Tunisia wades into controversy amid calls for equality

Move to allow Muslim women to marry non-Muslims evokes mixed response

18:12 August 15, 2017

Manama: Tunisia’s President Beji Qaid Al Sebsi has called for the abolition of a circular that banned Tunisian Muslim women from taking non-Muslim husbands.

Al Sebsi in a speech marking Women’s Day on Sunday said that Circular 73, issued in 1973, was an obstacle to Tunisian women who wanted to marry non-Muslims.

He attributed the call for the abolition to the developments in the Tunisian society and to the fact that several Tunisian women now travelled abroad to work or live.

The justice minister should start the procedures to review Circular 73 in line with the constitution, Al Sebsi said.

Under the current law, a Tunisian Muslim woman cannot marry a non-Muslim unless he converts to Islam and is given a certificate from the religious authorities indicating he has become a Muslim.

Any marriage contracted between a Tunisian woman and a non-Muslim abroad is not validated by the authorities in Tunisia and remains null and void.

“The change in the laws will be made and it will be much sooner than you think,” Saida Guarrach, the spokeswoman for the Tunisian presidency, told a local radio.

“The president of Tunisia has the right to abolish the circular which is regarded as with no or little legal value. Several Tunisian women are facing problems because of this circular. Religion is a private personal matter,” she said on Monday.

Guarrach said that when the circular was approved, it was not “a religious obsession.”

“It was rather aimed at addressing social situations suffered by Tunisian women. It was not legally established and it is time to abolish it.”

The spokeswoman said solutions would be found for the cases of Tunisian woman who had encountered difficulties as a result of the circular.

She added that marriage contractors had no right to object to marriages between Tunisian women and non-Muslim men.

“Their duty is purely civic and not religious,” she said.

In his speech, Al Sebsi hinted at amending the inheritance laws to allow equality between male and female inheritors.

“We have a constitution for a civil state, and it is well-known that we are a Muslim population and we will not go ahead with reforms that would hurt their feelings,” he said.

“However, we have to say that we are heading towards equality [between men and women] in all fields and there is the issue of inheritance.”

Al Sebsi added he had set up a committee to look into individual freedoms and equality in all fields and present a report.

“I trust the intelligence of the Tunisians and the men of law. We will find a formula that will not hurt the feelings of our citizens.”

The calls by Al Sebsi sparked heated debates in the North African country where Muslims, mainly from the Maliki school of thought, make up 99 per cent of the population.

Political parties with leftist leanings welcomed the calls, saying they were “positive steps” towards achieving equality between men and women in line with the articles of the constitution and in consolidation of the empowerment of women politically, socially and economically.

However, parties with religious or conservative views condemned the calls, pledging to resist any attempt to change the rules of God and calling for an end to “haphazard decisions that do not take into consideration the feelings, willpower and interests of the people.”

Hamda Saeed, the former mufti of Tunisia, said that Al Sebsi was wrong in issuing the calls, stressing that the religious texts were clear about them.

Ahmad Rahmouni, a prominent Tunisian judge, slammed the call for equality in the inheritance.

“I have never heard or read that the issue of inheritance was left to the people to decide,” he posted on his Facebook.

“It seems that the president or whoever advised him did not imagine, despite their knowledge, that the call to amend the inheritance laws would destroy the social structure and would open the door to systems that have nothing to do with the history, traditions, norms, religion or practices of Tunisia.”

Former President Munsif Marzouqi said the calls by Al Sebsi were “political manoeuvring.”

“The two proposals were made to create a fissure among Tunisians through a highly controversial issue that should be addressed through a deep social dialogue,” he said. “Such acts that divide the people should be dismissed and instead have acts that bring them together.”

In Cairo, Al Azhar Al Sahreef, the highest Sunni religious institution, reportedly criticised both calls, saying they clashed with the precepts of Islam and insisting that the matters were not up for new interpretations.