ISSUE/EDITION Nr 458 - 15/06/2003


Plans to reform family law


The fear of Islamisation

The people of Senegal love an argument and have been extremely active in recent weeks. A plan to reform family law provides grist for the mill of the media, politicians, intellectuals as well as for social and religious bodies. The fact that everyone’s taken part in this debate shows the intense sensitivity of such a project in the social and religious context of a country like Senegal which is predominantly Muslim (95%).

Of course, it’s in the name of and in the best interests of the Muslim majority, that a group of religious leaders and Muslim intellectuals are claiming to act through the Islamic Committee for the Reform of Family Law (CIRCOF). To prove it’s all really a religious matter, CIRCOF says it’s serious about ensuring Senegalese Muslims are provided with a family code in accordance with Muslim law. Clearly the initiators of this reform are claiming a special status for Muslims.

Why now? Theories and innuendos abound but they seem to agree on one point: President Abdoulaye Wade (himself a Muslim and a lawyer) owes a debt of gratitude to the Muslim confraternities who used all their weight to secure his victory in the year 2000 elections. And since President Wade himself misses no opportunity to flaunt his religious beliefs, the time has come to pay his debts and show solidarity with his own, however reluctantly.

As to be expected, the CIRCOF says the above is a load of boloney. Members are acting thus to ensure Muslims are given justice. The fact is, Muslims can no longer tolerate a situation where Islamic law cannot govern and animate their whole lives, particularly in matters of marriage, succession, almsgiving, etc.

Muslims criticise the present code of law which was adopted in 1972 during former President Leopold Sedar Senghor’s administration, to whom many other Senegalese accord the honour of having given Senegal an agreed Code of Law. Apparently this code which the reforming Muslims hold in public contempt, has still many defenders who find in it a precious asset — namely it guarantees the principle of juridical pluralism, by giving citizens the possibility of choice between different practices, customary or modern.

Shariah is not popular

It must be admitted that all the objections against the present law point out that the code of law voted in 1972 is of western inspiration, thus alien to the realities of Senegalese life and is too bias towards women. And still, on this last point historians continue to refresh our memories by pointing out that this law was strictly men’s work. Not a single woman took part in drawing it up.

Any democratic society permits a fresh look at today’s social order. The fact is, one of the foundations of democracy is the right to be different. Controversy over religious matters is bound to stir up concerns and it’s with a certain amount of trepidation that some Senegalese, particularly non-Muslims, approach the reform of the family code, which in their eyes carries the seeds of the Islamisation of Senegal. «Today, it’s the family code, tomorrow it could be the Constitution of Senegal», say some critics. Some are very worried at the idea that this country could become subject to the Shariah, which is not popular in a Senegal which is jealous of its liberty and its cultural diversity. In Dakar, they proudly remind you that the husband of President Wade goes to Church, and the brother of the former Archbishop of Dakar was a Muslim, and that the wife of former President Abdou Diouf is a Catholic.

To return to the Shariah — the name is so charged with terror that if it was accepted in a country like Senegal, where the way of thinking, freedom of speech, way of dressing, culture, ideology, is rather non-conformist and liberal, then people’s fears would be justified.

Break-up will not happen

There are many signs for concluding -– perhaps prematurely -– that the plan to reform family law will fail. Without counting that its authors will have to reckon with the ladies, particularly the intellectuals among them, who are indignant at the intention of making official a return to the practice of repudiation which was abolished in the 1972 law. They see in it a disastrous step backwards in respect of the rights of African women.

At any rate, the experience of Nigeria is still fresh enough to convince Senegalese of the danger to democracy and social cohesion, if religious extremists were to get the upper hand. If this plan to change family law were adopted, then Islamic Courts would be set up and what is worse, there would be a two-tier justice system, one for Muslims and another for non-Muslims. Likewise, if this project is successful, then a non-Muslim would not be able to marry a Muslim woman.

Brought face-to-face with such changes which are a source of worry, the CIRCOF says that it is sure of its facts and that it is not short of arguments. At least according to Lawyer Babacar Niang’s recent statements. He’s CIRCOF‘s legal expert and states: «The forced application to Muslims of laws contrary to their religious status, creates endless problems, particularly when it comes to ensuring family harmony and the children’s future.

Let non-Muslims follow the family law they want. Let them modify it if they want. But for heaven,s sake let Muslims live their own faith in their families.» (Le Quotidien, Senegal, 8 May 2003.

More than thirty NGOs (associations, trade unions) under the umbrella of an Action Group for the Defence of Secularism and National Unity have made their position clear vis ŕ vis the CIRCOF‘s plans. On 6 May this year, they openly denounced what they perceived to be «an attempt to call into question secularism and legislation governing family life in Senegal».

Regarding secularism, it’s not a question of an innovation or a new aspiration, since this principle is clearly established in Senegal’s Constitution. It’s up to the State to see that this secularism is not subject to human whims. The Action Group’s aim is to warn the public about the risk of «undermining Senegal’s democratic foundations».

Everything said above is correct and should help the government to realise what political and social issues are at stake in this planned reform. But will the Action Group be heard by the authorities? The Senegalese people are holding their breath waiting for the official reaction, i.e. from President Wade himself. He received the draft of this new code in April 2003. Since then, many people have protested that they’re mature enough to make their own decisions and that they’re determined the nation will remain united. Let’s hope that God hears them.

  • Anicet L. Quenum, Senegal, May 2003 — © Reproduction authorised, with usual acknowledgment

Author’s update — On 18 May, President Wade returned from a visit to Japan, and under pressure from the Press had to comment on the plans to reform family law. He said he was opposed to any reform of family law. However, the following day, a fringe element of the Islamic youth called on the President to have second thoughts about his statement.


PeaceLink 2003 - Reproduction authorised, with usual acknowledgement