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CULTURE-UGANDA: Muslims Demand Changes in Bill on Women’s Rights

Evelyn Kiapi Matsamura

KAMPALA, Apr 7 2005 (IPS) - Members of Uganda’s minority Muslim community have criticised their country’s domestic relations bill, saying it goes against the teachings of Islam.

To express their anger, thousands of Muslims from various parts of the country (police estimated 7,000), led by Sheikh Ramadhan Mubajje, held a demonstration in Uganda’s capital Kampala over the bill last week. The bill is now in parliament.

The protestors, who included women, young and old, wore hijabs, or Islamic veils, covering their head. During the procession, they carried placards and banners opposing sections of the bill on polygamy, bride price, cohabitation and age of consent to marriage – all of which are practiced in Islam.

Marching to parliament, they flashed out the four-finger sign, referring to the practice of marrying up to four wives by Muslim men, as stipulated in Islam. The protestors argued that the bill was against the teachings of the Koran, and that it tilts toward Christian laws.

Over the years, women activists in Uganda have regarded the bill as a powerful tool which could protect them from harmful traditional practices such as female genital mutilation (FGM), bride price and widow inheritance. The women have accused the government of dragging its feet in passing the bill, which has been on the shelves for almost 40 years.

The bill, known as the Domestic Relations Bill (DRB), entitles ‘’men and women to equal rights in marriage, during marriage and at its dissolution”.

Activists say the bill will play a major role in reducing the spread of HIV/AIDS. Women, especially those who carry the burden of looking after people living with HIV/AIDS, are more vulnerable to the virus than men.

According to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), over 50 percent of new HIV infections worldwide occur in women. And in countries where young people account for 60 percent of all new infections, infected young women outnumber their infected male peers by a ratio of 2 to 1. UNAIDS also estimates that close to eight million women in sub-Saharan Africa (out of 10 million women infected worldwide) are HIV-positive.

Standing-by their religion, Uganda’s Muslim leaders have rejected the claims that they were out of touch with current changes in society.

”The Koran caters for every aspect of marriage, children and relationships. There is no need for making another law for Muslims. A man can marry depending on his ability to maintain and sustain the relationship,” Sheikh Mubajje said at the procession.

In a statement to the deputy Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga, Mubajje said Muslims want the title of the bill changed and the marriage age defined as when a woman reaches the ‘age of puberty’ rather than the proposed 18 years.

While the Uganda Human Rights Commission in February had asked parliament to outlaw polygamy, arguing it undermines the dignity of women and welfare of the family, in Islam, not just the men defend polygamy. Even the women do.

‘’Very many women are looking for husbands. There are many widows. If the law prohibits men from marrying more than one woman, who will marry the widows?” asked Fatuma Kamulali, chairwoman of the Kampala-based Uganda Muslims Women’s Association for Daa’wa and Development.

Faridah Kakaire, the association’s secretary general, said: ”The law should not deny our men from marrying the number of women they want. A man marries to please Allah (God) and not to please people.”

According to research done by the Association of Women Lawyers (FIDA) in 1999, about 85 percent of women interviewed in Uganda said they would not be in a polygamous marriage if they had a choice.

‘’Those women have not had a chance to read. No one has reached out to them to understand the provisions of the bill,” Norah Matovu Winyi, FIDA Chairwoman, said in an interview with Sunday Monitor, a local publication.

Some activists believe particular clauses of the bill have been misinterpreted. ‘’I think the Muslims are just misinterpreting the DRB, particularly the clause on the polygamy,” Solome Nakawesi Kimbugwe, the coordinator of Uganda Women’s Network, told IPS in a telephone interview.

”We think their coming out on the street to demonstrate shows that the Parliamentary Committee should go back to the drawing board,” she said.

Last week the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee concurred with some concerns of the Muslim community, ‘toning’ down sections of the bill, following visible cultural and religious sentiments.

The committee recommended that the title of the bill be changed to ‘Marriage and Family Act’ and that the law should recognise communities that use ‘marriage gifts’, a euphemism for dowry.

It also suggested that the word ‘’widow inheritance” be replaced by ‘’re-marriage according to customary norms”.

Nonetheless, the members of the Muslim community, who make up about 16 percent of Uganda’s population, have yet to react to the changes made by the committee.

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