Mali's controversial family code approaches passage

Even if the family code passes, it will be somewhat of a victory for Muslim organizations and leaders who were able to get their concerns incorporated into the legislation, proving their political clout.

In the summer of 2009, the parliament of Mali passed a revision of the family code. Powerful Muslim leaders and organizations were angered by sections of the new code which would have established 18 years as the minimum age for marriage, made secular authorities the only persons capable of performing legal marriages, and expanded women’s property and inheritance rights. Mass protests, including a rally in Bamako that reportedly attracted as many as 50,000 people, soon convinced President Amadou Toumani Toure to shelve the law. Debate flared up again over the code in the spring of 2010, including among Muslim leaders.

In October 2010, the code was once more ready to go before parliament. A group in the National Assembly, in consultation with the High Islamic Council of Mali (one of the groups that had objected previously), made modifications which the Council accepted, but which civil society groups denounced. No code, apparently, will achieve consensus in Malian society.

Fast forward to summer 2011, and the code may be moving toward passage. One Malian paper (Fr) says that on June 23, the National Assembly delayed consideration of the code until the next session. Lawmakers feared that going ahead with a version that is still deeply contested would provoke a backlash.

But another Malian paper (Fr) now reports that the code will be considered in an extraordinary session of parliament this month, and is expected to pass. One of the biggest changes it contains is the legalization of “religious marriage,” and a definition of a marriage that makes it a “public” rather than a “secular” act. I have not been able to find information on whether other contested provisions were also changed, but presumably Muslim leaders got much of what they wanted in talks.

Even if the bill passes (as it did in 2009, recall), that may not be the end of the story. With so much tension and anger surrounding the code, and with President Toure heading for retirement in less than a year, there may not be the political will to implement the law – which could prove logistically difficult no matter how much popular support the new code receives.

Where the situation stands now, the Muslim organizations that opposed the code have won two political triumphs: the incorporation of their concerns into the legislation itself, and a formal recognition of their political stature, as demonstrated by their prominent role in negotiations over the newest version of the code. The 2012 presidential race in Mali, which is already shaping up, has not been primarily driven so far by issues relating to Islam. Yet Muslim leaders in the country clearly have an impact when they take a stand on social issues – arguably, they wield a limited veto power.

Alex Thurston is a PhD student studying Islam in Africa at Northwestern University and blogs at Sahel Blog.

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