- - Sunday, May 3, 2015

BAMAKO, Mali — An unlikely battle in an unlikely place has broken out over a bid to guarantee Mali’s women a seat at the political table in this poor, conflict-ridden and heavily Muslim African country.

If enacted, a proposed law before Malian lawmakers would reserve one-third of government jobs for women, including in elected offices. Currently, only 14 women sit in Mali’s 147-member parliament, three women belong to President Ibrahim Boubacar Keita’s Cabinet of 33 ministers, and men claim the vast bulk of civil service positions.

Activists see the quota idea as a way to jump-start the drive for equal rights between the sexes.

“We no longer want men only to be selected for high-level responsibilities in Mali,” said Djeneba Sy, 50, president of the National Union of Young Women Muslims.

The push for more representation in government is a remarkable development in Mali, where 90 percent of the population is Muslim, and where the former colonial power France intervened just three years ago to defeat an al Qaeda-linked Islamic insurgency in the north. A truce signed in 2013 has since broken down, and rape and violence against women remain common in the war-torn north despite the continued presence of French forces. The government and rebels are slated to sign another peace accord on May 15.

Before the French intervention, Islamist and Tuareg rebels established a brief regime in the north that enforced Shariah law, with Malian women confined indoors and forced to wear full-body, face-covering veils. A Human Rights Watch investigation said reports of forced marriage and rape also soared.

“The jihadists inflicted so much on the women in the north of the country,” Katie Orlinsky, a New York photographer who traveled to the north for a reporting trip in 2013, told The New York Times last year. “It made just living almost illegal for women.”

Even in areas not controlled by radical groups, women play a secondary role in Malian society, according to conservative Muslim mores. While the country’s constitution states that men and women are technically equal, the law designates that men are the head of families and wives must obey their husbands. Educational opportunities for women are limited. Traditional female genital mutilation practices are widespread throughout the country, according to the United Nations.

Last year, the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Report ranked Mali 138th out of 142 countries in a global survey of the state of women’s rights.

“Our culture is the basis of the problem,” said Ms. Sy. “Women have to obey their husbands. A woman hasn’t the right to raise her voice while talking to her husband. Men don’t even impose themselves on women — women voluntarily accept to be submissive in our society.”

The proposed legislation would compel political parties to nominate a quota of women as candidates in elections. Advocates hope the law would apply to local elections in October.

Mounting opposition

Powerful Muslim groups are already lining up against the measure, however.

Among the legislation’s most influential opponents are Sabati 2012, an alliance of young Muslim activists that supported Mr. Keita during his successful election bid in the run-up to 2013 elections. Sabati means “success” in Bambara, the predominant language in Mali. In exchange for that campaign help, the group expects the president to fulfill his promise of upholding conservative Islamic values, said Boubacar Bah, the head of Sabati 2012. “He must respect his commitment, given that this bill is opposed to our tradition,” said Mr. Bah.

“There are two extremisms in Mali, religious extremism and secular extremism, and we want to combat secular extremism,” added Mr. Bah. “They must know that we don’t need the secular tradition that is in France.”

Despite Sabati 2012’s opposition, President Keita supports the proposal and has asked lawmakers in his party, Rally for Mali, to support the bill. But while they control the largest bloc in parliament, they don’t have a majority.

Another religious organization that opposes the legislation, the Mali Islamic High Council, killed a women’s rights bill in 2009. That law would have granted women permission to work without their husband’s permission, for example. But the council organized rallies throughout the country that persuaded then-President Amadou Toumani Toure to add provisions to the final version of the law that undercut women’s rights, including reducing the legal age of marriage from 18 to 16.

Mahmoud Dicko, president of Mali Islamic High Council, said there is little support for quotas for women in government in Mali. The Malian government is pursuing the bill at the behest of Western countries and international organizations in return for financial aid, outside pressure that Mr. Dicko thinks his country should resist.

“Even when you are starving, there is food you should refuse,” said Mr. Dicko. “The authorities mustn’t accept changing laws to obtain aid money.”

But Ms. Sy said Islam doesn’t proscribe women’s participation in government. The problem is political, as men decide everything in the National Assembly. “Most of the parliament members are men, and they don’t want to pass a law giving more public responsibilities to women,” she said.

Mama Koite, a leading Malian women’s rights activist, said the proposed law is essential to breaking the cycle of men oppressing women who can’t change Malian laws, because cultural and legal roadblocks prevent them from sitting in parliament. If more women sat in Mali’s parliament, she said, they could slowly but surely bring about other changes in society.

“The bill on the quota for women will help reduce the discrimination against women and girls in terms of access to opportunities,” said Ms. Koite. “The legislation isn’t sufficient by itself, but it will advance the efforts of women’s rights defense organizations.”

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