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To love, honour and obey in Mali

Protests about the new family law

By Martin Vogl
BBC News, Bamako

A new family law in Mali is causing a furore, partly because it no longer stipulates that wives have to obey their husbands.

Such has been the anger in the majority Muslim country that President Amadou Toumani Toure has sent the law back to parliament for MPs to re-consider.

For many people here the new law is an attack on their religion and traditions and there have been loud protests against it ever since it was adopted by parliamentarians at the start of August.

We're not trying to make women slaves. Not at all. It's just the way our society is organised
Mahmud Dicko
High Islamic Council president

In some parts of the world, article 312 of the new family law would seem inoffensive enough.

The article says that, once married, husbands and wives owe each other "loyalty, protection, help and assistance".

Mali's current law specifically states that a wife must obey her husband, and that is the way things should stay says Mahmud Dicko, president of Mali's High Islamic Council.

"We're not trying to make women slaves. Not at all," he says.

"It's just the way our society is organised. The head of the family is the man, and everyone in the family has to obey him.

"It's like that to create harmony."

Equality

At most of the demonstrations against the new code, women have been present, although usually greatly outnumbered by men.

Hadja Safiatou Dembele, president of the National Union of Muslim Women's Organisation
The poor and illiterate women of this country, the real Muslims, are against it
Hadja Safiatou Dembele
Muslim women's leader

Hadja Safiatou Dembele, president of the National Union of Muslim Women's Associations (NUMWA), says the Koran is clear that a wife has the obligation to listen to her husband.

"A man must protect his wife. A wife must obey her husband," she says.

"It's a tiny minority of woman here who want this new law; the intellectuals. The poor and illiterate women of this country, the real Muslims, are against it."

Kane Nana Sanou, a women's rights activist who is on the committee that has been lobbying for the new family law, says women across Mali should be overjoyed at the new code and disputes the idea that the majority of women are against it.

"How can people say that the majority of women in this country are against the code? Have they done a poll to find that out? They haven't.

"I believe this new law is good for Mali. It makes all citizens equal before the law."

Ms Sanou says she understands why some women might argue that the law should contain a provision that they have to obey their husbands, even if that might mean less rights for them.

"Like me, these women have grown up in traditional families. They have always been told that it's the right thing to do to obey your husband, so of course they believe that," she says.

Modern age

There are other provisions in the new code that have also upset some Muslims.

Women protesting at the new law
Many women have also been protesting against the new family law

Marriage is defined as a secular institution in the law and widows and children born outside wedlock are given greater inheritance rights.

The minimum age for girls to marry is raised to 18 - although it is possible to ask for permission for girls to be married younger - and rules on adoption are set out.

The law's supporters say that Malian society has evolved and the new law is simply bringing the country into the modern age.

What is more, says Boya Dembele, an adviser to Mali's justice minister, some of the things that Muslim organisations want - like making religious marriages official - are contrary to Mali's constitution.

"In Muslim states it's the Koran which applies. Mali is a majority Muslim country, but it's a republic. It's democratic and secular," he says.

If their members of parliament don't listen to them, they will have the power to vote them out of office
Mahmud Dicko
High Islamic Council president

"So we can't move away from being secular because if we did it would be attacking the very foundations of the state."

Some of the angry protests across Mali since the law was passed have almost got out of control.

At one meeting at Bamako's main mosque, religious leaders had to step in to stop young Muslims, opposed to the law, from attacking the parliament building.

Mali's imams have been threatening to refuse to hold marriage or baptism ceremonies for members of parliament who voted for the law.

Mali's High Islamic Council says mosques will start issuing their own wedding certificates and will tell people not to bother getting the official paperwork at the town hall.

If the law is not changed, Mr Dicko of the High Islamic Council says the country's politicians will get a nasty shock at the next elections.

"We are trying to keep people calm. We don't want them to do anything that is against the law.

"Instead we are telling people that they elect the parliament, so if their members of parliament don't listen to them, they will have the power to vote them out of office."

In the face of such pressure, President Toure has backed down and sent the law back to parliament to be reviewed.


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SEE ALSO
Mali women's rights bill blocked
27 Aug 09 |  Africa
Mali protest against women's law
23 Aug 09 |  Africa
Country profile: Mali
04 May 11 |  Country profiles

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