Credit: © Emilia Tjernström. Women praying.

Women’s access and rights to land in Mali are shaped by statutory, customary and religious law.  Approximately 90 percent of Mali’s population is Muslim, and Islamic or Shari’a law influences relations between men and women, and how their property is managed. Under both Islamic and customary law, men maintain primary rights to land, however, Islamic law does afford women some inheritance rights and social protection.

For its part, the Constitution of Mali guarantees equality between men and women, and statutory law supports equal rights to hold title to land.  Yet, other laws discriminate against women, including the Family Code, which gives the husband exclusive responsibility for household property.  

A more than decade-long effort to change this law failed.  The redrafting of the law and a related public education campaign involved many actors: the United Nations, the Malian Government, women parliamentarians, attorneys, and a number of NGOs.  But public objection was significant, and in 2009, 50,000 male and female demonstrators led by the High Islamic Council protested in the streets.  The President of Mali, Amadou Toumani Touré, said, “Having widely consulted State institutions… and seen the need for peace, I have taken the decision to send [back the Code].”

The defeated revision would have granted women inheritance rights equal to men, and eliminated the legal requirement that women obey their husbands. These and other elements contradicted Shari’a Law, and raised fears that social reforms arising from Western influences would threaten the moral fabric of Islamic communities.

Many lessons can be drawn from this experience. While outsiders may facilitate processes of re-evaluation, genuine changes in beliefs and behaviors are more likely to occur when they come from those within the same community. More effective than seeking rapid change through legislation may be working with Malian women and men to identify vulnerabilities that women face, especially in the face of social and economic changes, and the array of measures that could safeguard their interests.  The fact that Islam encourages independent thinking on issues not dictated by the Koran also paves the way for advancing the position of women in Islamic societies.



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