When the world gets closer.

We help you see farther.

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter.

Geopolitics

Inside Tunisia's Battle Over Inter-Religious Marriages

Since 2017, Tunisian women have had the right to marry non-Muslims. But reality is playing out in different ways down on the local level amid an Islamist resurgence.

A wedding in Tunis, Tunisia
A wedding in Tunis, Tunisia
Frédéric Bobin

KRAM — It's marriage season in Tunisia, and the town hall of this municipality north of Tunis, is staying open late into the evening. They have to accommodate everyone. Howls resonate inside the expansive hall, where a blissful couple — the groom in a striped tie and pink shirt and the bride draped in immaculate muslin — moves timidly forward along the tile floor.

In his second-floor Kram office, Fathi Laayouni, wearing a fuchsia shirt, spreads out sheets of notes in front of him. Some passages are noticeably underlined in red. Laayouni, a lawyer by trade, prepares to speak. Before starting, he holds out a saucer with a baklava — a diamond shaped cake stuffed with pistachio and dried fruit — covered with a patina of honey. This is the heart of what is known, unofficially, as the Islamic Emirate of Kram. The moniker was conceived by a columnist from Buisinessnews.com, an online Tunisian news outlet, who apparently does not hold Laayouni close to her heart.

Laayouni is the newly elected mayor of Kram. He is an extremely controversial character, even among his own Islamic faction. He savors this inflammatory reputation, even if he uses an ultra-conservative interpretation of Tunisian law to justify his deeply orthodox mindset. Laayouni launched himself into the national limelight when, in the heart of the summer, he proclaimed that he would never authorize a marriage in his jurisdiction between a Tunisian woman and a non-Muslim.

The Islamist base has come back to life.

In Tunisia, men have long had the right to marry non-Muslims, but women could not. Tunisian women were formally banned from unions with non-Muslims in a 1973 Justice Ministry memorandum, inspired by the country's Muslim traditions. This memorandum was repealed last fall by the president, Beji Caid Essebsi, who is eager to modernize the status of women in the country. Laayouni's proclamation was an open challenge to the president.

Laayouni has taken up the resistance and ordered his registrar department to refuse mixed marriages. He has referenced the Constitution, ratified in 2014, and a peculiar reading of Article 5 of the Personal Status Law that goes back to 1956. The Constitution states that the nation has the responsibility to "protect the sacred," which is enough for Laayouni to affirm that he is just enforcing the law. Those who should be ashamed, according to Laayouni, are the "minority of extremists' who want to "eliminate religion" with their interpretation of the Constitution and use it to "destroy family and morality."​

Aerial view of Kram — Photo: Citizen59

Laayouni is a part of the revival of orthodox Islamist ideology in Tunisia, which had held a low profile since 2013, when the rise of violent Salafism caused a backlash against political Islam. In this context, the Ennahda party, which was cast from the Islamic die but entered into a tactical alliance with its former modernist rivals in 2015, had enjoined its followers to take more moderate stances. That lasted about three years.

Since the victory of Ennahda in the municipal elections on May 6, the Islamist base has come back to life. This new boldness has caused concern among one segment of the party that is concerned about its image in the West. But Laayouni is clever and appeals to Bourguiba's Constitution.

But there are other town councilors who are at odds with Laayouni's vision. The battle over inter-religious marriage is, in fact, raging across the country. In Marsa, another village in northern Tunisia, the mayor, Slim Meherzi, a modernist with no party affiliation, has just celebrated a mixed marriage: a Tunisian woman with a Portuguese Catholic. He's very proud of it and is preparing to do it again in one month, this time with a French groom.

"One must be uncompromising in the application of constitutional principles," Meherzi declares.

His reading of the Constitution points to the stipulation that the state "guarantees freedom of conscience," that Tunisia is "a civil state founded on civic rights," and that "the citizens — men and women — must be equal in rights and in duties."

This new boldness has caused concern.

"Every Tunisian woman has the right to marry whom she wants: an atheist, a Buddhist, or whatever," says Meherzi.

Others like the mayor of Ariana, a village close to Tunis, are also welcoming to mixed couples. Fadhel Moussa, a professor of law and member of the Constituent Assembly from 2011 to 2014, has extended his own invitation. "All couples are welcome in my city hall," he says. "For me, faith comes from deep down inside." Although he hasn't had a mixed marriage in his municipality yet, he says he's ready to perform one at the first opportunity.

From Kram and Marsa to Ariana and on to other municipalities large and small, Tunisia is a nation of both contradictions and social change. The battle over mixed marriages is its new ideological front line.

You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!

Members of the search and rescue team from Miami search the rubble for missing persons at Fort Myers Beach, after Florida was hit by Hurricane Ian.

Sophia Constantino, Laure Gautherin, Anne-Sophie Goninet

👋 Shlamaloukh!*

Welcome to Tuesday, where North Korea reportedly fires a missile over Japan for the first time in five years, Ukrainian President Zelensky signs a decree vowing to never negotiate with Russia while Putin is in power, and a lottery win raises eyebrows in the Philippines. Meanwhile, Argentine daily Clarin looks at how the translation of a Bible in an indigenous language in Chile has sparked a debate over the links between language, colonialism and cultural imposition.

[*Assyrian, Syria]

Keep reading...Show less

When the world gets closer, we help you see farther

Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
You've reached your monthly limit of free articles.
To read the full article, please subscribe.
Get unlimited access. Support Worldcrunch's unique mission:
  • Exclusive coverage from the world's top sources, in English for the first time.
  • Insights from the widest range of perspectives, languages and countries
  • $2.90/month or $19.90/year. No hidden charges. Cancel anytime.
Already a subscriber? Log in
THE LATEST
FOCUS
TRENDING TOPICS

Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

Watch VideoShow less
MOST READ