Central African Republic and handed over to the ICC.
Ali Kushayb, who had been on the run for 13 years, surrendered to authorities in a remote corner of northern CAR near the country’s border with Sudan.
In May, Sudan appointed an ambassador to the US, the first such envoy in more than 20 years.
The introduction of Islamic law by Nimieri was major catalyst for a 22-year-long war between Sudan’s Muslim north and the mainly Christian south that led in 2011 to South Sudan’s secession.
Nimieri shifted away from earlier nationalist, socialist and pan-Arab ideologies towards Islamism in the early 1980s but remained a significant US ally in the region.
Bashir reinforced Islamic law after he took power in 1989, seeking to bolster his support among Sudan’s powerful conservative factions.
Sudanese Christians live mainly in Khartoum and in the Nuba mountains near the South Sudan border. Some Sudanese also follow traditional African beliefs.