Customary marriages in Tunisia
Jalel El Gharbi - 13/04/2012
In matters of marriage, the Tunisians had only one reference: the Personal Status Code enacted in 1957 that gives the Tunisian woman, the best status in the Arab world. Tunisia is the only Arab country to have outlawed polygamy. However, since it did not export monogamy, today, Tunisia risks importing polygamy. In Tunis, we begin to hear of strange types of marriage: the misyar , a marriage where the woman renounces to the rights of living with her husband and to be maintained by him. There’s the marriage of pleasure contracted in exchange of a sum of money agreed between the two parties or even the marriage of friendship where both spouses still live with their respective parents. We hear mostly of the customary marriage called orfi. For the Sunni, and Tunisians are Sunni, these marriages are only for a more or less for concealed fornication. The marriages are of Shiite origin and the Tunisians would have never heard of such marriage if the Wahabi who consider themselves as Sunni, did not adopt them.
The Wahabi influence is exerted in Tunisia through the Salafist movement formed of small groups of activists with two branches: a pacifist one and a jihadist one. The Salafist are recognisable by their attire: an Afghan qamis , a cap and sport shoes, wearing a beard. They have distinguished themselves through their attacks against the TV channel Nessma following the diffusing of Persepolis, the cartoon film of the Iranian filmmaker Marjane Satrapi considered blasphemous.
They have also distinguished themselves in Sedjane where they first sown discord by wanting to make law and establish an Islamist emirate. The police had to intervene after the scandal provoked by the aggressions against foreign journalists and press correspondents. At the Manouba University, the Salafists have distinguished themselves by disrupting the course of the Faculty of Arts for a period of two months because they wanted the few girls wearing the niqab to be allowed to enter classrooms and run exams while lecturers, administrative workers refused adamantly. It was during the Salafist sit-in that the public opinion heard of customary marriage.
The other types of marriage (misyar, frienship marriage and others) have not yet appeared in the country. Customary marriage is a consensual union contracted after reading the Fatiha, the first Surat of the Koran, in front of two witnesses, usually two friends. It brings together a Salafist and a young girl of humble origins. The marriage is contracted without the parents’ consent and it is kept secret. This is the point where customary marriage goes against Islamic law and the country’s Sunni tradition, well rooted thanks to the prestigious Zeitouna University. This probably explains why Sheikh Abdelfattah Mourou unreservedly condemns this kind of marriage as he considers it to be illegal and illegitimate (Sabah Journali, 8th Februrary 2012).
Dalenda Larguèche, director of the CREDIF (Centre de recherches, d’études, de documentation et d’information sur le femme – Centre for Research, Studies and Documentation on Women) believes that customary marriage “is the “halal” way to circumvent the law prohibiting polygamy in the country.” One could think that customary marriage observed in the underprivileged suburbs of Tunis and among students from poorer backgrounds is a form of sexual liberation. Not at all, because it often leads to abuses against credulous girls and opens the door to polygamy, something that the overwhelming majority of Tunisians refuse or have refused well before it was banned in 1957. Mrs. Sihem Badi, Minister for Women has learned the hard way: perhaps believing that Islamism was on the rise, she declared that customary marriage was part of personal freedom. After the outcry caused by her statements, she quickly recanted: “I made this statement to test public opinion and I am delighted with this reaction” she declared into Nessma TV’s microphone.
Tunisians are concerned by the prospect of seeing this phenomenon of street children present in Egypt, arriving in Tunisia and especially by the arrival tourists from Gulf countries who would not refuse the possibility of contracting customary marriages to make their holidays more pleasant.
The Facebook page “No to anarchy in Tunisia” (45 000 likes) was the firm one to report such marriages and even abortion operations suffered by young girls before the international press revealed, with supporting testimonies, the existence of customary marriages in Tunisia. Salafist groups openly challenge the CSP (Personal Status code) prohibiting customary marriage and polygamy. For the time being, they seem to enjoy the indulgence of the Nahdha Party in power. However, under the pressure of Tunisian civil society and its Western allies, the government will surely be asked to distance itself from an ally that has become too noisy, too cumbersome and with no real electoral representation.
Jalel El Gharbi
Translated from French by Elizabeth Grech