Tunisia: Shaking the Foundations of Secularism
A political controversy is brewing in Tunisia over bills, decisions, and statements that the opposition says conservative groups are using to indirectly revise the very foundations of a secular state.
In early February, the Tunisian Minister of Women Affairs and Family, Siham Badi, made strange statements in which she described customary marriage, which is forbidden by Tunisian law, as “a personal matter that falls under the rubric of individual freedoms.”
She recanted her statement later on after causing a major controversy. She claimed that her statement was meant to test the reaction of Tunisian society.
One day after the electoral victory of the political party al-Nahda last November, its leader Rachid Ghannouchi announced that “polygamy is possible in Tunisia.”
He too recanted his statement and assured Tunisians that “al-Nahda does not intend to reconsider the code of personal status and the rights it guarantees Tunisian women.” This code prohibits polygamy.
At the beginning of the new year, Tunisian media was abuzz with talk about the new phenomenon of customary marriage that has become prevalent in working-class neighborhoods and at universities among members of Salafi groups.
This phenomenon is not entirely new to Tunisia even though it is prohibited by the law. Statistics issued by the Amal Association for the Family and Children indicate that the rate of out of wedlock births has reached 1,200 to 1,500 cases in 2009, i.e., the equivalent of four births every day.
According to the same statistics, most of these single mothers who had out of wedlock babies are “socially liberated” youth between the ages of 19 and 25.
These statistics revealed that this phenomenon is linked to liberal social norms in Tunisia. So religious customary marriage did not constitute the majority of cases. Rather it was about young men and women having relationships free from all forms of marital contracts.
Things changed however after the revolution in light of the rise of Salafi movements and the electoral victory of moderate Islamists.
After it came to power, al-Nahda dealt with the issue pragmatically and did not make changes to the personal status law for tactical reasons. After launching several trial balloons it became clear that most Tunisians oppose reversing “the gains of the Bourguiba legacy.”
But Salafi movements have a different strategy that includes promoting customary marriage in working class neighborhoods and at universities. This phenomenon has witnessed an unprecedented growth in the past few months according to a report by the Tunisian Center for Research, Studies, Documentation and Information on Women (CREDIF).
Tunisian Salafis seek to exploit the “war of religious edicts” to legitimize what the law criminalizes. To achieve their goal, they use the help of a number of hard-line preachers to bring down the code of personal status de facto if not de jure.
These preachers promote all kinds of marriage contracts as an alternative to civil marriage such as polygamy, customary marriage, and Misyar marriage (translated sometimes as travellers’ marriage or marriage of convenience).
It appears that this strategy began to bear fruit. MPs from the Congress for the Republic (CPR), President Moncef Marzhouki’s party, recently proposed a bill that aims to legalize different forms of religious marriage that have become popular within certain circles by establishing the institution of the religious marriage officiant.
This institution will formally perform and register religious marriage contracts under the pretext of fighting administrative chaos and addressing the social ills that might affect children born to these kinds of illegal marriages.
This bill has raised the ire of the official institution in charge of performing civil marriage contracts.
They were joined by many women’s associations and human rights organizations to express their opposition to legalizing religious marriage in all its forms since it is considered a violation of the secular nature of the Tunisian state. It is also in contradiction with the code of personal status which stipulates documentation, announcement, openness, and monogamy.
The huge crowd of protesters mobilized by these groups succeeded in pushing the president’s party to retract and pull the bill out of parliament.
Even though Tunisian officials always issue assurances regarding preserving the foundations of modernity and the civil nature of the Tunisian state, establishing an institution of a religious marriage officiant is nothing but one episode in a long series that the opposition considers an “undeclared project to roll back” these foundations.
The law of the religious marriage officiant which was aborted came less than two weeks after the interior ministry granted legal authority to the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vices. This institution is modeled after the Saudi religious police or clerical police.
It is interesting that the interior ministry headed by al-Nahda moderate leader Ali al-Arid did not object to the backward nature of this body that aims to create a morality police.
The ministry did however demand changing its title to the Centrist Commission for Awareness and Reform so that “the similarity in names would not be exploited to draw comparisons with the Saudi Wahhabi model.”
The initiatives that have been deemed an infringement on the secular and civil nature of the state are not restricted to matters of marriage and women’s rights.
There is a long list of provocations and attacks on intellectuals and journalists and a growing trend toward restricting freedoms.
Recent weeks have witnessed an unprecedented escalation in statements and governmental initiatives that aim to demonize the opposition as well as attempts to criminalize protest movements.
That was made clear in a series of attacks in late December on trade unionists who are members of the Union of Communist Youth which were attributed to Salafis.
But one member of the ruling troika soon joined in attacking trade unionists who have been leading strikes and protests.
A Leftist Conspiracy
Salafis were not the only ones who attacked trade unionists and human rights organizations. They were jointed by the ruling Troika.
Al-Nahda MP in the Constituent Assembly, Sheikh Sadek Chourou, called for applying the punishment for Hirabah against protesters under the pretext that they are “spreading disorder in the land.”
Chourou copied the religious edict issued by Saudi Arabia’s top cleric Abdul Aziz al ash-Shaikh in which he called for killing those who take part in the popular protest movement in al-Qatif in Saudi Arabia and “amputating their hands and feet from opposite sides.”
Despite his long legacy in labor union and human rights struggles, President Moncef Marzhouki was not bothered by Sheikh Chourou’s edict.
He even justified it during a TV interview two weeks ago by referring to a “left-wing conspiracy” aimed at paralyzing the economy and overturning the regime. He said he has intelligence reports with names of leftist activists who have taken part in this conspiracy.
This prompted the leader of the Workers’ Communist Party, Hamma Hamami, to challenge Marzouki to a television debate in order to uncover the truth.
Hamami told the Tunisian president: “The intelligence agencies that provide you with these conspiratorial reports are part of the legacy of the ousted dictatorial regime that have not been cleansed yet. And you should not forget that these are the same agencies that sent you a suspicious women to the Sousse hotel prior to the revolution to fabricate a report that put your morals into question.”
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.