Letter from Africa: Sudan's fashion police shave off afros

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sketch of soldiers shaving off an afro

In our series of letters from African journalists, Zeinab Mohammed Salih looks at the contentious issue of fashion in the conservative, Islamic country of Sudan.

In the last few weeks social media users in Sudan have been horrified by videos and pictures of young men's afros being shaved off by the former Janjaweed forces in some of the poor areas of Khartoum, the capital.

The government-backed Janjaweed militia, accused of carrying out atrocities in the western region of Darfur in the early 2000s, now have a new role.

They were accused of riding camels and horses into villages seen as sympathetic to rebels, burning them to the ground, killing the men and raping the women.

Now renamed the Rapid Support Forces, they have been tasked with tracking down traffickers and stopping migrants heading to Europe - a role funded by the European Union (EU), although the EU has denied that any money goes to the ex-Janjaweed.

It is not entirely clear why the former fighters have now taken to shaving off afros, but the hairstyles tend to be associated in conservative religious and social circles with people who are "deviant".

Flogged for wearing trousers

Dress is indeed a touchy subject in Sudan, where fashion can get you into trouble.

The actions of the former Janjaweed fighters reminded people of the Public Order Police, who often arrest and flog women for wearing what they see as indecent clothes, like trousers.

They also arrest tea ladies and other vulnerable women for working in public places.

The Public Order Police are controversial in Sudan, yet some Sudanese hold similarly conservative views on a women's position in society and how they should look.

They want to see women covering their heads and wearing long skirts or abayas - long black robes.

They were set up under the current regime of President Omar al-Bashir, who came to power in an Islamist-backed coup in 1989. He brought back Sharia, or Islamic law, which had been suspended in 1985.

Amal Habbani, a rights activist with the group No to Women's Oppression, told the UK-based Guardian newspaper that between 43,000 and 50,000 women are arrested and flogged every year by public order police because of their clothing.

A few days before the afro outrage, opinion was divided on the way a former TV presenter and women's rights campaigner responded to a prominent imam and Islamic law scholar who said sexual harassment and child marriage could both be justified.

They were taking part in a debate on DW TV about what women in Sudan want.

The singer who took on the imam

We'am Shawogi told the imam that he should discuss things like equal pay instead of focusing on a woman's appearance, and that what was in a woman's wardrobe was her own choice.

Some people on social media were angered at what they saw as Ms Shawogi's disrespectful attitude towards the imam - but others said her tone reflected the frustration many women feel about what they see as an outdated outlook.

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In the wake of the TV debate, Ms Shawogi received death threats from Sudanese men on social media for expressing her forthright opinion.

The 28-year-old, who also runs a cafe that has been a hub for artists and musicians in Khartoum, had to go into hiding.

The debate has not tempered the actions of the Public Order Police, who last month arrested singer Mona Magdi Salim after people shared pictures of her on social media singing at a concert in Khartoum wearing trousers.

She has been charged with dressing indecently and faces punishment by flogging if found guilty.

According to a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey last year, Sudan was one of the five worst countries when it came to women's rights in the Arab world - coming 17th out of 22.

'Humiliated for years'

Winni Omer is a journalist and rights campaigner who is another example of a vocal woman in Sudan facing persecution.

She was arrested last year while walking on the street with her friends for wearing indecent clothing - although she was wearing a long skirt at the time. In the end, she was found not guilty.

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A few months later, the police arrested her again, with others, while visiting her friend. They were all accused of being prostitutes and banned from travelling outside the country.

After spending the past year or so in and out of court, Ms Omer managed get permission last month to leave the country for her postgraduate studies in human rights abroad. Her case is still pending.

The long history of the Public Order Police in Sudan shows that the establishment is afraid of any form of change, regarding it as a threat to their authority.

Now it seems that young men expressing their individuality by wearing afros, dreadlocks or low-hanging trousers may also be facing the same fate as women who have been humiliated for years for wanting to break with Islamic and Arabic traditions.

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