“Women’s groups are heartbroken”

// 27 August 2009

The BBC reports that, following mass protests, the president of Mali has decided not to sign the country’s new family law, and will return it to parliament for review.

Some of the provisions that have proved controversial give more rights to women.

For example, under the new law women are no longer required to obey their husbands, instead husbands and wives owe each other loyalty and protection.

Women get greater inheritance rights, and the minimum age for girls to marry in most circumstances is raised to 18.

According to the BBC,

Women’s groups are heartbroken – they have been trying for more than 10 years to get the law changed.

The reasons for the protests are no doubt more complex than they are being presented here, but this is so sad, my heart goes out to those groups.

What strikes me is how this is being presented as a Muslim issue.

Firstly, in a country where 90% of the population are Muslims, I would imagine that surely the ‘women’s groups’ mentioned include lots of Muslim women too? Talking about ‘women’s group’ verses ‘Muslims’ makes Muslim women fighting for their rights invisible, which contributes to the problem.

Secondly, let’s face it, you won’t struggle to find people in non-Muslim countries who argue that women should basically ‘obey’ their husbands (The Surrendered Wife? Fay Weldon? Every Men’s Rights / Anti-Feminist website there is?). Ok, they’re not (usually) saying it should be the law, but let’s not be high and mighty about this.

No, but I don’t want to discuss this as a Muslim issue (and Islamophobic comments won’t be published). And I definitely don’t want to turn this into a “Can western feminism save Muslim women” discussion (as the Guardian posed recently); a question that’s well-meaning but offensive on many levels.*

What I want to put out for discussion is what we, over here in the UK, can help and support women’s groups in other countries, Mali or anywhere else. How can we support feminists in other countries besides publicising their issues and signing petitions? I mean, signing petitions is great, but what other suggestions are there for practical help? Donating money? Writing letters? What? Let’s have a recap!

We feel so powerless to help so often, is that feeling justified?

Firstly I would imagine we should find out what are these women saying we should do. For example, does anyone have a link to these Mali women’s groups, and what are they saying? I did a search for Mali feminists and all I got was Google saying “did you mean male feminists?” Sigh!

[* Off the top of my head:

1. Implying that Muslims aren’t westerners.

2. Assuming that Muslim women have to ‘saved’

3. Assuming that there are no Muslim feminists.

4. Suggesting that only Muslim women are oppressed.

5. Implying western feminists have to ‘save’ non-western women rather than supporting and working with them, and maybe even learning something from them.

5. And so on. ]

Comments From You

Jess M // Posted 27 August 2009 at 3:47 pm

what we, over here in the UK, can help and support women’s groups in other countries, Mali or anywhere else

My view is this *has* to be led by women directly affected – so in this case, the best thing to do is try and get in touch with the women’s groups/feminist groups in Mali, and simply ask “is there anything we can do, and if so, what is it?”

JessM // Posted 27 August 2009 at 3:54 pm

This list of a few women’s rights organisations in Mali might be a good place for someone to start, for example.

To act truely in solidarity with women in a different country, I don’t see how it can be done without getting in touch, and asking how – if at all – it is possible to offer support.

Wisrutta Atthakor // Posted 27 August 2009 at 4:16 pm

“We feel so powerless to help so often, is that feeling justified?”

I think it’s especially difficult when there are so many claims that these women “don’t want equality”. I too did some searches, both on ‘Mali feminism’ and ‘Mali women’s groups’ and the results were indeed sparse. Most of the search results came up with links to the news stories about people protesting against the new law that would give women more rights and equality.

I did, however, find a couple of sites for African women’s rights: Equality Now’s “Protocol on the Rights of Women in Africa” (http://www.equalitynow.org/english/campaigns/african-protocol/african-protocol_en.html) and “Solidarity for African Women’s Rights” (http://www.soawr.org/en/). Unfortunately, neither of these sites had anything recent (that I could find, anyway) about the new Malian laws on women’s rights.

I think that, when these women’s rights groups are so suppressed and pushed into the background, it is so difficult to know what needs to be done. Donating money may be one way of showing support, but first we need to know who to donate the money to! Writing letters and signing petitions … well, to be honest, I somehow doubt that that is going to have too much of an effect on the Malian government (but still, it may be better than nothing).

In the case of Mali, I think if people want to help, they should probably get in touch with Equality Now and Solidarity for African Women’s Rights and find out what support they think is needed.

“What I want to put out for discussion is what we, over here in the UK, can help and support women’s groups in other countries, Mali or anywhere else.”

I think what a lot of women’s groups, especially small groups and those in developing countries, have trouble with are resources and know-how. I guess money goes some way to helping support these groups, as money would buy resources, equipment, etc … but many small organisations don’t necessarily have the human resource to start campaigns and keep them going. I know that large groups like the Feminist Majority Foundation often run campaigns alongside small women’s group and often hold conferences and invite women from those groups or countries as speakers in order to present and highlight the problems that they face and what they think needs to be done and what help and support they would welcome from supporters in the west.

Catherine Redfern // Posted 27 August 2009 at 4:25 pm

Wisrutta – excellent, thank you. Yes, I wondered if any UK groups were sending messages of solidarity or some such, and I wonder if anyone reading here might know.

Re: petitions – yes, I feel conflicted about the usefulness of these too. I think that as Jess implied, if the individuals themselves is telling me that it would help them for me to sign it, (like the Zimbabwe one below), then I’m happy to do so, rather than set one up myself on the presumption that it’ll help, when it might not.

I guess it totally depends on the individual circumstances or campaigns of the women and the issues in their country as to what support they would need, as it would differ from case to case. So I guess my question itself is a bit vague and pointless. Hm…

I suppose basically, I would say that if any readers have info on any campaigns that we can support in the UK, send them through!

Catherine Redfern // Posted 27 August 2009 at 4:29 pm

Oops, sorry for dodgy typos/grammar…

Ruairidh // Posted 27 August 2009 at 5:02 pm

Working with local groups sounds like a good approach.

As to what to do in the UK I’d suggest that you ought to think about who has influence over places like Mali. Lobbying the Mali government direct from here or through the media is unlikely to be fruitful. If anything it could attract some post-colonial anger a la Mugabe. That equation differs a little when it comes to providing the Mali government with aid. So I’d suggest lobbying DFID or the FCO instead. Putting them on the spot to ask what are they doing about it all. They have gender equality down as an issue on their website so they may be an open door. If nothing else they are a potential vehicle for raising the profile of issues like this.

http://www.dfid.gov.uk/Global-Issues/How-we-fight-Poverty/Gender-Equality/

Jess McCabe // Posted 27 August 2009 at 5:08 pm

I googled around a bit and couldn’t find all that much either, but then someone fluent in French would most likely do a much better job.

It’s a ‘shame’ that the many reports about this declined to mention the names of the women’s groups – in fact, they name the opponents to the law, but not any of the women’s groups.

But that said, after some googling around, WiLDAF has a Mali branch and has clearly been following the situation: link to google translation of their statement)

I found them through Courants de Femmes which has a comprehensive list of women’s associations of all types in Francophone countries.

There’s also the Collectif des femmes du mali, and CAFO.

Rita // Posted 28 August 2009 at 11:04 am

I don’t know much about women’s groups in africa, but all i would say is that raising money should not be first priority. Maybe sending them information and collecting information about successes of other women groups. Maybe money can come in later.

The problem in africa, is the governments hold the power and intimidate, and can change their mind when it suits them. They could give you rights towards presidential campaigns and take them away after that. I am not surprised at the frustrtaion of these women groups and their heart break.

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