A teenage author is waiting in suspense while a court in Cameroon deliberates on whether a book she wrote is “blasphemous”, if found guilty she could be jailed.
Oummou Hani Marzouka, author of the book “My Father or My Destiny”, could face six months in prison and a big fine.
The Court of First Instance in Ngaoundere will rule next month if she broke the law when she published her feminist-inspired coming-of-age tale, based on her own experiences.
She was taken to court in Ngaoundere, in Cameroon’s Adamawa region, by the Chiefdom of Idool, in the Belel community.
Chief of Idool, Mohaman Ahman is also demanding a compensation of over $256,000 for damages caused to the community.
The book stirred up tensions locally as Marzouka named some of the unsympathetic characters in the book after real people, including Chief Ahman.
‘Unhealthy and blasphemous’
Blasphemy falls under Section 241 of Cameroon’s penal code, where anyone found guilty of contempt by means of the press or wireless, may face six weeks to six months imprisonment. She may also face a fine of as much as $34,000. Her sentence may be doubled if the offence committed is judged to have intent to “arouse hatred or contempt between citizens”.
The 150-page book describes the struggles of a young girl who has to choose between getting married to a man chosen by her parents, or following her journey to become a renowned writer.
Before launching the court action, Chief Ahman wrote a complaint to the Ministry of Arts and Culture. He denounced the book and asked for it to be withdrawn, stating the founding father of the village has been “portrayed in an unhealthy and blasphemous way”.
He claims the book is blasphemous because in its treatment of a local historical and mythological figure, who has become revered as a deity in the area.
Chief Ahman claimed the author had no right to criticise their community because she is more of a settler than an indigenous family. She had “no mastery of their community” he said. He accused the book author of causing damage to the village by trying to delay developmental projects in the community by causing disruption.
Witnesses say a court session on July 20 was filled with men from Idool village, who were not pleased with the book.
In the book, the young female protagonist is forced to marry a man as old as her father, at a time when she nurses ambitions to become a writer. Instead of settling for what is expected of her, she defied all odds to achieve her dreams. She also denounces traditional practices that demean young women in the northern regions. Many from the area say this is very daring and controversial.
In the book she also described a locally revered figure in an unsympathetic way.
The community’s origin story says it was founded by a wizard called Sidi, who has now become a figure of mythology. He is considered to be a god by the local people and criticism of him is “blasphemy”, the community elder bringing the charge claims.
The book has a passage where two women fall foul of the ancestor-deity. A woman and her daughter were seized by Sidi after they failed to bow down to him during one of his patrols.
The book reads: “Sidi considered himself a god. Bouba recounted the day when a woman and her daughter went to the market and fell head-to-head with him. They were new and didn’t know who he was. It was a law that anyone who came across the wizard Sidi should bow down. Surprised and angry at the indifference of these women, he dragged them to his cabin and no one knew the end of them.”
The book also recounts how the protagonist Astawabi responds after her father sexually abuses her mother.
“Astawabi, traumatised, rushes to her room, feeling afraid and horrified. She is engulfed by trauma. But, she decides to go through with her dream. She was going to face her father: she was going to free her mother,” the book reads.
In the book Astawabi’s father gives her away in marriage for money, under the watchful eyes of the Chief of Idool.
When writing the book, Marzouka gave the fictional chief the same name as the real chief.
During one of her book launches in Ngaoundere Marzouka said her intention to write the book is to “encourage young girls to dream big”.
“What I decry in my novel is a daily problem we face and I really want a change in the northern regions. I want to see more girls educated. I want young girls to have a vision and achieve their dreams”, she said.
The Northern part of Cameroon is heavily patriarchal. Just about 31.9% of girls in the northern regions are enrolled in schools, activists say.
The book has been very controversial. Some indigenes have asked Marzouka to edit out the names of real people she used in the book and use fictitious names.
A good number of people have been supportive of Marzouka since she was sued by her community.
A women’s rights activist and writer, Djaili Amadou Amal says she went through the very thing Marzouka is facing.
“As writers, we simply try to make our contribution by writing literature that is committed to improving things. In Cameroon, each region has its own specific characteristics. This means that in ours, there are also rules and traditions that are dear to us, values etc. and because of these traditions and values, unfortunately the population without understanding the foundations of a novel can feel offended”, she explained.
“I have also experienced this when I’ve been accused of advocating women’s rebellion, of betraying traditions, of being a bad Muslim, and so on”, added Djaili.
The International Network of Women Lawyers (RIFAV), has asked for the case to be withdrawn immediately, recalling that freedom of expression is a constitutional right. In a press statement, they announced the network will defend the interests of Marzouka in Cameroon and refer it to any international body if possible. They also denounced all physical and psychological violence against Marzouka.
The court case against Marzouka comes barely two days after she passed her final year high school examinations known as Baccalaureat.
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