Sudan legalises alcohol for non-Muslims for first time in 40 years

Sovereign council introduces new laws allowing women to travel alone

A 23-year-old Sudanese woman Zakia holds a glass of her home-brewed alcoholic drink in Halfaya near the capital Khartoum. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty

A 23-year-old Sudanese woman Zakia holds a glass of her home-brewed alcoholic drink in Halfaya near the capital Khartoum. Photograph: Khaled Desouki/AFP via Getty

 

Sudan has legalised the drinking of alcohol by non-Muslims for the first time in nearly 40 years.

Alcohol has been illegal in Sudan since 1983, when then president Jaafar Nimeiri introduced Sharia law – reportedly dumping whiskey into the River Nile to mark the occasion.

Roughly 3 per cent of the north African country’s population of roughly 43 million people are not Muslims. The new law permits them to drink alcohol in private only.

Alcohol has been available in Sudan in recent years and could be purchased with cash – commonly in dark alleys or corners, similar to a Western drug deal. Illegal gin was made from fermented dates and known as “araqi”. If caught flouting the ban, a citizen could be punished by flogging.

In Khartoum, Sudanese elites and foreigners would both go to weekly Thursday night parties in the British embassy, where alcohol was allowed, though it was necessary to get your name added to a guest list the day before to be permitted entry.

Leadership change

The updated rules on alcohol are among a raft of developments that arise from a change in leadership last year, when the dictator Omar al-Bashir – in power between 1989 and 2019 – was deposed following months of protests. The country is now being led by a sovereign council, made up of both military and civilian figures. The new laws were announced by Sudan’s new justice minister, Nasredeen Abdulbari.

Other measures mean women would be allowed to travel alone or with their children, he said. Previously, women needed permits from male relatives, and even foreign women could have problems checking into a hotel without the guardianship of a man.

Sudan has also repealed the death sentence for leaving Islam, which was listed as “stoning to death” under the 1991 Criminal Law. Sarah Haider, co-founder of the Ex-Muslims of North America organisation, called this “amazing news”. Mr Abdulbari said this law had become “a threat to the security and safety of society”.

FGM

On Friday, lawmakers ratified a ban on female genital mutilation – where some or all of a woman’s clitoris and labia is removed. Nearly nine out of 10 Sudanese women have been subjected to FGM, according to UN figures. In a statement, the justice ministry said FGM “undermines the dignity of women”.

“This practice is not only a violation of every girl child’s rights, it is harmful and has serious consequences for a girl’s physical and mental health,” Abdullah Fadil, the Unicef representative in the capital, Khartoum, told AFP.

However, there was scepticism among some about whether the new changes and freedoms will actually make a difference on the ground.

Earlier this month, thousands of Sudanese people took to the streets to demand faster reforms and a clearer path to democracy.

A Christian refugee in Khartoum, who asked not to be named for security reasons, told The Irish Times he didn’t trust the new laws. “They are proclaimed to get attention from the world,” he said. Even if it was officially allowed, for example, he worried that “extremists might take an action” against anyone who was known to drink alcohol.