On September 14, 2017, Tunisia reversed a decades-old policy that had prohibited Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men. Prior to this reversal, Muslim men were the only sex allowed to marry non-Muslims; now, interfaith marriages have been granted to both genders.
A few years ago, the current Tunisian president, Beji Caid Essebsi, had challenged the legality of the ban. Essebsi had earlier stated his belief that the ban violated the new Tunisian constitution, which had been put in place in 2014 after the Arab Spring Revolution democratized the country’s government. During National Women’s Day in Tunisia, Essebsi declared that the ban posed “an obstacle to the freedom of choice of the spouse.”
The marriage ban had been a part of Tunisian law since 1973. In the years that the ban was implemented, non-Muslim men wanting to marry Muslim women had to convert to Islam before being legally allowed to proceed with marriage. Conversion had to be proved with official documentation; meanwhile, no such conversion system existed for non-Muslim women seeking marriage with a Muslim man.
Tunisia is the first Arab country to allow both Islamic men and women to marry outside of their religion. While its population is 99% Muslim, it also has a Jewish population and a smaller Christian minority. The country also holds reputation for being one of the most progressive Arab countries for women’s rights. As early as 1956, it had banned men from holding polygamous marriages. And, during this past July, the Tunisian parliament abolished a law that allowed men convicted as rapists to marry their victims and escape punishment.
The ban’s overturning has faced criticisms from mainstream clerics, who have decried the government’s decision. Additionally, it does not fully resolve the country’s gender inequality, which has some cultural basis. While the ban’s repeal provides Muslim women with more legal options, it does not prevent them from being ostracized by their families and subject to cultural humiliation.
Nevertheless, humans rights groups have hailed Tunisia’s decision. Many Tunisians view the ban’s repeal as a sign of progress towards gender equality in Tunisia, which has become more possible as a result of the country’s democratization.