Booze blues for Sudan women under sharia

July 27, 2008 12:00 am

, HALFAYA, July 27 – Zakia is a Muslim woman living under Sharia law, stigmatised as a criminal for brewing and selling illicit alcohol to feed the family that her father abandoned outside Sudan’s booming capital.

It is a simple recipe and one cooked up by thousands of women in the squalid camps and impoverished neighbourhoods of those who fled years of war across southern, western and eastern Sudan.

Put dates and baking powder in water. Cover with a plastic bag to fend off the perennial dust, then bury underground for two to five days depending on the season. Heat over a fire and drip the piping hot liquid through a sieve.

Add water.

One to two hours later, 23-year-old Zakia has enough bottled aragi to flog to local labourers for a week, earning enough cash to keep her, her mother, brother, niece and seven sisters in food and clothes.

She got married last year. But the relationship failed and they live apart. With a street attitude akin to the Bronx, she slices through the air with a defiant hand when asked if her husband looks after her financially.

"I don’t even want to see his face," she says, recoiling in distaste, catching a whiff of aragi as she sits back on a plastic chair while her sisters giggle and plait their hair in the corner.

A gangly customer folds himself onto the bed behind, extending a boney arm along the back of her chair, already a bit drunk in the stifling heat of a leisurely Friday in Halfaya, 15 kilometres (nine miles) north of Khartoum.

Zakia puts financial independence and business ethics above religious dictums about not indulging. Besides she does not drink, perhaps wary of turning into one of her drunken, layabout customers.

"It’s just a trade," she says, denying any pang of conscience in profiting from what the Koran forbids.

But it’s a dangerous business. Police raids are frequent. Around 90 percent of inmates in the women’s prison were arrested on suspicion of selling aragi. They complain of beatings, fines, ransacked homes and confiscated booze.

Community workers say police hide behind the cloak of Islam, running alchol rackets with what they confiscate to supplement poor pay. They talk about women sinking into prostitution and sexual favours in return for protection.

The women’s prison in Omdurman, across the Nile from the seat of government, is dank, overcrowded and filthy. Ex-inmates say the food is too disgusting to eat, the wardens cruel and their children left unfed. Jail is a social stigma.

Chol Sakina, a Christian from the south, has been in Khartoum for more than two years. The poorest of the poor, she does not know how old she is and cannot afford to go home. She is too frightened to talk about alcohol.

— ‘Sometimes we only eat flour with salt’ —

She lives with her one-eyed aunt in a mud hut. They say they have not worked since police threw their equipment into the river four months ago.

A stale fish brought by well-wishers lies coated in dust on the ground. Her aunt’s only knife is so blunt she can’t hack through the scales.

"Sometimes we only eat flour with salt," says her aunt, Kadose. "This is poor people’s food," she says tilting a bucket of grey, watery slop into view.

"We’ll die from this food."

Magda Ali, a doctor who lost her government job after the Islamist-backed coup of 1989, helps run a charity that works to lift thousands of alcohol women out of the poverty and ignorance that trapped them into the trade.

"Poverty is everywhere in Sudan. To break the poverty cycle, the best thing is to start skills’ training, such as caring for the elderly, bedside nursing. But the problem is the market does not accept them," says Ali.

Her Al Manar organisation has success stories. They train women in basic health and provide loans to encourage them into different small businesses.

The biggest country in Africa, Sudan is run by an Arab elite looking to the culture and Islam of the Arab world.

But most Sudanese see themselves as African, from a tribal culture in which fermented, or alcohol drinks, are perfectly acceptable.

Indeed many alcohol sellers list policemen, civil servants and middle class professionals among their customers.

"Fermented dates are a culture all over Sudan. It’s not a crime. All over Sudan traditionally people make sherbet, fermented. Boiled dates with herbs. They especially make it for weddings. It is an alcoholic drink," says Ali.

"We have all the culture of Africa but since independence (from Britain in 1956) we have been ruled by a government with an Arab culture. They try to impose things that are not African," she adds.

Viviana John, a teenager who lives in a hut in the shadow of imposing villas built on the back of oil profits, dreams of becoming a doctor.

Her mother hopes to finance those dreams by selling alcohol, earning 300 dollars a month after her husband lost his job. But Viviana lives in fear.

"If the police come here to take her, we’d be in big trouble. If I could find a place to work, may be I could help, but I can’t," she says, babysitting her four siblings while her mother Mary is out buying booze to sell.

"What can she do? My mum doesn’t want to work as a housemaid in Arab people’s houses. She used to work as a tea lady, but a fight broke out. She sort of got hit by mistake and didn’t ever want to work there again," she said.

Her mother, Mary calls the area near the North Khartoum industrial zone where she goes shopping "the centre of the drunkards".

"My son is 17. My daughter 16. One is seven years old, one five and the youngest seven months. I hope to educate them by selling this aragi so that when they grow up, they will feed me," she says in the pitch black of night.

"If you go to jail you find things far worse than just selling drink, such as murder. It’s the least of the vices. But it deserves to be controlled, kept illegal, otherwise people will drink to death."


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