Friday,26 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)
Friday,26 April, 2019
Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Controversy over marital equality

Tunisia’s Justice Ministry has lifted restrictions on Tunisian Muslim women marrying non-Muslims, sparking controversy across the country and beyond, writes Kamel Abdallah

Controversy over marital equality
Controversy over marital equality

اقرأ باللغة العربية

Controversy has erupted in Tunisia after the Justice Ministry announced the abolition of a decades-old decree prohibiting Tunisian Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims.

The announcement came days after President Beji Caid Essebsi’s pledge to promote gender equality in Tunisia, calling for amendments to the country’s inheritance laws to give women equal rights. Amidst the stir triggered by this week’s Justice Ministry announcement, some suspect that the decision was geared to strengthen the president’s popularity among women voters.

Citing a senior official in the government, Reuters reported on 15 September that the ministry had abolished a 44-year-old edict banning Tunisian Muslim women from marrying non-Muslims, thereby giving Tunisian women an equal right to men to choose their marriage partners.

The decision, which came in response to Essebsi’s call for equality in all domains including the country’s personal status laws, is certain to affect the president’s political prospects. He faces intense competition from the Islamist Ennahda Movement, which has formed the country’s largest parliamentary bloc since the rift in the ruling Nidaa Tounes Party in 2015.

The ministry’s decision came one week after Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed announced a major cabinet reshuffle. The move brought in many new ministers, including at the ministries of the interior, defence, finance and development with the aim of giving the government a fresh boost so that it can push forward with the economic reforms needed to stimulate the country’s ailing economy.

“This is to be a war government,” Chahed said. “It will wage a battle against corruption and terrorism and in the interests of development.”

The reshuffle comes after several weeks of political bargaining and following heavy pressure by the Nidaa Tounes and Ennahda parties. The latter had been opposed to changing the minister of interior. With the new line-up, Nidaa Tounes’s quota of cabinet seats has been upped to six, while Ennahda has four, and the Afek Tounes Party has two. Other portfolios have been handed to independents.

Soon after the reshuffle, Tunisia’s parliament adopted a hotly disputed law giving amnesty to thousands of people linked to corruption in the regime led by ousted former president Zein Al-Abidine ben Ali. Some observers believe that the abolition of the 1973 edict banning Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men was timed to divert public attention away from the amnesty.

It is also believed that the Justice Ministry decision will impact negatively on the Chahed government’s popularity at a time when it is contending with severe economic difficulties. Islamist forces and especially those associated with Ennahda may expand their opposition to the decision and to further measures the government plans to take on gender equality and personal status matters.

According to some Tunisian commentators, the government’s haste in responding to Essebsi’s calls for gender equality has a lot to do with gaining electoral advantage in advance of the forthcoming legislative, presidential and municipal elections. It is not yet certain whether the 90-year-old president will be standing for another term.

According to some, Essebsi aims to call the bluff of the country’s Islamists, whom he suspects of not really accepting the principle of a civil state in Tunisia. Responding to Essebsi’s initiative to promote gender equality in inheritance and marital rights, Ennahda, headed by Rached Al-Ghannouchi, said that “this is not the right time to launch this initiative in view of the priority that should be given to economic and development problems.”

Some analysts have read this as an attempt to avoid locking horns with Essebsi, Nidaa Tounes and other left-wing and secularist forces in Tunisia that suspect that Ennahda is hostile to the civil (secular) state.

Tunisian public opinion is sharply divided over the question of gender equality in marital and inheritance rights. Many hail the Justice Ministry’s decision as a “true victory for Tunisian women” and one that has been decades late in coming. Others, often representing rural areas or less well-off provinces, hold that the decision was an “elitist” move that only serves women belonging to the upper classes and is of no concern to the majority of Tunisian women in communities where centuries-old customs and traditions still prevail.

Tunisian women’s rights activists counter that the old edict flew in the face of the new constitution, as well as UN human rights conventions. They note that many Tunisian women have been forced to travel abroad in order to register their marriages in European countries, after which they have been put through a long bureaucratic process in order to register them in Tunisia.

The bold step taken by the Tunisia government is expected to precipitate reactions far beyond Tunisia’s borders, especially in Arab countries that have active women’s rights movements.

It is also expected to trigger opposition and rekindle the debate over the relationship between religion and politics in Arab societies. The effects of the sharp polarisation that has gripped these societies can still be felt, and it could easily flare up over issues relating to women’s rights and the place of religion in public life.

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