A commission within Tunisia’s government proposed substantial social reform in their final report last week.
Rabat – Over 230 pages of proposals in the report address decriminalization of homosexuality and banning of anal tests, gender equity in inheritance law, remarriage stipulations, and “total abolition of the death penalty.” President Beji Caid Essebsi of Tunisia created the commission in response to the 2014 constitution, a legal change following the 2011 Arab Spring revolts.
The presidential committee’s recommendation to decriminalize homosexuality and ban anal tests is expected to face backlash from conservative Muslims. Currently, homosexuality is illegal; same-sex sexual activity is punishable by up to three years in prison.
Anal testing, a procedure declared “torturous” and without “medical justification,” is used to test for “evidence of homosexual conduct.” It only transitioned from a forced practice to one requiring consent in Tunisia in April 2017. The reform proposal suggested that a previously mandated jail time for homosexual activity could be replaced by a fine of DZD 500 (USD 200).
In a law inspired by the Qur’an, women currently receive only half of an inheritance available to a man. “Where there are any sons, the male inherits twice as much as the female,” the legislation states. Last week’s proposal seeks to introduce inheritance equality for men and women while retaining room for personal decision-making in an inheritance.
Another proposal addresses present remarriage requirements, which outline a “period of waiting” necessary for women to observe, after divorce or widowing, before remarrying. For example, the “non-pregnant divorced woman” requires “a waiting period of three months” while “the waiting period of a pregnant woman ends with childbirth.” Liberal reform proposals point towards the abolition of these laws.
Tunisia is often cited as the most prominent success story from the Arab Spring uprisings of seven years ago and a trailblazer for women’s rights in North Africa. The landmark law on violence of July 2017 seeks to prevent women from harm, and a law prohibiting Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men was abolished September of the same year.
The “total abolition of the death penalty” also finds its place among these sweeping social reforms. Although the government has not carried out any reported executions since 1991, the death penalty remains legally mandated.
Public reactions vary
Bochra Belhaj Hmida, a Tunisian lawyer and politician, praised the reforms as championing the “well-being of every individual.” She went on to state freedom’s importance as compared to that of bread.
Not all reactions are positive, however; one religious leader criticized the movement as “intellectual terrorism.” Sabri Abdelghani, a prominent imam, warned the reforms would “eradicate Tunisian identity, by leaving the people without religion.”
A political movement in Morocco argues for a similar change in inheritance law. Called “sexist” and an example of inequity faced by women, the inheritance law in the Moroccan family code prohibits women from accessing the full property left to them. Public figures and over 6,000 other signatories have indicated their support to repeal the legislation.
Tunisia’s next election will occur in 2019; speculations of a “window of opportunity” to change the law preceding the election point to Essebsi’s current governmental power. However, the commission will not publish its full proposals in writing until May 2019, following municipal elections.