Tunisia is known as the most progressive country for women’s rights in the Arab world. 41% of Tunisian judges are women, women fill 35% of the seats in parliament, and are 60% of the medical sector. Despite Tunisia’s status as a model for women’s rights in the region, Tunisian laws still regulate and limit women’s liberties. In 1973, the Tunisian government enacted a law that restricted a Tunisian Muslim woman’s right to marry a non-Muslim man, requiring non-Muslim men to convert before marrying a Muslim woman. Tunisian men, however, had no such restriction placed upon them.
On Tunisian National Women’s Day in August, President Beji Caid Essebsi stated that the antiquated marriage law was “an obstacle to the freedom of choice of the spouse” and violated the new Tunisian constitution, drafted in 2014 after the Arab Spring. The constitution articulates that “the state is obliged to achieve full equality between women and men and to ensure equal opportunities for all responsibilities.” The abolishment of the marriage restriction law is one move in a series of gender equality proposals by President Essebsi. In July, Tunisian parliament passed a law ending violence against women and rapist impunity. Also, there are currently ongoing debates of Tunisia’s inheritance laws, which give more rights to inheriting males.
Tunisia is a member of the United Nations and is a signatory of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the Convention on the Elimination on All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW). Tunisia ratified the ICCPR in 1969, and CEDAW in 1985. Both treaties place binding obligations on their signatories. Article 23 of the ICCPR establishes the equality of all persons to have the right to marry. Article 16 of CEDAW states that men and women have the same right to choose their spouse, while Article 2(f) requires all member states “to take all appropriate measures, including legislation, to modify or abolish existing laws, regulations, customs and practices which constitute discrimination against women.” Tunisia’s recent progressive steps to expand women’s rights are in line with their obligations under international law. The abolishment of the marriage law is directly in compliance with Article 2(f) of CEDAW. Additionally, the Universal Declaration on Human Rights (UDHR) is customary international law, meaning that all states are expected to respect and uphold the fundamental human rights outlined within. Article 16 of the UDHR states that “[m]en and women of full age, without any limitation due to race, nationality or religion, have the right to marry and to found a family.”
The recent legislative actions towards gender equality and women’s rights have received criticism from various religious scholars, as well as Tunisian Islamist opposition party Ennahda. Abbas Shuman, deputy to grand imam Ahmad Al-Tayyib of Al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in Sunni Islam, stated that Tunisia’s potential inheritance reforms were not in line with the Qu’ran and “would be unjust for women.” Abbas Shuman also expressed that interfaith marriages would threaten the stability of marriage. Religious conservatives, however, are not the only groups criticizing the abolishment of the 1973 marriage law. Some critics believe that the abolishment of the marriage law was used to distract the populace from the government’s subsequent act for impunity of corrupt government officials. On September 13, 2017, Tunisian parliament passed a new law that grants amnesty to corrupt civil servants. The law offers amnesty to any civil servant who did not personally benefit from embezzling public funds but forgives all other corrupt activities. The new amnesty law has sparked protests and is reminiscent of impunity for government officials in the pre-Arab Spring regime. The timing of President Essebsi’s announcement on the plans to abolish the marriage law came in the immediate wake of the passing of the amnesty law. Human Rights Watch’s Amna Guellali claims that the timing may not have been a coincidence, similarly to the manner in which President Ben Ali’s government “was often praised for its policy on women’s rights even as its repression of the opposition was ignored.” The marriage law has received three times the foreign press coverage that the amnesty law has, yet the amnesty law has the greatest ramifications on the post-Arab Spring progress and stability that has been established.
Moving forward, the developments of Tunisia’s gender equality efforts will be important to watch as a model to the rest of the Arab World. It will also be pertinent, however, to monitor the position of the current government in integrating the old regime and forgiving the actions that led to the death of 300 people during the Arab Spring. While progress for women’s rights are crucially important, any progress will be undermined if legislative advances are used as distractions as old regime politics creep back into Tunisia’s government.