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Mali Muslims Protest Increased Rights for Women

The adoption of a new family code aimed at gender equality in Mali has sparked protests and threats of violence.

Tens of thousands of Malians have protested since the National Assembly adopted a controversial new family code in early August. The country now waits to see if President Amadou Toumani Toure will sign the code into law, a move that Muslim leaders warn would divide the population and destabilize the country.

The code's more than 1,100 new articles aim to increase equality between men and women by reforming laws with regards to land ownership, inheritance, education, employment and marriage.

Supporters of the code, more than a decade in the making, have praised it as enhancing the rights of women and girls, who they say have been traditionally viewed as second-class citizens. But Islamic leaders say the new code contains provisions that are direct affronts to the country's traditional values and religious beliefs. They have vowed to block enforcement of the code, even threatening violence.

The problem at the heart of new code

At the heart of the controversy are changes to marriage laws, including articles that set the legal minimum age for marriage at 18, recognize only civil marriages, allow joint property ownership, expand parental rights, and extend inheritance rights to girls.

Though included in the development of the code, Islamic leaders have said they feel their protests and suggestions were ignored, in favor of external pressure from the international donors, like the European Union.

Islamic Council President Mamoud Dik says they are urging the president to listen to the voice of the people and not sign the code.

He says he and other religious leaders are not against the promotion of women. They are against the provisions of the code that clash with their religious and societal values. He says the religious community participated many times in the development of this code, but each time they had reservations about certain measures. He says he hopes in time they can find a common ground.

Muslims comprise 90 percent of Mali's 12 million people. Religious and traditional marriages are common, and Amnesty International estimated in 2005 that more than 60 percent of Mali women are married before the age of 18.

Even as women's groups are applauding the code as a way to combat the forced marriage of young girls and give wives more economic power, other women are opposing it as an attack on traditional values.

Women were among the approximately 50,000 people protesting the code Sunday in Bamako. They held banners that read: "No code which divides Maliens" and "Women should remain women, and men should remain men."

Khatrine Sylla opposes the code and says it is unrealistic to think that women would consider themselves independent and equal to men.

Sylla says a wife should be submissive. A wife is always dependent on her husband and should take care of her children and her family. Nowadays, women can take on different roles, like a government minister, but that has nothing to do with her duties in the family. She should always take care of her husband and her children.

Supporters: Reform is always hard

Supporters of the code say it is natural for people to resist reform at first. In this case, they say the controversy stems from misinformation and a lack of understanding of the code.

Cisse Oumou Ahmer Traoure is communications advisor for the Ministry for the Promotion of Women, Children and Family.

She says the code is written in French, a language that almost 80 percent of the country's population does not know how to read or write. The code contains 1,144 articles written in legal language, which has made it difficult to understand.

For example, it has been rumored that in defining marriage as purely secular, the code would legalize same-sex marriage. In reality, though, Traoure says the code defines marriage as a secular union between a man and woman.

Mali's family code has not been changed since 1962, a year after independence, and Traoure called the new code "a real advancement" that reflects the changes their society has undergone since then.

She says the reality is that women are more financially independent and the rights afforded them under the new code will contribute to family stability and allow them to help support their households.

President Toure is meeting with Islamic leaders before making a decision about the code.