Monday, September 7, 2009

Anti-women's rights campaign triumphs in Mali

by Laura Smith-Gary

I’m sorry to start off our year with bad news, but here it is. For once, I recommend reading the comments as well as the article -- they seem to accurately reflect the conflict of opinions.

In the beginning of August, Mali’s parliment passed a law increasing the rights of women. The law would have, among other things, raised the age of marriage to 18, given women some inheritance rights, allowed divorce if a couple has lived apart for three years, and struck a clause from the current laws that states women “must obey” their husbands and instead asserted that husbands and wives “owe each other loyalty and protection.” It would also have defined marriage as a civil institution. Despite the furious objections of conservative Muslim clerics and parliment members, who stigmatized the law as the work of the devil, other members of parliament and President Amadou Toumani Toure -- also Muslim, as is 90% of Mali’s population -- strongly supported the law.

Now they’ve been forced to back down. Mali’s High Islamic Council condemned the law, and hardline Muslim groups throughout the country organized massive protests in opposition to its passage. Tens of thousands of Malian citizens took to the streets to demand the new law be defanged, or destroyed. The last week in August, President Toure announced that for the sake of national unity, he would return the law to parliament for review rather than signing it. This was not only a defeat for women's rights, it was a defeat for the President and his supporters, who were expected by many to pursue a more comprehensive human rights' agenda.

This incident's primary importance, of course, is the detriment to the rights of Malian women, and I don't want to downplay that. However, I think it also demonstrates an important point -- this is a classic example of illiberal democracy and a reminder of the difficulty of imposing women's rights legislation on an unwilling population. Mali has been a constitutional democracy since 1992, with three branches of government and separation of powers in the style of the United States. Though there were organizing powers behind these protests, namely conservative Muslim groups, it was by the people's demand that this law was rejected. This is democracy working -- working against freedom.

This is not the only time we have seen democracy act in opposition to women's rights this summer. Also in August, lawmakers in the Bahamas proposed a bill to outlaw marital rape and were met with outrage. One of the main arguments against the bill was that it violated Christian values, and that the current presumption of consent after the initial vows is more in line with a Christian understanding of marriage. In Afghanistan, days before the August elections President Karzai announced the new version of the Shia Family Law (I wrote about the first version here), which allows Shia husbands to refuse their wives food and water if the women refuse sex. Karzai needed the votes the conservative Shia clerics could bring him, and pressure from the E.U. and U.S. did not bring any major changes to the law.

Many in the U.S. have seen democracy as an assurance of freedom and rights for citizens. One would think that our own history of constitutional democracy, which includes nearly a century of legalized slavery and numerous other legal forms of morally reprehensible limitations of freedom, would remind us that U.S.-style democracy is not a silver bullet, but we remain convinced that our form of government naturally brings freedom in its train. We must reconsider this conviction, and realize that while the promotion and support of democracy may be an admirable thing, it is not the same thing as promoting human rights and freedoms. We must also acknowledge our limitations. President Toure and his allies are Muslim and have demonstrated their deep commitment to their country. If they cannot successfully promote a bill to improve the lot of women, it seems highly unlikely that pressure from an outside power can do so. I don't think individuals or states who believe in women's rights should give up, but I think we should be realistic and pursue strategies like education, or microfinance (or something else! anybody have ideas?) rather than relying on democracy or overt diplomatic pressure to bring about change.

For the women of Mali, parliament may well pass and put into practice a watered-down version of the law. While this will not be as large a step toward equality for women and universal human rights in Mali as the original version of the bill, it could still be a step. If President Toure and his allies can take small steps that are accepted by the people of Mali, they may eventually have an equitable society as well as a democracy.

For more on Mali, see the BBC's country profile, the CIA Factbook, and Wikipedia.


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