A government plan to give conservative Chad a new family law banning practices such as beating wives has provoked uproar.
“At Friday prayers, Muslim preachers have taken to saying that President Idriss Deby and his family will burn in hell because it is against the Koran to say a woman is equal to a man,” the weekly newspaper Notre Temps observed.
The draft code is a 246-page document drawn up with the help of funding from the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and Deby pledged to speedily adopt it in a speech on 8 March to mark International Womens’ Day.
This new plank of women's rights legislation will replace a colonial-era civil code, dating back to 1958, two years before Chad gained independence from France.
It was extensively discussed at a cabinet meeting on 31 March chaired by Prime Minister Pascal Yoadimnadji and the government said in a statement afterwards that Deby was determined to see it pushed through, despite widespread grumbling by Chadian men.
“The adoption of the code is part of the head of state’s political platform in the 2001 elections,” the government said in a statement.
Chad, a vast landlocked country with an estimated population of 9.5 million, is described by UNFPA as having “huge gender disparities.”
The UN organisation which promotes family planning, reproductive health and women's rights, said that in 2000, 81 percent of women in Chad were illiterate compared with 56 percent of men.
But the introduction of the new family code has sharply upset traditionalists in both the Muslim north and Christian south of the country.
A prestigious group of prominent Muslim lawyers, businessmen and media executives, the Union of Muslim Cadres in Chad (UCMT) dismissed the draft law earlier this year as “a way of imposing foreign customs and traditions on Chadians.”
It objected to government plans to raise the minimum age for girls to marry from 14 to 16 and set new rules on divorce.
The UCMT also took exception to the proposed ban on wife-beating and a provision to give children born out of wedlock the same inheritance rights as those conceived within a marriage.
“It is out of the question that other traditions, borrowed from the West, be imposed on us on the pretext that our own traditions are archaic,” said Mahamat Seud Abba Zene, a lawyer and academic who is one of the founders of the UCMT.
“As far as we are concerned the arithmetical equality of the genders that they are trying to force upon us is a false problem,” he added.
But asked whether Chadians could live with two distinct civil codes, one drawn up on Muslim precepts and another adapted to the customs of Christians and animists, General Abdelkader Kamougue, who heads the opposition Union for Democratic Renewal (URD) party, said the answer was simply no.
“If there are two codes, there will also be two states,” said the general, who headed southern troops against the forces of the north during Chad's first civil war, back in 1979.
Many Christians also oppose the new family code, but for rather different reasons; it legalises polygamy which has long been practiced in Chad.
In his address to a rally of women in N'Djamena's main square on 8 March, Deby said that whatever the misgivings of people about the new law, “the majority of people favour the code and we will move towards implementing it.”
“We must repair the injustice done to women,” Deby said. “If today only 10 percent of those in government are women, then theat is injustice. From 2007 there will be 30 percent.”
Local commentators have stressed that the new code will bring Chad into line with international treaties ratified by the government as well as complying with the United Nations' Millennium Goals, which call for a boost in education for young girls as a way of fighting poverty.
Nadjikimo Benoudjita, the editor of Notre Temps, said Muslim intellectuals opposed to the new draft law were barring the way to the development of northern Chad and the full emancipation of its women.
He also accused conservative opponents of the new law of being out of step with other Muslim countres such as Algeria and Morocco, which had recognised the injustice done to women in the name of religion and had ammended their laws accordingly.
There has been little comment from women themselves, but recently Fatime Kimto, a Muslim from the south who is Minister of Social Affairs, said she favoured adoption of the new code.
Not all her cabinet colleagues would agree. According to the local press, Public Security Minister Abderamane Moussa refused to attend a recent ministerial meeting held especially to finalise the law.
Instead he sent a written comment saying: “I say and conclude that a woman is not the equal of a man from Islam’s point of view. On the contrary she originated from man.”