By Jackie Hansen, Women’s rights campaigner
Meriam Yehya Ibrahim is a Sudanese citizen sentenced to 100 lashes and death by hanging. She was convicted by a Sudanese court for marrying someone supposedly of another faith and for refusing to renounce her faith. In Sudan, a Christian cannot marry a Muslim. Meriam’s mother is Christian and her father is Muslim. She was raised in the Christian faith. Because her father is Muslim, the Sudanese government considers Meriam to be Muslim and therefore will not recognize her marriage to a Christian.
So is Meriam’s case all about freedom of religion?
In part. But Meriam’s case is really about being a woman.
It is fair to say that Meriam was likely arrested and convicted because she is a woman. Both women and men can be charged with apostasy–the failure to denounce one’s faith. But in reality it is overwhelmingly women who are charged with apostasy. There are no known cases of people being executed for apostasy in Sudan since the 1991 Criminal Code was enacted. But people have been charged with apostasy and had their charges dropped or their convictions overturned after recanting their faith. The unequal application of the apostasy law (which, by the way, is illegal under international law), is representative of the unequal power balance between women and men in Sudan. It is a tool used by men to control women who step outside of the patterns of behaviour deemed acceptable for a woman.
Meriam has taken a stand. By refusing to recant her faith she has publicly taken a stand about who she loves and what she believes. And for this she has been sentenced to death; she is a ‘threat’ to the Sudanese state. What is happening to Meriam is consistent with a broad pattern of women’s human rights abuses in Sudan. Abuses committed to deter women from taking a stand in the public sphere, and for punishing those who do. In Sudan, a woman can be stopped by police, sent before a judge, and sentenced to a public flogging for wearing pants or leaving hair uncovered. Amnesty International has documented cases in Sudan where where women who speak out and protest have been subjected to “forced virginity tests.”
So who is the woman at the center of this case? Who is Meriam Yehya Ibrahim?
Meriam is many things. She is a doctor, an accidental activist, a woman, a wife, a mother.
She is a person going through something that is truly awful. Meriam is imprisoned with two small children, was forced to give birth in shackles, and is being kept alive until her infant is weaned. She is the victim of a society where women and men are most definitely not equal.
But Meriam married for love and is strong in her faith and isn’t afraid to stand up for who she loves and what she believes, no matter what the cost. She was given four days to recant her faith and save her life and she refused–she remained true to her beliefs. Meriam is someone with strength and conviction who continues to bravely stand up for her rights each and every day in an extremely challenging environment. And by staying true to herself she is making a political statement. She is, whether or not it’s intentional, taking a stand on the rights of women, and the right to freedom of thought, religion, and expression in Sudan.
Whomever Meriam is to you, she is someone in need of international support and solidarity. We know that the international campaign to raise awareness of her conviction and call for her immediate and unconditional release has garnered attention all around the world. We know that the government of Sudan has taken notice. And now we need to keep up our activism, and keep up the pressure, until it becomes so great that she is released.