Earlier this month a Sudanese court dropped charges against a group of women who were caught wearing trousers at a party. If convicted they could have faced 40 lashes and a fine.
But often women face trial without legal assistance at spontaneous courts where their fate is determined at the whim of judges, according to the study.
“In terms of persecuting women for their clothing – it’s a huge issue. Public order laws are used against women whom the authorities want to silence, including human rights defenders and students,” said Carla Ferstman, who co-authored the report.
“There are economic incentives for maintaining this system because of the high fines. You have huge numbers of people hauled before the courts who will pay to avoid the lashings.
“It’s like in the UK you have traffic wardens walking around looking for drivers who have parked in the wrong spot. This is being done in the same way to fuel certain budgets.”
Raids are frequently carried out where police force their way into private homes in search of alcohol, the study found, or to arrest individuals for inappropriate behaviour or dress.
One interviewee told researchers: “Police officers climb over walls and invade houses with no respect for privacy. We are psychologically traumatised by the raids and the inhumane treatment we face.”
Female alcohol and tea sellers, students and activists, former detainees and prisoners in Khartoum State were interviewed between August and December 2016 for the study, Criminalisation of women in Sudan: a need for fundamental reform.
The report concludes that Sudan’s public order rules, which enforce strict moral codes, have been further extended and continue to be used in an arbitrary manner to oppress women.
“We are calling for these laws to be abolished. The atmosphere they create is one of fear and self-censorship as women are never aware of when or for what reason they might be arrested,” said Ferstman, the director of Redress.
More than 70% of all public order cases involve women, according to a recent survey by Sajeenat, an advocacy group which focuses on the rights of female prisoners in Sudan. In 60% of these cases the punishment came in the form of a hefty fine.
Those who cannot afford to pay face lashings or imprisonment, which can lead to further abuses while in detention both by guards and other prisoners.