Crisis in Mali: fundamentalism, women’s rights and cultural resistance

Published on Pambazuka News, by Jessica Horn, April 19, 2012.

In conversation with Jessica Horn, a leading Malian women’s rights activist (name supplied but withheld on request) identifies the roots of the crisis in Mali, and the opportunistic use of the crisis by Malian and international Islamic fundamentalists to gain a popular foothold in the north of the country.

JESSICA HORN: Were there any early warnings that this crisis would emerge?  

  • INTERVIEWEE: This is one of the deepest crisis [10] that this country has faced since colonial times. We have been through the 1968 military coup against President Modibo Keïta, we went through the popular revolutions in the early 1990s, but it has never gotten to this level of instability. The military group that led the coup is from Kati, a military garrison town outside of the capital Bamako which had been used historically as a base for troops from all over West Africa.
  • At the end of January 2012, a group of women who were wives of soldiers from Kati had held a march and threatened to go to the Palais de Koulouba (presidential palace) in Bamako. These women felt that they needed more information about the government’s response to what had happened to their husbands who had been sent by the government to fight the Tuareg rebellion in the north of Mali. There had been a lot of rumour that the Malian military did not have enough arms to fight the Tuareg rebels. The women had also heard that there were many cases of torture and ill treatment of Malian soldiers by the Tuareg rebels, and had also heard rumours that the Malian government was engaged in heavy negotiation with the rebels and not, for example, ordering troops to shoot at the rebels. They felt that their husbands had been sent to the north of Mali to die.
  • We have to remember that the Tuareg rebels had been supported by Gaddafi in Libya, who had both integrated some of these rebels in his army and was also known to have been assisting with the rebellion in the north of Mali. After the fall of Gaddafi, these rebels returned to Mali heavily armed, and in fact some say better armed than the Malian army itself.
  • As part of rising anger against what was happening in the north, there had also been attacks on innocent people from northern Mali living in Bamako. The government stepped in to protect the northerners, which again made it appear to everyday people like the government was on the side of the northern rebels.
  • In terms of the humanitarian situation, the roots of a crisis are already there. People had started to flee the north from the start of the year, with people internally displaced as well as crossing borders in to countries such as Burkina Faso. At the start of the year we also had a drought and we could see that were going to face a food crisis. An early sign we saw was many parents in rural areas pulling their children out of school and sending them to the cities to try and earn money to buy food.

JESSICA HORN: Who is leading the current armed rebellion in the north? … //

… JESSICA HORN: What do you see as priorities for action?

  • INTERVIEWEE: First and foremost we have to pay as much attention to the concerns of ordinary people as we do to issues such as elections. Any decision that is taken by political leaders, ECOWAS, the African Union or the international community needs to be aware of who is paying what price for every intervention that they consider. There is urgent work to do in order to support women on the ground. We have to identify and respond to the everyday needs of women who have been displaced, to ensure they feel safe and supported, but also not belittled by humanitarian intervention.
  • As a Malian I can also say that there is serious and deep work that we must do as civil society to affirm people in their identity as Malian, which has always been a very vibrant and extremely tolerant culture. The Muslim fundamentalists are already trying to erode this. They work at the level of culture, and have started to try and change our culture as a way of gaining power. This is longer-term work for us as civil society and it has to start now. We have to make it clear that secularism is vital, and that as Malians living in peace with our neighbours regardless of their religion or ethnicity is our way of life. It includes not judging and forcing people to do or to be what we think is right. In Bamanan (Bambara) culture and language in Mali there is a strong embrace of the concept of ‘maya’- the fact that what makes us human is our relationship and responsibility to our fellow human beings. We take this for granted as Malians, and then the fundamentalists come and start to unravel those principles very quickly. We know that fundamentalists groups work through fear and guilt. As soon as they attack a women’s hairdresser for example, of course other hairdressers will be afraid to open their shops. We know from experience in other countries how Muslim fundamentalists take over. And we can and we have to make it more difficult for them to take over.

(full interview text).

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