Debate on interfaith marriage revs up again in Tunisia
Tunis - Despite its ground-breaking constitution that has been widely praised as the most progressive in the Arab region, Tunisia has been incapable of divesting itself of some restrictions on individual rights.
Arguments and contention persist as a battle to defend and uphold individual liberties gathers steam.
A coalition of some 60 Tunisian rights groups has called on authorities to scrap a 1973 ministerial decree that bans Tunisian women from marrying non-Muslims. The coalition said the decree undermines “a fundamental human right: which is the right to choose a spouse”.
The move revived a heated debate on interfaith marriage and prompted Diwan al-Ifta, Tunisia’s official religious institution, to say in a Facebook post: “We are not aware of the approval of any law that would allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslims. Accordingly, the issuance of Islam certificates remains in force for those who are willing to convert.”
Tunisian activists and rights groups blame the lack of progress on individual rights on inconsistencies among the 2014 constitution, ministerial decrees and elements of the penal code.
“This inconsistency stems from critical governmental delays. In the case of interfaith marriage, we have a ministerial decree that dates to 1973. This decree has no genuine legal value, which makes us assume that the matter is purely political,” said Najma Kousri Labidi, a feminist activist and a coordinator of the Commission for Bodily Integrity at the Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD).
“I do not see any convenience in the meddling of a religious institution like Diwan al-Ifta with a political matter,” she added.
“The decree of November 5th, 1973, emanates from the tendentious interpretation of the Arabic version of Article 5 of the Code of Personal Status, which uses the term mawanaa sharia. We have two interpretations. The first infers that mawanaa sharia implies impediments provided by the law. The second maintains that the term refers to impediments that are laid down under sharia,” said Iqbal Gharbi, a professor at Zeitouna University.
The divisive decree stipulates that for non-Muslim men and Muslim women to marry, the man must submit a certificate of his conversion to Islam. Muslim men who marry non-Muslim women are exempt from this procedure.
“The decree clearly violates the Tunisian constitution, which promotes equality between all citizens, regardless of gender,” Labidi said.
“The ATFD has been working on this matter for a long time. However, it appears that there is no political will to change the current situation. Hopefully, we believe that a societal debate is an essential step towards revocation.”
The coalition includes the ATFD, the Civil Collective for the Defence of Individual Freedoms, the Committee for the Respect of Human Rights and Freedom in Tunisia, the Tunisian Association to Support Minorities, the Tunisian Forum for Economic and Social Rights and the Tunisian League for the Defence of Human Rights.
The coalition called the 1973 decree “an aberration” that violates the freedom of conscience enshrined in the 2014 constitution.
“It is inadmissible today for a simple decree, which has almost no judicial value… to command the lives of thousands,” Sana Ben Achour, a lawyer and president of the Beity association, said during a March 27th news conference.
“The matter is problematic because the decree identifies all Tunisian women as Muslim whereas there is no certificate to prove religion in the country,” said Wahid Ferchichi of the Adli association for the defence of individual rights.
The coalition hopes that the decree will be revoked by November. In its statement, it “calls all Democrats from around the world to support Tunisia’s struggle for the upholding of women’s rights”.
Tunisia is viewed as being ahead of most Arab countries on women’s rights. Article 21 of the 2014 constitution states: “All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law.”
However, many legal provisions and practices discriminate against women, particularly in matters of inheritance. Despite rallying for collective rights and freedoms, it appears that Tunisian society remains in many regards reluctant to seriously address the matter of individual liberties.