13 July 2011
The parilament of Mali is on the verge of passing a controversial family code in an extraordinary session being held this month, which has been a point of contention between religious and civil groups for the past two years.
In the summer of 2009, the parliament of Mali passed a revision of the family code which 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, organized by certain Muslim leaders and organizations, were held to express anger at sections of the new code, including a rally in Bamako that reportedly attracted as many as 50,000 people. This opposition soon convinced President Amadou Toumani Toure to shelve the law. Debate flared up again over the code in the spring of 2010, with opposition to the bill coming from a number of 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.
Now the code may be moving toward passage. 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 now 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. Religious ministers are also empowered to solemnise marriages as well as officers of the state. These changes came about as a result of talks with Muslim leaders.
Even if the bill passes (as it did in 2009), that may not mean implimentation. 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 have shown they clearly have an impact when they take a stand on social issues and therefore wield at least a limited veto power.
"Mali's controversial family code approaches passage" Africa Monitor July 12, 2011
Bruno D Segbedji, "Vers l'adoption du Code des personnes et de la famille : Le mariage religieux enfin lÃ©galisÃ© ! " Mali Web July 7, 2011