JUBA, SOUTH SUDAN - Nineteen-year-old Ishan Ahmed Abdallah, a Sudanese national, married a man from South Sudan last year. She acted without her mother’s and father’s permission and knew the marriage likely would upset her tradition-minded parents, but she hoped they would come around and accept it.
More than a month later, Ishan and her husband, Deng Anei Awen, fear for their lives after getting public death threats from her father. The couple say Abdallah’s parents oppose their marriage because of tribal racism toward Awen.
In a brief interview with VOA, the father, Adam Ahmed Abdullah, said he had several reasons to reject the marriage, but he declined to be more specific.
The dispute has garnered a lot of attention on Sudanese and South Sudanese social media, largely because of the death threats the father posted on Facebook last month.
“Don’t think that you will be running away from me, even if you arrive in Aweil [South Sudan], I will reach you,” he said in a recorded message. “I swear to God, even if you go to Uganda I will come there and cut you to pieces. If you don’t want to change your opinion and come back, I will come there and kill you.”
In a separate video, the father asserted that his daughter was taken to South Sudan against her will—a claim that she denied through her own Facebook Live video. She said she loves her husband, noting that she dated him for almost four months, but her parents rejected him when he proposed to seek her hand in marriage.
Ishan, who fled Sudan after her marriage and went to live with Awen in Juba, said she fears what might happen unless her father backs off.
“We are currently in danger, and my relatives can send anybody at any time to come and kill me and my husband,” she said. “We know that our borders in Africa are open and they can even arrive in Juba any time from now. I'm appealing to the human rights organizations that they should intervene and lead us to any neutral country for asylum because our lives are in danger.”
Local media in Sudan say that Ishan and her husband recently secured asylum with Sweden. South Sudan in Focus has been unable to verify those reports.
The dispute over the marriage has stirred a lot of conversation in Sudan about the Sharia requirement that a male guardian must preside over a woman’s marriage for it to be valid. Both Sudan and South Sudan are conservative patriarchal societies where marriage decisions are taken mostly by men on behalf of their daughters.
In a couple of Facebook videos, the father recited verses from the Quran that instruct believers to obey their parents. He also cited Islamic law that states a maiden, or unmarried young woman, may not marry herself to a man without her guardian’s acceptance.
Such issues can have real-life consequences. In 2014, Meriam Ibrahim, 27, was sentenced to death on charges of apostasy, or leaving Islam, after she married a Christian man from South Sudan. She was also to be flogged for committing adultery, because Sudan’s Personal Law of 1991 does not recognize the marriage of a Muslim woman to a non-Muslim man. An Islamic court considered Ibrahim a Muslim and did not recognize her marriage to Daniel Wani, a Christian from South Sudan.
But in Ishan’s case, she says her husband is Muslim and comes from a Muslim family.
Saleh Mohmoud is a legal expert and analyst based in Khartoum. He says Sudan’s law does not prohibit intermarriages between Sudanese and South Sudanese, as long as the man is a Muslim.
‘’There’s not any legal barrier, no. Theoretically and legal-wise there’s nothing to prevent them doing that, and not only from the South but from elsewhere in the world,” he told VOA.
Nor would Islamic law come into play, he said. “So, Sharia in this case is not a barrier ... Sharia law cannot impede this process,” Mohmoud said.
Ishan says her parents’ rejection of Awen is based on racism toward South Sudanese.
“They said South Sudanese are people of incomplete faith and they said their customs and traditions are bad. And they said we are better than South Sudanese, and we don’t even know these people,” she told VOA.
“My father does not want me to marry a South Sudanese. His objection is essentially racist,” she said. “If someone rejects you based on your tribe and your customs that’s a difficult problem.”
Awen said he and Ishan tried to follow the correct Islamic marriage procedures in Sudan but were unable to satisfy his wife’s parents. He said he and Ishan decided to leave Khartoum and elope to avoid forced separation.
“We arrived in Wau [South Sudan] and we conducted our marriage,” Ishan says. “I called my family back in Sudan and I sent them a copy of our marriage certificate. I thought with this, they would cool but they refused.”
‘Social constraints in Islam’
In an exclusive phone interview with VOA, Adam Ahmed Abdullah acknowledged he is against his daughter’s marriage, but was evasive as to the reasons why.
When asked why he rejected the marriage, he said, “I am a father, I have a household and a home. And this girl, I raised her in my house on principles and values,” he said.
Pressed to be more specific, he said that in Sudan, “we have certain social constraints in Islam. I am a Muslim. And I know that Americans don’t reject Islam, they don’t reject the Islamic religion." He further said South Sudan in Focus should contact him through the American embassy in Khartoum for him to continue with the interview.
Abdullah’s new son-in-law said he hopes the issue with his wife’s parents can be resolved.
He said the messages from his father-in law are very threatening. He added that marriage knows know borders and appealed to human rights organizations to intervene and protect his family.
"We are already tired with this issue and we are looking for a solution. I don’t want to lose her relatives as well. Whenever we call him, he changes his mind, and we keep on running for our lives throughout till we reach Juba. My uncle called him and talked to him and gave him his daughter [to talk to], but he says his daughter [Ishan] has been kidnapped.”
VOA’s attempts to reach Ahmed’s mother were unsuccessful.
John Tanza and Nabeel Biajo contributed to this report.