A new family code that strengthens women’s marriage and property rights passed in Mali’s parliament on August 3rd by 117 votes to 5. That’s a pretty strong consensus, right? Not so fast. Islamic leaders from the village to the national level are demanding that politicians refrain from enforcing the law.
At a meeting called by the Islamic council on 9 August at the largest mosque in the capital Bamako, hundreds of religious and village leaders gathered in opposition to the code.
“We cannot ban traditional marriages,” said one of Bamako’s district leaders, Bouramablen Traoré. The president of a Muslim youth group, Amadou Bah, asked followers to “curse government officials who voted yes to the family code”, calling them “anti-Islamists” who “will be sanctioned by the All-Powerful”.
Religious leader El Hadj Koké Kallé intervened to stop would-be arsonists from reaching the National Assembly 100m from the mosque.
Pressure from religious conservatives affected some parliamentarians’ thinking on the bill.
One of five parliament members who voted against the code, Abdoulaye Dembélé, said he could not risk upsetting his constituents. “I cannot go before my voters and tell them that religious marriages are not legal… that a woman should no longer obey her husband and that they should respect one another equally… If I do this, voters will punish me in the next elections.”
State authorities may be feeling the pressure too. A source who spoke to IRIN indicated the government may not fully enforce the law.
This incident is not the first time Islamic leaders in Mali have addressed policy issues. Organizations like the Islamic Salvation Association objected to an early draft of the family code in 2008, and the High Islamic Council of Mali opposed President Toure’s proposal to abolish the death penalty the same year.
The High Islamic Council itself resulted from the flowering of Islamic associations in Mali during the 1990s and a simultaneous growth in religiously-tinged criticism of the government. The state formed the Council in 2002 to provide representation – and supervision – for religious constituencies.
ISLAMIC CIVIL SOCIETY AND DEMOCRACY
I am learning about Mali slowly, but looking at the debate there I am reminded of Senegal. In both countries, controversies about religious values and social mores take place within a largely democratic framework.
When I studied in Senegal during the 2007 presidential elections, I saw a fruitful coexistence between the Sufi brotherhoods and politicians who drew on brotherhood support but also employed largely secular technocratic and/or populist campaign themes. Moreover, Senegal had its own debate on family codes in the 1970s. A secular democracy populated by devout Muslims survived that battle and others.
I am also reminded, however, of Morocco, where debates over family law between the state, feminists, and Islamists have sometimes grown quite fierce.
The potential for violence exists, but I imagine Mali’s religious leaders will reject that route. After all, if they can show their muscle as a component of civil society but not provoke confrontations with the state, they may find their power increases even if they lose on this issue.