Mali: Islamist threat to education

August 18, 2012

Strict Sharia, or Islamic religious laws, imposed by Islamist rebels controlling vast swathes of northern Mali are driving thousands of students out of schools. Dress codes have been imposed, boys and girls are forced to learn separately, and subjects deemed to promote “infidelity” have been struck off the curriculum.
Outraged parents are transferring their children and some students are opting to miss examinations rather than learn under these conditions. “We simply took our two children from the school,” says Mariam Touré, who lives in Timbuktu, one of the northern towns seized by the Islamists and other insurgents. “We will send them to Bamako (the capital of Mali, in the south) to continue learning.”

Boubacar Sissoko, a schoolmaster in Timbuktu — a UNESCO World Heritage site — says the Islamists “terrorise the children” with new laws. “They have introduced their own programme and new subjects like Islamic education, or collective prayers that they themselves conduct,” he says. The arrival of the Islamists in the north in March and the unrest that followed have left only 107 students out of 429 at the school.

Mali’s education ministry estimates that around 5,000 students have fled to schools in Bamako and other southern towns since Islamist fighters of Ansar Dine, an Islamist group that wants to apply Sharia law throughout Mali; the Movement for Unity and Jihad in West Africa (MUJAO), a small Islamist group; and the Azawad National Liberation Movement (MNLA), which want to create a separate secular state in the north, seized northern Mali in a military coup on March 22 and ousted president Amadou Amani Touré.

The combination of conflict, harsh drought, food insecurity, and now the imposition of Sharia law, has internally displaced 146,900 people, and more than 150,000 others to neighbouring Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger and Guinea, according to the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR). Although schools have taken the brunt of the draconian Islamic laws, residents can also no longer watch television, men cannot shave their beards or use tobacco. On June 20, a Timbuktu couple was flogged 100 times in public for having a child out of wedlock, sparking condemnation by shocked and angry residents.

Girls are forced to wear djellabas, or full-body robes. “On May 7, Ansar Dine and its ally, Al Qaeda in Maghreb, reopened schools in Timbuktu and Gao, a town to the east, but students began a new system (of learning) unknown to them before the occupation of the region,” says Timbuktu education director, Abou Bacri Cissé.

But the Islamists defend their laws. “Sharia has to be applied whether the people like it or not, we will enforce it. We are not asking anybody’s opinion. We are not democrats. We are servants of Allah who demand Sharia,” Sanda Ould Boumama, Ansar Dine’s spokesman in Timbuktu, told IRIN.

In the weeks after the military coup, heavily-armed MNLA rebels and Islamists gained an unprecedented hold over northern Mali. The MNLA declared independence soon afterwards, but the move was rejected by its Islamist allies as well as the international community, and caused divisions among the armed groups in the region.

(Excerpted and adapted from

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