Two Women : An Authority and An Activist

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Women are generally referred to as the fairer sex, and the reason behind this oft-quoted dictum lies in the basic belief that women are more genteel than their masculine counterparts. There are many women around the world who have worked hard all their lives for the betterment of the standards of livelihood of others; many others have stood up for human rights on a local, or a global scale. The multitudinous tides of feminism throw up the names of various people who work for the benefit of the rest of the world. Margaret Chan and Lubna Hussein are two such women.



Dr. Chan, who joined the Hong Kong Department of Health in 1978, where her career in public health began, obtained her medical degree from the University of Western Ontario in Canada. Appointed the director of health for Hong Kong in 1994, she introduced initiatives to improve communicable disease surveillance and response.

Her efforts were able to succesfully enhance training for public health professionals thereby establising better local and international collaboration.

In her nine-year tenure, she managed outbreaks of avian influenza and severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS). We learn that “her performance during the SARS outbreak, which ultimately led to 299 deaths, attracted harsh criticism from the Legislative Council of Hong Kong and many SARS victims and their relatives.She was criticised by the Legislative Council for her passiveness, for believing in misleading information shared by the mainland authority, and did not act swiftly.”

The SARS expert committee however, established by the Hong Kong Government to assess its handling of the crisis, concluded that the failure was not Chan’s fault, but due to the structure of Hong Kong’s health care system, where the separation of the hospital from the public health authority caused obtsacles in the process of data sharing.

Dr. Margaret Chan joined the World Health Organization (WHO) in 2003, and was appointed to the post of director-general in 2006. “What matters most to me is people. And two specific groups of people in particular. I want us to be judged by the impact we have on the health of the people of Africa, and the health of women”, she said.

Appointed to the post in November of 2006, her term ran through for six years, ending in June 2012. In June 2009 she became the first WHO chief in 41 years to announce a worldwide pandemic when swine flu swept across the globe. Although the Council of Europe accused the World Health Organisation of having “gambled away” public confidence by overstating the dangers of the flu pandemic, Chan was unrepentent and quoted that “it was the right call”.

In an interview, Chan said, “Countries want capacity, not charity. They want a hand up, not a hand-out. Good development assistance is a mutual undertaking, not the generous and warm-hearted giving by the wealthy to the poor and needy. It accepts the recipient country as an equal partner.”

On 18 January 2012, Chan was nominated by the WHO’s Executive Board for a second term and was confirmed by the World Health Assembly on 23 May 2012. Her second term began on the 1st of July, 2012 and continues upto 30 June, 2017.



“In Sudan, women who wear trousers must be flogged!” she quoted to The Observer, with her eyes widening at the thought. “Next week I will stand trial in a Sudanese court, charged along with 12 other women with committing an “indecent act” – wearing trousers in a public place. I will face up to 40 lashes and an unlimited fine if I am convicted of breaching Article 152 of Sudanese law, which prohibits dressing indecently in public. As an employee of the UN I was offered immunity, and the chance to escape trial, but I chose to resign from the UN so that I could face the Sudanese authorities and make them show to the world what they consider justice to be”, she said.

The Article 152 in the Memorandum to the 1991 Penal Code is:
152 Obscene and Indecent Acts
(1) Whoever does in a public place an indecent act or an act contrary to public morals or wears an obscene outfit or contrary to public morals or causing an annoyance to public feelings shall be punished with flogging which may not exceed forty lashes or with fine or with both.
(2) The act shall be contrary to public morals if it is regarded as such according to the standard of the person’s religion or the custom of the country where the act takes place.

Soon Hussein attracted international attention as a symbol of women’s oppression in countries with strict interpretations of Islamic law (sharia). Arrested at a restaurant in Khartoum in 2009 under restrictive decency laws, she was beaten in a police van and detained with 12 other trouser-wearing women who had also been arrested. The women who pleaded guilty received 10 lashes and a huge fine, but Hussein chose to go to trial.

“I am not afraid,” she said in an interview. “It is my chance to defend the women of Sudan.”

While most women wear traditional dresses in public, some, particularly from the mostly Christian south, wear slacks and more Western clothes. “Sudanese journalist Lubna invites you again to her flogging tomorrow.” – this was the message that she had printed on over 500 invitation cards before she went to court.

The court was flooded with women’s rights activists, politicians, diplomats and journalists, as well as well-wishers. Many wore slacks, trousers, pants to extend their support toward Hussein’s fight against the law that she believes is used merely to harrass women. During the hearing, Lubna announced that she would resign from her job as a public information officer with the United Nations, which would have provided her with immunity, to fight the case and face the prosecution, unafraid of the punishment that she might have to face.

On 7 September she was found guilty and fined 500 Sudanese pounds, but not sentenced to flogging. She stated that she did not intend to pay, and was prepared to face a month in jail instead. Hussein, who considers herself to be a good Muslim contends that the case “is not about religion, it is about men treating women badly.”

With a strong air of determination to stand up for what she belives in, Hussein still continues to speak about women’s rights in Sudan. Before her trial she had told the media -“If they find me guilty, I am ready to receive not only 40 lashes, I am ready for 40,000 lashes. If all women must be flogged for what they wear, I am ready to be flogged 40,000 times.”

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