LGBT rights in Sudan

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This article is part of Canvas’ LGBT History Month mini-issue.

Despite many achievements of both previous and on-going LGBT movements in the West, the LGBT population in other parts of the world are still deprived of basic human and social rights. Intolerance towards homosexuality is especially notable in conservative religious countries, and Sudan (North Sudan) is one of the strictest countries that severely oppress their LGBT population by criminalizing all homosexual activities and relationships.

In Sudan, a country governed by the Islamic Sharia law, homosexuality is clearly defined as illegal in the judicial system. According to Article 148 of the 1991 penal code, punishments apply to men or women engaging in any same-sex sexual activities and the punishments include lashing, stoning, imprisonment and often times capital punishment. For homosexual men, first and second offences are punished by lashing and, in some cases, stoning or imprisonment. A third offence can lead to capital punishment. For homosexual women, first offences are usually punished by stoning and thousands of lashes and the death penalty is followed by fourth offences.

In order to control homosexual activities effectively, the law also punishes anyone convicted for anal sex. This applies to both between two men or heterosexual couples. Once convicted, individuals face harsh punishment including lashing, imprisonment and death penalty. First and second convictions are usually punished by a hundred lashes and often times up to five years’ imprisonment. On third convictions, individuals may face death penalty or life imprisonment.

Under this harsh penal system, being homosexual in Sudan is highly risky, and once individuals are labeled as homosexuals, they carry unerasable stigma which brings about lots of serious consequences. In other words, homosexuals not only face severe punishment according to the Islamic law but also experience social rejection which further brings about serious social and economic consequences. Since homosexuality is generally considered as abnormal psychological behaviour and a sin, homosexuals are usually denied educational opportunities and employment. They could also be ostracised from their family and community and often times even murdered by so called ‘honour killings’ which is generally done by close family members. For this reason, many LGBT people in Sudan constantly attempt to correct their sexuality to meet the societal expectations and it is a very rare occurrence when one talks about or reveals his/her real sexuality. Most of them hide their identity even to their friends and family members and they’re usually forced to lead a double life.

To understand this harsh treatment of the LGBT population and the persistent intolerance in Sudanese society it is important to understand the religious factor. Sudan, a country in which 70% percent of the population are Sunni Muslims with the dominance of Maliki school teachings, homosexual activities are understood in the context of the Qur’an. The story of the “people of Lot” (also known as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah) cited in the Qur’an is especially important to explain how homosexuality is perceived and treated in Sudan. According to this story, the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by the wrath of God because their citizens engaged in “lustful” homosexual acts. This story has been used in many Islam teachings, and even though different Islam schools offer different answers to the question of how homosexuality should be treated, homosexuality in the Islamic world is widely viewed as synonymous with deviance, pathology and unforgivable sin that will trigger God’s wrath. Among the schools, the Maliki school which is dominant in the Sudan is well-known for its extreme view on homosexual identities and activities. Its teaching that argues that death should the only answer to homosexuals explains the current treatment and the status of the LGBT population in the country. Under the name of religion and god, the society denies the existence of LGBT population and continuously controls individual’s sexuality both through state law and shame in the private sphere.

Despite all the difficulties, Sudanese LGBT community exists. Recently, a couple of LGBT associations were founded. Freedom Sudan and Rainbow Sudan, founded in 2006 and 2012 respectively, work both online and offline to provide an organized way to enhance the rights of the LBGT population in Sudan. Despite the government’s hostile reaction and the potential danger they face, they remain firm to encourage dialogues related to LGBT issues and provide sexual education, psychological and emotional support and protection to the marginalized LGBT community.

Written by Chloe E Lee

Further reading:

Amado, L. E (2009) Sexuality and Sexual Rights in Muslim Societies, Development, 52, p.59-63

Anderson, B (2007) The politics of Homosexuality in Africa, Africana, 1(1), p. 123-136

Ungar, M (2000) State Violence and Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (lgbt) Rights, New Political Science, 22(1), p.61-75

Shawka, R. A (2011) Quietly, Sudan’s underground gay movement grows online, The Niles, [Online] Available at: <http://www.theniles.org/articles/?id=1038> [Last accessed on 17February 2013].