Last August, Muslim associations lead massive protests against a proposed family law code in Mali. When we left the story, pressure from these Muslim groups had persuaded President Amadou Toumani Toure to table the code, an outcome that left many Muslim groups content and many parliamentarians relieved.
Now the family code is back:
[Mali’s top Islamic] council is proposing amending articles on inheritance, marriage, adoption and family responsibilities…
Parliament is treading more carefully this time in trying to pass a new family law…Two lawmakers, one of whom is a religious leader, are to reconcile the proposed amendments, the code under draft and the existing law, which they will present to parliament for approval in April.
Political analyst and University of Bamako professor, Badra Alou Macalou, told IRIN that lawmakers were hoping to reach a consensus on the contested articles. “The president of the assembly… was clear in saying that the legislators will never adopt a code that will affect again the social climate. I think that in April if the code is not voted [on] and adopted unanimously, it will simply be shelved.”
IRIN also obtained quotes from Malians concerned about the amendments or, alternatively, skeptical that any code would do much to affect the lives of ordinary people.
Struggles over family law have a history in West Africa: Nigeria faced stormy debates on the constitutional status of shari’a law in 1960 and 1977-8 before twelve Northern states ultimately imposed broad shari’a law in 1999-2001. In any country, debates over law and religion can call secularism into question. But in Francophone countries like Senegal and Mali where postcolonial states embraced French-style laïcité, a stricter secularism than the Anglo-American model, the challenge takes on a different character.
For Senegal, Islamic leaders’ (ultimately unsuccessful) opposition to a 1972 family code caused one of the first major confrontations between religious communities and the secular state. Renewed debate over the place of Islam in Senegalese law in 2003 called laïcité into question to the extent that President Abdoulaye Wade had to state publicly that he would not revise the 1972 code because incorporating Islamic courts into the system might damage Senegal’s democracy (Gellar, Democracy in Senegal, 164).
With this background in mind, I am very curious to watch how the debate unfolds in Mali. Since Mali’s democratic transition in 1991-2, Muslim associations have been a major part of civil society in Mali, but this debate around the law seems to be their largest political mobilization to date. The Muslim associations protesting the law won the battle the first time around, and in my view did so within the confines of fair-and-square democratic mobilization. If they win again, and the code is either amended or tabled, will that represent a maintainance of the status quo, or a foreshadowing of greater Muslim involvement in politics? And if they lose, and a code is passed over their objections, will that represent a triumphant laïcité?