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Tunisia’s radical marriage proposals

Saturday 28 October 2017, by siawi3


’We are an example to the Arab world’: Tunisia’s radical marriage proposals

Against strong opposition, Tunisia is pushing ahead with laws that will allow women to marry outside the Muslim faith and grant them equal inheritance rights

Photo: Tunisia’s president Beji Caid Essebsi has said: ‘The state is obliged to achieve full equality between women and men and to ensure equal opportunities for all responsibilities’. Photograph: Mohamed Messara/EPA

Simon Speakman Cordall in Tunis and Mona Mahmood

Monday 4 September 2017 11.09 BST
Last modified on Monday 4 September 2017 14.57 BST

Tunisia is pressing ahead with ambitious proposals to reform the country’s laws on marriage and inheritance, despite widespread resistance from inside and outside the predominantly Muslim country.

Last month, president Beji Caid Essebsi announced his intention to allow women to marry outside the Islamic faith, and to give them equal rights under the country’s inheritance laws.

Currently, a Muslim woman is not allowed to marry a non-Muslim. Men are allowed to marry women of any faith who don’t have to convert. Under Islamic law, men typically receive double the inheritance of any woman.

Citing the country’s 2014 constitution, considered one of the most progressive in the region, the president said: “The state is obliged to achieve full equality between women and men and to ensure equal opportunities for all responsibilities.”

The move will further cement Tunisia’s position at the forefront of the debate on women’s rights among Islamic countries. It has already passed a law ending violence against women, which included the removal of a loophole in the penal code that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims.
Islamists have been protesting against the gender equality plans declared by Tunisian president Baji Caid Sibsi on the National Day of Tunisian Women on August 25

Photo: Islamists have been protesting against the gender equality plans declared by Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi. Photograph: Mohamed Krit/Barcroft Images/Mohamed Krit Barcroft Images

Speaking on local radio shortly after the announcement, Rym Mahjoub, an MP with the liberal Afek Tounes party, said the move was “progressive and revolutionary”.

She added: “As a woman I’m proud that this issue will be discussed now... it does not mean that we do not have other social and economic problems or cancel the discussion of other important issues...[but] we can see that some women are deprived of her right in inheritance as it is stipulated in religious text.”

Amna Guellali, senior researcher for Tunisia and Algeria for Human Rights Watch, said the announcement marked “the beginning of a healthy debate of seeing how we can take these ancient Koranic laws and shape them so they reflect new societies”.

“This isn’t just a debate that’s taking place in Tunisia, it’s happening all over the region,” she said, adding: “Whether this leads to any real change remains to be seen.”

Academic and feminist Dalenda Larguèche, from Manouba University in Tunis, said the presidential initiative was central to the kind of state she hoped Tunisia would become.

“We are applying the fundamental principles of the constitution,” she said.

“Why can a [Tunisian] man marry a non-Muslim female, but this is not the case for a Tunisian woman? As for the matter of inheritance, I am personally delighted that the president made the decision of pushing forward with all measures towards advancing equality.

“There are no taboos nowadays. With this new Tunisia, we are an example to the Arab world and an example for other women and Muslim countries. If we were able to create a progressive constitution, it was thanks to Tunisian women.”

However, the move has met with strong resistance from the president’sopponents and from some international religious bodies.

Jamila Ksiksi, from the opposition Ennahda party, said the president should be focusing on other problems, such as high unemployment and rising costs of living. “I think there are other issues that are much more important than this [equality], issues that need more energy, effort and time, and that need to be addressed immediately.”

The former minister of public health, Abdellatif Mekki and the party’s former minister of religious affairs, Noureddine Khademi, along with a number of Imams and religious scholars from the country’s Zitouna University, have been vocal in their denunciation of the reforms.

Khademi said Tunisians were “in shock” since the president’s speech. “I say to the president I hope that you would reconsider this initiative.”

Mekki said laws around inheritance were already “a perfect system”. He posted on his Facebook page: “...Provoking the issue of inheritance does not have any relation with the perspective of equality, which I’m one of its supporters, but comes as part of an internal and foreign political ideology agenda, and we are sorry that the president did not pay attention to that.”

The announcement has drawn criticism from the region’s religious scholars. In a public statement, Abbas Shuman, deputy of grand imam Ahmad Al-Tayyib of the Egyptian religious authority Al-Azhar, the highest religious authorities in Sunni Islam, wrote that the potential reform to inheritance was, “unjust for women and is not in line with Islamic Sharia”.

In regard to inter-faith unions, he said: “Such a marriage would obstruct the stability of marriage.”