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"Reality check" needed in proposed changes to family code

Fatimata, a mother in northern Mali, who says she has to carry water farther because rains come less often.
(Nicholas Reader/IRIN)

A husband and wife can keep separate homes, but only with the husband’s approval. A divorcée can keep her ex-husband’s name – if he agrees. A girl should be able to marry at 15. These and a dozen other changes to the family code are being proposed by Mali’s top Islamic council, even though they were blocked last August after strong opposition from some Muslim leaders.

Legislative efforts to update a decades-old family code sparked nationwide protests from Muslim associations, which said the new code would threaten religious values.

“Without these amendments, it would be an open road to debauchery,” the head of the group within the council created to propose changes to the family code, Mamadou Diamouténé, told IRIN. He said that while Koranic law allowed spouses to keep separate homes, “it is not that anyone can go wherever she wishes without her husband’s approval, because we cannot forget that the man is the head of the family”.

However, Bakary Togola, a teacher and Malian Association of Human Rights member, told IRIN that Council members pushing for the amendments had to face reality. “The world is evolving every day and we must change with it… there are countries all over the world passing laws to authorize marriage between homosexuals and we Muslims are moving heaven and earth over details that are not worth anything.”

These amendments risk pushing people to extremism, said Rokia Traoré Sanogo, a housecleaner who is Muslim. “Here in Mali, not everyone is Muslim… They [High Islamic Council] are acting as if Mali were an Islamic state. At this rate, they will soon demand that Sharia law be imposed.”

Article 291 currently states that marriages are celebrated publicly in front of a government registrar, to which the Islamic council wants to add “and religious and traditional leaders”. Diamouténé said that otherwise, “it is as if we were trampling over religious and traditional marriage ceremonies”.

Article 311 of the draft currently puts spouses on an equal footing. “Spouses owe each other fidelity, protection, relief and assistance. They commit themselves to the community of life on the basis of affection and respect." The council wants to add: “The wife must obey the husband.”

The council is proposing amending articles on inheritance, marriage, adoption and family responsibilities, which are at the core of Mali’s social and religious values, said the council’s Diamouténé.

April vote

Parliament is treading more carefully this time in trying to pass a new family law. “We recall that the Islamic associations, led by the High Islamic Council, sparked unprecedented protests throughout the country to remove language [they] considered blasphemous,” the head of the national assembly, Dioncounda Traoré, told IRIN.

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.”

Domestic worker Sanogo is not optimistic of any significant change even if the code is passed. “Whether or not the code is adopted, it does not matter much to me because we know here in Mali, laws are not enforced.”


This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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