Lovers win, as love loses: Changes to interfaith marriage law in Tunisia

Lovers win, as love loses: Changes to interfaith marriage law in Tunisia

In September this year, amendments to Tunisian marriage law lifted a ban on the country’s women to marry non-Muslim men. The change was celebrated by women’s rights activists who have been demanding it for decades.

The good news were expected since August 13, Tunisian Women’s Day, when President Beji Caid Essebsi had announced that he would take steps to ensure gender equality, particularly in matrimonial and inheritance laws.

Essebsi had suggested that it was about time to adapt the Code of Personal Status, which had been traditionally shaped by Islamic principles, to the constitution, which was primarily secular. But it was not an easy task.

Despite the relatively secularist political tradition in Tunisia, politicians typically stayed away from intervening in the Code of Personal Status and left its regulation to Islamic authorities.

Interfaith marriage between Muslim women and non-Muslim men has been a highly sensitive topic across the Muslim world for centuries, as it is widely considered as “apostasy.” Although there are changes, it is still banned in many Muslim societies.

Gender inequality in inheritance is also typical in societies living under Islamic law, where women inherit half of what their male siblings do.

According to many Muslims, this is fair, because women have no financial responsibilities in the family as all responsibility lies with male family members. But this approach clearly fails to recognize the needs of women who choose to live on their own or without a male guardian.

Although the proposal to change matrimonial and inheritance laws was initiated by Essebsi, the leader of the secularist Nida Tunis, it could not have happened without the approval of Essebsi’s coalition partners from the Islamic Ennahda party.

When Essebsi first announced his intention to change the Code of Personal Status, all eyes turned to Ennahda. But Ennahda members reacted very cautiously and maintained a strict silence before they agreed on a strategy. They faced a tough choice.

Ennahda did not want to challenge the secular establishment. In fact, avoiding tension with the secularists had been its priority since the aftermath of the Arab Spring, especially after witnessing the fate of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood.

It was for this very reason that Ennahda leader Rachid Ghannouchi, who was elected president in 2011, had stepped down in 2014, following rising tensions between Islamists and secularists, and did not run as a candidate in the 2014 presidential elections.

Emerging as the second largest party in the 2014 parliamentary elections, Ennahda became a coalition partner of the winning Nida Tunis, and has maintained a moderate position ever since.

Maintaining this hard-earned equilibrium was important for Ennahda, which did not want to risk it with a conflict over gender issues.

On the other hand, both interfaith marriage and inheritance laws were highly sensitive issues among the devout leaders of the party and its conservative constituency. Thus, Ennahda had to carefully calculate a way out with the least cost.

Finally, the party announced its decision: It would accept the lift of the ban on interfaith marriage, but reject inheritance equality.

Ennahda’s reaction is very interesting, as it is illustrative of the relative influences of idealistic and pragmatic motives in decision-making.

We know that for the devout male leaders of Ennahda both of Essebsi’s proposals were undesirable as they conflicted with their understanding of Islamic law. But when they had to make a choice, they seemed to have followed practical rationality and decide in favor of their economic interests.

Losing male superiority in inheritance was the less desirable option as it not only challenged their beliefs but also their direct interests. Besides, interfaith marriage only affected a small group of Tunisians, while a change in inheritance law affected all men directly, so there were more practical reasons for resistance.

Under such circumstances, retaining their economic power must have been the priority for Ennahda members over the power to control who other women may marry.

To sum up, the freedom to interfaith marriage in Tunisia pleased lovers, but it can hardly be called a victory of "love."

To the contrary, the concern to retain economic interests pushed Tunisian decision makers to make concessions over marriage law, a “less important” issue.

Lovers won, ironically, as love lost.