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As a student, the only way Amira Osman could pass through her university gates in Khartoum was to put on a headscarf. “It was a visa,” she says. Either side of the gate, she took it off.

Osman’s mother, like her grandmother, never wore the hijab. After Sudan became a republic in 1956, liberated from Anglo-Egyptian rule, Sudanese women successfully campaigned for equal rights on pay, pensions and the vote. Like most Sudanese, the Osmans are Muslim. But while many women in Sudan are happy to wear the headscarf, it has never been part of the Osmans’ family tradition.

When an Islamist-backed coup brought Omar al-Bashir to power in 1989, women no longer had the choice. His regime made it compulsory to wear the hijab to enter government universities and public buildings, and a tightly bound headscarf became Osman’s ticket in the mid-1990s to her engineering degree.

More than two decades later al-Bashir is still in power, though under great strain, and 35-year-old Osman, who runs her own computer hardware company, has become an international cause célèbre for women’s rights. “I don’t need a ‘visa’ now, and I don’t believe the headscarf will protect me from anything,” she says, alluding to the belief that the veil wards off sexual attention from men.

Campaigners for women’s rights in Sudan – who battle not only against public indecency laws but also to raise the legal age of marriage from 10, to end female genital mutilation and polygamy, and to make rape of adults a criminal offence – have concluded they must broaden their quest if they are to achieve their aims. Many now want regime change and some are prepared to risk detention, torture and death to make it happen.

This September, when thousands took to the streets of Khartoum to demand an end to the regime, Osman was among them. Security forces opened fire, shooting dead more than 200 people (a figure the state says is exaggerated), and detaining hundreds more.

In an upmarket neighbourhood of Khartoum, Osman’s home is an extraordinary expression of all that has shaped Sudan’s identity. African drums hang from the ceiling, Arabian pots stand across the tiled floor and retro fabrics decorate walls beside gold-painted furniture. Osman, proffering a cocktail glass of freshly frothed lime juice, is in a scoop-necked blue T-shirt and has dark pencil around her eyes, burgundy lips, dark purple nails and a gold nose ring.

Over the years she has been repeatedly arrested by the police for her clothing “crimes” – no veil, wearing trousers and showing bare arms, all of which are considered indecent. (Sharia law is imposed and policed selectively in Sudan, dependent as much on a woman’s status as the region she lives in or the whims of officers.)

Sometimes Osman paid a fine, sometimes a bribe, sometimes she sweet-talked her way out of trouble by giving the police her phone number. If a police officer later called, she berated them for assuming she was promiscuous.

“Some people here have this saying that a woman should not leave the house unless it’s because she’s going to the mortuary,” says Osman, whose father died when she was one year old. Raised by women, she took on everything from haggling at the market to maintenance at home. She practises pistol marksmanship for sport.

On August 27, she put a stop to her politics of accommodation. Osman was walking to a government office in Jebel Aulia, south of Khartoum, to petition for the return of her father’s farmland (stolen, she says, by the state), when a policeman stopped her. “He told me: ‘Don’t look me in the eye and don’t talk to me in a loud voice. And when I tell you to cover, you cover, because I’m a man.’ After that he said I wasn’t a Sudanese, I wasn’t a Muslim. I snapped – I’m older, I’m more experienced and I know my rights well.”

The police had not yet confiscated her phone, so she managed to send her lawyer’s telephone number to her sister by WhatsApp, and post a Facebook status update saying she was being taken into custody, creating an immediate stir. When the police threatened (euphemistically) to rape her, she raged against them, quoting her grandmother’s favourite saying: “So long as my eyeballs are moist [her grandmother’s proxy for being alive], you shall not touch a hair on my head.”

Now, like several women before her, she faces 40 lashes if a delayed court case goes against her. She has declined to pay a fine, saying the sum is beyond the means of most women, even if within her own. In 2008 the authorities arrested more than 40,000 women for similar indecencies.

At a women’s university in the capital, some students regularly wear tight trousers and go without headscarves. Most female lecturers do not wear the veil. “Separation of the sexes is not part and parcel of our culture, not like in Saudi Arabia,” says a university professor who did not wish to be named. In the September uprisings teargas canisters were sent hurtling by the security forces into the grounds of the university, where more than 1,000 students had staged a protest. Activists say women are targets in this battle precisely because they are becoming more of a threat. “Women are on the frontline working for the downfall of the regime,” says the professor.

It is not yet clear if the government wants to drop Osman’s case or schedule another hearing but the personal impact is already significant. Her stance and the publicity around it has seen her business fall away – four of her six long-term customers have cancelled their contracts. She rarely leaves the house to see friends lest there is any damage to them by association. “If [the police] flog me, I will take it,” she says. “How much it hurts depends on the policeman; how high he raises his hand. But I’m not going to wear the hijab and I’m not going to leave my country.”

Osman is not representative of the vast majority of Sudanese women. She is privileged by wealth and education, and has the support of international human rights groups. Women in Darfur, South Kordofan and Blue Nile states on the periphery of Sudan are caught up in aerial bombing campaigns directed by the government in Khartoum that few ever hear about. “Poor women don’t have the platform to get their voices heard,” says Osman. “I hope I can do something for me and my country; to make life good and help other women.”

Another prominent figure in this growing cohort of well-educated female campaigners is Entisar Ahmed al-Agali, an opposition politician who protested against the regime’s campaign to popularise the hijab – and was promptly arrested. “I thought it was ridiculous,” says al-Agali of government cartoons issued at the time, showing women without the headscarf being kerb-crawled. Now 45, she has been imprisoned three times since, most recently for 87 days earlier this year, 75 of which were spent in solitary confinement. “My first fight was for women’s rights but I don’t think it will be solved unless the whole regime is changed,” says al-Agali. “We can’t live our lives unless it goes away.”

She was arrested this year after a late-night high-speed car chase soon after her return from the Ugandan capital Kampala in January. There she and others met the leaders of the Sudan Revolutionary Front, a coalition of rebel groups who fight Sudan’s wars in the margins. “I think [the authorities] thought we were planning armed struggle against central Sudan,” she says. “But the meeting leaked all over the internet, so there was no need to arrest me; they had all the information they needed.”

Al-Agali drove me by night to the spot where she was arrested, around the corner from a row of state security buildings. “Men had been watching my house for two months, parked every day outside in a car, so when I recognised them in the rear-view mirror I knew they were chasing me,” she says. After accelerating down an eight-lane carriageway near the airport, security officers rammed their car into hers. One of her tyres burst and armed men surrounded the vehicle. She fell on the horn to sound the alarm – she wanted witnesses so late at night – but instead they changed her tyre, got in and made her drive to a building Sudanese refer to as “Guantánamo”. She was interrogated without sleep and transferred to the high-security section of the women’s prison, where she spent her solitary confinement in the company of snails, worms and cockroaches in a small, hot cell. “I would try to kill [the insects] with the bottom of my shoe,” says al-Agali, today wearing a traditional Sudanese shawl of blue and green, perched far back on her head.

In prison she cried twice, first when she saw her family and then in her final week, when she was moved into a cell with a graphic artist from Darfur: “Her only crime was that she was from Darfur.”

Al-Agali, like Osman, belongs to the political elite – Osman is a communist; al-Agali a Nasserist – part of the clunky old political divides that make leftism the only obvious route to a secular state. And they may be outpaced by developments on the street. September was the first time the poor and marginalised working classes triggered mass protests, deluging the streets when the state reduced fuel subsidies and hiked customs duties, doubling the price of petrol and cooking oil.

Nevertheless, al-Agali and Osman have demonstrated their power to disrupt the regime at the very top. “Sudanese women are suffering more than anybody else as a group,” says al-Agali. “After these days of solitary imprisonment I’m now more powerful – and even more committed.”

Katrina Manson is the FT’s east Africa correspondent

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