In the US and Sudan, women face similar hurdle in seeking justice

The clock is ticking for 19-year-old Noura Hussein. Last Thursday, Hussein, who was forced into marriage at age 15, ...

Posted: May 17, 2018 8:14 AM
Updated: May 17, 2018 8:14 AM

The clock is ticking for 19-year-old Noura Hussein. Last Thursday, Hussein, who was forced into marriage at age 15, was sentenced to death in a courtroom in Omdurman, Sudan. Hussein stabbed and killed her husband when he tried to rape her.

At the court hearing, the husband's family refused to forgive Hussein or accept blood money, a legal option that would have allowed Hussein to go free. The judge imposed the death penalty, giving her lawyer two weeks to file an appeal. Hussein's lawyer says he is facing an intimidation campaign allegedly waged by Sudan's National Intelligence Security Service, which does not like the attention the case is garnering.

Hussein's case, and the ghastly punishment imposed on a woman whose only crime was defending herself against rape, has since gone viral under the hashtag #JusticeForNoura. A Change.org petition has over half a million signatures, and human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Equality Now have issued statements demanding a pardon. Much of this activism highlights the fact that Sudan does not criminalize marital rape and that the outcome in Hussein's case would have been less unjust had she been elsewhere.

But this is untrue.

The United States regularly imposes long prison sentences on women accused of killing the men who physically, emotionally and psychologically abused them. According to the American Civil Liberties Union, up to 90% of women in prison who were convicted of killing men had been abused by them. Nor are they always spared the death penalty that hangs over Hussein's head. A 2012 study found that of the 61 women serving time on death rows in various states, one-fifth had been convicted of killing an intimate partner.

Marital rape, while criminalized in the United States, also remains a vastly under-reported and under-prosecuted crime. According to the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence, 14% of American women will be raped by their husbands. Despite this, the coalition says, an alarming number of Americans do not believe marital rape is even rape.

Nor are these tales from an America that existed long ago. On the very day that Hussein was sentenced in Sudan, the state of Ohio charged Claudia Hoerig with the murder of her husband, after she confessed to killing him because she claims she was tired of mental and sexual abuse. (Her husband's family and friends deny there was any abuse.) She is being held in jail on $10 million bond. If she is convicted, and many scores of women who kill their abusers are indeed convicted by a jury of their peers, her only way out would be to hope for a pardon from the governor of Ohio.

Things were not always quite so bad for the Noura Husseins of the United States. There was a time when it looked like they were on the cusp of a legal revolution. In 1979, Dr. Lenore Walker first put forth Battered Woman Syndrome as a theory underscoring the particular effects that domestic violence has on a woman's psyche. Called as an expert witness in Ibn-Tamas v. United States, a case in which a wife was accused of killing her husband, Walker testified that the accused did indeed exhibit symptoms similar to the 110 women she had studied, highlighting the feelings of helplessness and fear that push women to stay in abusive relationships.

The case was the first in which a jury was permitted to consider expert testimony of what an abuse victim believed to be true and the question of why a woman would kill rather than simply leave. While Hussein was literally "forced" to marry, women suffering Battered Woman Syndrome experience implicit terror that prevents them from leaving.

But critics were already champing at the bit, eager to shred the battered woman defense. No sooner than it was permitted as evidence in the Ibn-Tamas case, critics cast the admission of such testimony as an open encouragement to violent self-help. Exonerating women on the basis of Battered Woman Syndrome was, they argued, equal to telling all women with violent intimate partners that it was OK to take the law into their own hands and kill their abusers without fear of punishment. To women who wanted to kill, it was an avenue of getting away with murder -- with just a bit of pretense at being abused.

The exact number of women serving time in US prisons for killing their abusive partners is unknown (the prison service does not collect data on this), but the critics of Battered Woman Syndrome have won a partial victory. While most state courts in the United States permit some evidence of Battered Woman Syndrome today, all sorts of restrictions and limitations have been tacked on to the issue and its treatment state-to-state is far from uniform.

In Indiana, for example, the Indiana Supreme Court ruled that evidence of Battered Woman Syndrome could only be admitted as part of an insanity defense. To be an abused woman who kills in Indiana, then, is to be a completely crazy woman. If Hussein's case was tried under this law, she would have to prove she was insane at the moment she stabbed her husband. Success or exoneration in that scenario would likely still require her to be treated at a psychiatric facility for a considerable amount of time.

The #JusticeforNoura hashtag has attracted attention and ire because of its draconian details and likely because it imagines misogyny as a faraway crime, its egregiousness a special species of Sudanese and Islamic laws. Many assume that a young woman like Hussein would never face such a fate in the United States, which is imagined as far different from Sudan, which, in the words of Yasmeen Hassan from Equality Now, "is an extremely patriarchal place and gender norms are very strongly enforced."

So, it seems, is the United States. American juries and judges, far from Sudan and not subject to Islamic law, regularly paint abused women as scheming assassins, their actions motivated by money or anger, rather than helplessness.

Hussein deserves more than a hashtag -- she deserves justice and a transnational and intersectional movement underscoring that it is not just Sudanese men or Muslim men or African men who impose draconian and cruel punishments on women. Hussein's sisters in American prisons are also condemned because they were brave enough to save themselves. They sit and wait, just like she does, for pardons or clemency or the fruition of some feminist awakening that will save them.

In Sudan, Hussein faces death. In the United States, she would likely face a lifetime in jail. The world, it appears, has little room for women who refuse to submit.

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