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.
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 This memorandum was repealed last fall by the president, Beji Caid Essebsi, who is eager to modernize the status of women in the country.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.