New law upsets Islamists

2009-09-01 10:56

Bamako - New family legislation giving more rights to Mali's women which was passed by parliament has caused an outcry among Muslim conservatives and forced President Amadou Toumani Toure to order a review.

Toure sent the legislation back to parliament after some 50 000 people rallied at a football stadium in the capital Bamako recently, backing the view of the country's High Islamic Council that the proposed law was an "insult to Islam".

"Western Civilisation is a Sin!" said banners held aloft in the crowd. Others said: "No to a law which divides Malians."

The anger was enough to stop Toure signing the law into force, on the grounds that he needed to "preserve social peace and calm".

A second reading would allow the legislation to win the "support and understanding" of fellow citizens, the president said in a radio address last week.

The draft legislation has been in the offing for a decade, held up by a string of amendments until it was finally voted through with a huge majority at the beginning of August.

Slowing down things

The president took his decision after consultations with parliamentarians and party representatives over the wisdom of signing in the new law.

Toure "is slowing things down, he wants to put national unity above everything else," explained a presidential advisor.

The proposed law strengthens the rights of women by replacing the words "paternal power" with "parental authority" and protects their role in the household by stating that "no marriage can be renounced".

Crucially, it recognises civil marriages only, raises the legal age for marriage to 18 and would permit divorce only if a husband and wife have lived apart for three years.

Previously, there was no stipulated marriage age, which in Mali is often subject to custom, and girls sometimes marry from the age of 13 or 14.

"On close examination, there are no real advantages given to women which pose a problem but the debate is being coloured by cultural and religious themes," said sociologist Mamadou Samake, pointing out that 90% of Malians are Muslim.

Baptism ceremonies

Imams have led outrage against the new legislation, threatening to wield their power against supporters of the law.

"We are asking all the mosques to return to religious marriage, as if nothing has changed," the religious leaders said in a statement, rejecting the idea of state-sponsored civil marriage and threatening to boycott lawmakers who voted for the reform.

"We will no longer do baptism ceremonies or prayers for the dead for them or their families. They have betrayed Allah!" they said.

The new legislation recognises a woman's right to divorce in cases where the spouses do not cohabit for three years.

"When the man goes to work in France for years in order to feed his family, how can you possibly ask his wife to divorce if he doesn't come back after three years," said Mamoud Diakite, a member of a Muslim association.

Another point which is being vehemently contested is the stipulation that children born outside marriage are also entitled to a share of any inheritance.

Biased interpretations

"We may live in a secular society, but every law in our context must reflect the point of view of the majority, if not, we are going to have a terrible crisis," political scientist Amadou Keita says of the protests.

"On the other hand, I have to say look, there are courageous articles in the code, like that on nationality, meaning that a Beninois can have Malian nationality, and participate in elections here. That's integration."

The National Federation of Collective Women's Organisations (FENACOF), which backed the new law, has called for across the board consultations "in order to put national unity above all".

"In our country, everyone is for the promotion of women. But when there is misunderstanding, you must sit down to talk about it," said the president of FENACOF, Dembele Oulematou Sow. "You have to explain further the contents of the law to avoid biased interpretations."