Tunisia Overturns Ban Preventing Muslim Women From Marrying Non-Muslim Men

The right and freedom to marry, or not marry, the person of our choice is one of the most fundamental human rights today. Throughout history this has been a constant battle in a variety of different intersectional ways, and has also become an issue that can cause major divides.

Whether it be the fight for marriage equality so that same-sex couples can enjoy the same legal benefits as heterosexual people, or the fight for interracial marriage which has put many people’s livelihood at stake throughout history, especially here in the United States during segregation. But what about people of different religions getting married? One country has taken a major step forward for women’s rights through marriage, allowing women the freedom of this important choice.

Tunisia has just lifted a ban dating back to 1973 which forbade Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men. As Al Jazeera reports, this ruling from the country’s President Beji Caid Essebsi is part of his focus on furthering the rights of women across the country.

“The state is obliged to achieve full equality between women and men and to ensure equal opportunities for all responsibilities,” Essebsi said on Tunisia’s National Women’s Day in August.

His office also released a statement about the decision, reiterating the importance of choice within marriage.

“Congratulations to the women of Tunisia for the enshrinement of the right to the freedom to choose one’s spouse,” presidency spokeswoman Saida Garrach wrote on Facebook.

The 1973 ban was deemed unconstitutional, according to the new Tunisian Constitution drafted in 2014 in the wake of the Arab Spring, which outlines a number of equal rights for women which did not exist previously. President Essebsi formed a committee led by a female lawyer and human rights activists in order to draft new laws for Muslim women.

Before the ban was overturned, in order for a Muslim woman to marry someone outside of Islam, the man would have to convert and provide a certificate as proof of his newly-adopted religion. But of course, as is the norm for many countries where laws fundamentally favor men as superior beings, Muslim men were always allowed to marry non-Muslim woman.

Although the Tunisian constitution is said to have more rights for women, at least on paper, there are still areas which are lacking in equality. For instance, a daughter can only inherit half of what a son is entitled to.

“The first president of independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, championed a landmark social code in 1956 that set a standard for the region by banning polygamy and granting new rights to women unheard of in the Arab world at the time. But even he didn’t dare push for equal inheritance,” explained the Al Jazeera article.

A number of the laws which disproportionately favor men over women are looked upon positively by some religious clerics, who disapprove of the President’s decision to overturn the 1973 marriage ban. However, as the Washington Post reports, the religious backlash may not even be the most controversial or troubling aspect of President Essebsi’s recent decisions.

The day before the non-Muslim marriage ban being overturned, he passed a law that has left some human rights activists concerned about his larger agenda.

“Tunisia’s parliament passed a reconciliation law that seeks to protect civil servants from the old regime from prosecution under the country’s Truth and Dignity Commission that is dealing with the legacy of the brutal dictatorship of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali that fell in 2011,” writes WaPo’s Paul Schemm.

In the wake of the Arab Spring, Islamic leaders came to power initially, only to be voted out in 2014. After that, President Essebsi, who had held a number of positions in Parliament pre-revolution, came to power, promising prosperity and safety, as well as “reconciliation”, which is now being seen in the form of giving businessmen and civil servants of the old regime that now were being tried for past crimes, including torture, bribery and embezzlement, exoneration.

Amna Guellali from the Human Rights Watch said that the marriage ban being overturned in light of the reconciliation law was “one step forward, one step back” for Tunisia.

“For a long time, the old regime used progress on women’s rights as a fig leaf to distract from its repressive policies. By championing women’s rights while at the same time expanding impunity for acts of corruption, the Tunisian government is reminding us of how these two contrasted realities worked in the past and how women’s rights were used to whitewash a system riddled with corruption and systematic human rights violations,” she wrote in a statement.

With the ushering in of a new constitution and a new government in the wake of a major revolution like that of the Arab Spring, we are no doubt going to see a lot of progressive measures tempered by moves that are seemingly regressive, as is the reconciliation law. The struggle for power is never an easy one, and throughout history, around the world, we have seen how many movements have left certain groups behind or ignored others.

For Tunisia to truly be a bastion of women’s rights in the Middle East, equality cannot only be enshrined in legislation, it must be lived out in every sector of society. Back in July, Tunisia passed tougher laws on domestic and sexual violence as well as sexual harassment in public spaces. The new laws also closed a controversial loophole which granted rapists a reprieve if they married their victims.

QZ.com reports women now make up a sizeable percentage of the Tunisian workforce, and 75 out of 217 Parliament members. But laws that allow corrupt leaders to retain power or escape consequences show how patriarchy and privilege must be demolished in order for equality and freedom to truly be a reality for everyone. For now, the ability for Muslim women to marry whomever they choose is good news.


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  1. Pingback: The Modern Muslim Woman: An Anonymous Open Letter Championing Our Diverse & Nuanced Voices - GirlTalkHQ

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