difficult problems

The recent (lack of) publicity about a young Sudanese woman leaves me wondering, not for the first time, about the western world’s priorities.

The reported facts are fairly consistent; a 26y old Sudanese doctor, Meriam, with a Muslim father, but brought up as an Orthodox Christian by her Christian mother, married a Christian. They have a 20 month old son, and Meriam is now eight months pregnant with their second child. It seems that a wedding photograph somehow brought all this to the attention of the authorities, and Meriam has been accused of apostasy (from the Muslim faith of her absent father, which she has never practiced), and adultery, since her marriage to a Christian man is not recognised. Sudan has practiced Sharia law for the last 30 years, and the penalty for apostasy is death; that for adultery is flogging, although in 2012 another young Sudanese woman, Leila, was sentenced to death by stoning after being convicted of adultery.

Meriam refused to ‘recant’ within a four day period of grace, so is now on death row with her toddler, and will give birth in prison. I (luckily) cannot imagine what conditions are like in Sudanese prisons, let alone what facilities there are for childbirth. Meriam’s husband is not allowed to see either his wife or his son, since Sudan does not recognise that he has any rights to do so. Neither will he be able to see his new child when it is born. It is reported that 100 lashes will be administered to Meriam once the postpartum period is over (the duration seems a little unclear), and that she will then be required to nurse her new baby until it is two, at which point she will be hanged. What will happen to her two children is unclear and perhaps better not thought about.

The Church of England, our established church, whose archbishop is head of the worldwide Anglican church, has, at least publicly, been remarkably low key in its response. One can but hope that more is going on behind the scenes.

A CNN report suggests that the verdict may not be final, and also adds the information that it was Meriam’s brother who informed the authorities of her ‘apostasy’.

There seems to be some hope, from past precedent, that the death sentence will not be carried out, but in some ways this seems to me beside the point. Obviously it matters very much that Meriam doesn’t die, but there are other important issues. How hard is the UK government campaigning, along with other EU countries, for the abolition of the death penalty worldwide? We have never, as far as I know, suggested any sort of trade or other sanctions against countries using the death penalty, presumably because it would have a catastrophic impact on our relationships with the US, Russia and China. How much does the UK government feel willing or able to intervene in situations like that of Meriam? (The answer is not at all – it seems pretty reluctant to intervene on behalf of its own citizens caught up in potentially capital offences elsewhere.)

How do the Christian churches around the world respond? This is really difficult, because there is a very difficult tightrope to walk between inflaming anti-Islam feelings (in little need of inflaming in many western countries), and promoting the Christian values of love, forgiveness, peace, and the sanctity of life – all values shared by Islam, if not by the interpretation of Islam manifest in Sharia law. One might as well say that Christian values could be interpreted through Old Testament law (there are some particularly unpleasant verses about dashing babies to death against rocks). There is also little room for Christian superiority when Christian fundamentalists maintain support for the death penalty, condemn homosexuality, and hold equally uncompromising attitudes towards women, abortion, dignity in dying, and other controversial issues.

Perhaps what I was most surprised at about Meriam’s case was the lack of general awareness about it in the UK. I tweeted twice about it, and again in response to Amnesty International’s campaign ( part of its ongoing consistent opposition to the death penalty under any circumstances). I had a number of retweets, but also more than one reply asking why this was not front page news. It makes you wonder yet again how the media in a free democratic country uses its power.

Yet another disturbing aspect of this case is the blatant inequality between men and women. Meriam is accused of apostasy against the religion of her father. She stands accused by her brother. Clearly both apostasy and adultery charges can be brought against men, and men have lost their lives for both, but Sudan remains one of the world’s patriarchal countries. Ironically I am currently reading a novel set in England at the time the Suffragette movement was gathering momentum, and it was clear that there were plenty of ‘society’ women of influence who were totally opposed to the Suffragettes. Many patriarchal societies are maintained through the support – either tacit or overt – of groups of women.

Median and others like her need the support of the global community, and women need the support of other women in the fight for genuine equality.

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