…On my way back from lunch with a friend.
I, wearing jeans and a red shirt with a long grey cardigan on top; her, in a long skirt, long-sleeved top and scarf on her head.
The rickshaw dropped us off by the office. Across the street, a large truck was parked, with two police officers standing beside it, talking to a young woman dressed not unlike myself; Jeans, white round-neck top, black cardigan. While one officer was “loading” a sit shai (tea lady) dressed in a tobe (traditional garment Sudanese women wear) onto the truck, the other was having a somewhat heated conversation with the young lady in jeans, pointing at her top, gesticulating that her pants were tight, that her top was too low-cut.
I watched along with my friend, stunned, wondering why the sit shai was being arrested if the issue was attire. My friend turns to me, says, “I think you should go in the office”. I didn’t move.
A man standing a few feet in front of us heard our voices, and turned just as my friend took off her scarf to give to me. His eyes lit up, his head shot back to face front and he began to yell:
“Ta3alu arfa3u alitnein dail! Come get these two over here! Over here over here!”
I shoved the scarf back to my friend; she repeats: “Go. Now!” and I start to move towards my office building, giggly uncontrollably, even though there really is nothing funny about what’s happening. In actuality, I’m giggling because I’m scared, too scared to move any faster than a slow walk. I think: good, running will only attract more attention to myself. But attract attention to what? I’m not doing anything!
The man is still yelling for the police to come arrest us. I look across the street, and one officer has turned to see what the yelling and commotion is about. I look around me, and the entire street is staring at me. I decide to walk faster.
I enter the office building; I can still hear the man yelling after us (“they went in that building!”). My friend tells me to go up to the office and wait there. She stands at the entrance, watching. I tell her to come inside.
“It’s okay, they can’t do shit to me. I’m dressed ‘properly'”, she says.
“Dude, you think they give a damn? That guy was yelling at them to arrest us both, and they probably would just because you’re with me”. She continues to watch as the truck, now occupied by the tea lady and the young woman in jeans, drives off. “They’re leaving…. they’re driving really slow, though, like they’re scoping the place out for more people to arrest”.
We go up to the office. My heart is pounding. “Holy crap. What just happened? No, seriously, what just happened? And what the hell was that guy’s problem? What happened to ‘protect your womenfolk’? Did you see that crazed look of excitement in his eye? Like he was going to get a kick out of our arrest!”
It’s been a while since women were harassed by police for wearing pants. The government has other things to worry about, and so they cut us a little slack in the fashion department. But I’m not buying that. The police have shown that it’s not about enforcing the law, but rather about entertaining themselves. Just like a few weeks ago when Military Police grabbed random young men off the streets and shaved their heads; for no reason, just because. Just like police officers stop young men at night to ask them what they’re doing out of their homes, to pick fights with them, and if the young men talk back, plant drugs in their pockets and book them for the night. Just like traffic police, when they’re bored or low on cash, pull people over and “exert their power” by blackmail, or, if you’re lucky enough to be a pretty young lady (or any lady, really), spend a few minutes flirting. If you don’t comply/flirt back, the face changes, the voice morphing into a bark, and you’re slapped with a fine.
Tip for the ladies: glossy lips help to smooth the process of getting pulled over. <shudder>
But I’m not concerned with all that. I expect it. Almost 5 years of living in Sudan and among the lessons I’ve learned are to always have an “emergency scarf” on hand, to fear the police, to never talk back, not to open my car window beyond a crack and, if possible, not to stop for police at all.
So I’m not going to address the reasons why police have suddenly decided to arrest women for wearing pants again, or the reasons why they did it in the first place. I am, however, going to address the fact that society has not only forsaken us “pants wearing jezebels”, but offers us up on a silver platter – and all for what? Is it for the greater good? For a “cleaner, more pure” society? Or is it for their own personal enjoyment?
What that random man in the street did – yelling for police to come arrest me for wearing pants – goes against everything I was taught about Sudanese men. For years, I listened to the rhetoric: that I will never find as respectful, as courteous, as loyal, and as chivalrous as a Sudanese man. That Sudanese men stand up for their women, protect them, provide sutra for them, even when they’re wrong. And yet, here I am, on Sudanese soil, faced with the exact opposite of everything I was taught, in the form of one Average Osman.
Yelling in the street for police to come arrest me.
For wearing pants.
Like somehow, my pants are the concentrate of all the evil and sinful ways of the world. As if to say that by wearing pants, I am wearing a badge of unabashed honor, a livestream of every sordid deed I’ve ever done in my life. Like my pants are giving off rays of whoredom and heathenism that will infect everyone around me and soon we’ll all be caught in a downward spiral of jean-themed orgies, public nudity and prostitution.
Because that’s the real problem – pants. It’s not that a violently oppressed people will find ways to do the things they are not allowed to do. It’s not that prostitutes are actually wearing anything but pants – burkas, niqabs, and other “modest” attire – to safely go about their unlawful business. It’s not that people are engaging in these unlawful acts claimed to be incited by “inappropriate attire” (read: pants) in their homes, offices, and rented apartments (or as I like to call them, The Timeshare Love Dens of Riyad).