Fatoumata and Moussa didn’t just decide to get married under Mali’s new family code, they got married in it – literally. The bride, groom and wedding guests at the September ceremony in Bamako all wore colourful traditional Malian boubous and pagnes, printed in browns and greens with key words from the new Code about mutual love, support and fidelity: “affection mutuelle”, “soutien mutuel”, “fidélité mutuelle”, proclaimed the wedding dress.
This was Fatoumata and Moussa’s informal way of showing their and their families’ support for the new Code de la famille et des personnes which has faced extreme opposition from Islamists. The new Code was adopted by Parliament at the beginning of August with 117 members voting for and only five against. But following violent demonstrations, including a threatened arson attack on the National Assembly building, President Amadou Toumani Touré refused to sign it into law and returned it to Parliament at the end of the month for further review. This was the first law to be returned since the beginning of multi-party democracy in Mali in 1992.
The new Code, which had been under discussion for a decade, does not recognise customary marriage (and instead requires all marriages to be registered with the civic authorities), sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 years and expands inheritance rights for girls. Most important, it provides for equal rights and responsibilities of the spouses and ends the wife’s duty to obey her husband. Hence the dramatic message of the wedding dress.
Opponents have warned that the new provisions would lead to immorality, harm women’s interests, threaten ‘African values’ and result in a loss of cultural identity]. Supporters, including Oumou Touré, President of a national women’s association, say the new code is a “constitutional and democratic demand” that promotes social justice and will combat the problem of early marriage. Djingarey Maiga, President of Femmes et Droits Humains, a local women’s organisation that reaches out to women in small towns and villages, says that sermons from the mosques are all about the code but that, “the problem is that mostly they don’t know even know what is in this code. The simple fact for them is that with this code women will be as they call it ‘free’.” Mali’s code, if it survives intact, would not be a first in Muslim-majority contexts. Its provisions on spousal equality would be line with Morocco’s reformed Moudawana Muslim family law introduced in 2004, and would match Turkey’s Civil Code amended in 2002.
Globally, there are increasingly visible arguments for equality and justice in the Muslim family using both international human rights language as well as Muslim jurisprudence and Qur’anic interpretations, and demanding that laws be brought into line with social realities. One of the main tactics that the new code’s opponents have used is to dismiss those who seek greater equality for women in the family as ‘westernised’. Both personal actions like Fatoumata’s as well as successful national campaigns like that in Morocco and Turkey show that there is plenty of locally rooted support for family law reform.
Although Fatoumata and Moussa came up with a novel way of promoting the new code, Malians do a good line in combining fashion and PR for the causes they care about. Conference staff at a recent international event on mud buildings and earth architecture all wore white boubous, pagnes and dramatic headties – with printed photos of Timbuktu’s 14th century Djingarey Ber mosque and other famous West Africa mud architecture. Indeed across West Africa, custom printing cloth is quite common. Students returning triumphant from studies abroad may find themselves being greeted at the airport by a host of friends and family all cheerfully dressed in cloth bearing their photos.
Fatoumata Keïta is not limiting her support to the happiest day of her life. She hopes to encourage the use of popular culture to spread awareness about the new code, again drawing on a long-standing tradition. “Mali has a tradition of this kind of action and people are extremely responsive to music. There is a song call Bambo by Tata Bambo Kouyaté that sang praise the first time forced marriage was repudiated by the law. My mother’s generation grew up with that song; it helped popularise the beauty of that Act.” Fatoumata hopes that the whole code (which has over 1,000 articles) can be translated into local languages from French in order to popularise it in Mali.
Developments in Mali have been closely watched by rights activists in neighbouring countries. Isatou Touray who works with The Gambian Committee on Traditional Practices (GAMCOTRAP) says “In Mali, the mullahs were able to mobilise the grassroots because they engaged the people - particularly men - at community level, indoctrinating them with patriarchal interpretations of Islam and women's rights. The answer is to focus on the poor and powerless who need the right information to dismantle the shackles of discrimination and violence against women in the name of religion.” Using wedding cloth with attitude and other important popular education methods may well be an important step in this direction. One women’s rights activist from Cameroon currently based in the US who heard about the cloth said: “This is a strategy I would like to use in future back home for other reforms. We don’t have a family code yet in Cameroon and there is lot of controversy going on there. Who knows, maybe I will have to do something about that and will need support as well.”