HAPA Fall’16 recipient, Devon Golaszewski and other members of her Malian-American team are working to preserve the history of mid-century Malian nationalist and feminist activists who participated in the Malian independence movement, and who then turned their interest to social reform projects in independent Mali.
For our HAPA project, we hope to preserve the history of activists like Aoua Keita, Sira Diop, and Tata Kouyaté though a project to survey, collect, archive, and publicize the personal collections of 10-15 mid-century Malian nationalist and feminist activists, including Mali’s first female ambassador, the founder of the National School of Nursing, and leaders of pro-family planning and anti-excision campaigns. Over the next month, we will hold teach-ins at the University of Bamako on gender history and archival research, simultaneously addressing gaps in curriculum around gender and women’s history, emphasizing the importance of archival preservation for future historians, and serving as a point of contact for students interested in participating in the cataloguing project. Beginning in December, and continuing into the future, we will work to archive and preserve these important historical records and make them available for all Malians and future historians of Mali.
Following Mali’s independence from France in 1960, the new country’s socialist government, headed by President Modibo Keita, moved to reform some of the administrative structures and social policies inherited from the colonial state. One of Keita’s earliest targets was the 1951 colonial family code, which regulated interpersonal relations ranging from inheritance to marriage. Keita’s single-party government sought to update the family code with new provisions, raising the legal minimum age of marriage and outlawing non-consensual marriage contracted by family members without the input of the bride and groom (although other elements of Keita’s 1963 reforms – such as the fact that women could not legally open a business without their husband’s consent – were critiqued by subsequent feminist activists).
The push to reform the family code was supported and spearheaded by a cohort of Malian women who had been involved in the country’s independence movement alongside Keita and other male political activists. One French-educated midwife, Aoua Keita (no relation to the president), became Mali’s first female cabinet member, while Sira Diop, a French-trained teacher, became the first Malian director of Bamako’s girls high school and a co-author of the 1963 Family Code. Activists like Aoua Keita and Sira Diop were colonial social elites – women who had been educated in the rare French-language schools, and then gone to work for the colonial state as midwives, nurses, teachers, and social workers. Although they had been groomed to support the activities of the colonial state, these women (and their male counterparts) used their education to challenge colonialism, and ultimately push for Mali’s independence from France. Following independence, many of these women turned their energies towards social and civil projects such as the family code reform, as well as campaigns to promote girl’s education, access to contraception, and the end of excision, although their progressive social positions often coexisted with support for the regime’s coercive political positions like a ban on political parties.
In the movement to reform the family code, these French-educated activists were joined by other uneducated women, such as the musician Tata Kouyate. Tata was the child of a griot family, a social group which held a significant but specific role in Malian society as intermediaries, counselors, and musicians. At the age of 12, Tata composed the song “Bambo,” which critiqued the practice of forced marriage. When it was released, “Bambo” became the theme-song for those Malians who supported the family code revisions. The popularity of her song helped ensure general support for the family code, and contributed to the passage of the new law in 1963. (For her part, she remained nicknamed “Bambo” for the remainder of her very long career).
Emily Burrill, States of Marriage
Pascale Barthelemy, Africianes et diplomees
« Nuit de Noël » (Happy Club), c. Malik Sidibé, 1963.