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Empowering Muslim Women Tunisia shows the way by allowing freedom to choose spouse regardless of religion

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In a significant milestone, the North African nation of Tunisia just overturned a decades-old law that banned Tunisian Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men. This sets Tunisia apart from other North African and Middle Eastern nations where marriage restrictions continue to apply to women. To be fair, Tunisia has long been known as the most progressive nation in the Arab world with respect to women rights. Polygamy was banned in the country as far back as 1956. It will also be recalled that Tunisia was the starting point of the pro-democracy Arab Spring movement that swept through North Africa in 2011. In 2014 the country adopted a progressive constitution that while recognising Islam as the religion of the state granted freedom of worship and forbade attacks on the sacred.

Against this backdrop, the latest move for women’s empowerment in Tunisia appears to be part of a long-running secularisation process. In fact, in July the Tunisian parliament also introduced a new law that abolished a clause that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they married their victims. Additionally, the 2014 constitution guarantees equal rights and protection from gender-based violence under Article 46. And marriage restrictions were seen to be falling foul of Article 46.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the fight for women’s empowerment in Tunisia is over. Issues such as gender disparity in inheritance continue to require work – Muslim women are only entitled to inherit half of their male counterparts’ share. However, the Tunisian experience shows that reforms in gender laws within Muslim societies – Tunisia is 99% Muslim – are indeed possible. And this doesn’t need the guidance of an autocrat. But the key criterion for ushering in such positive change is education. Tunisia has long boasted of higher literacy rates as compared to its North African peers. According to 2015 estimates, around 81.8% of the country’s adult population – over the age of 15 – can read and write. The estimated figures for Morocco and Egypt are 68.5% and 73.8% respectively.

I am convinced that Tunisia’s encouraging record on the gender equality front is a direct result of its relatively high literacy standards. And as women’s rights improve, there’s bound to be a positive impact on overall human rights as well. In this respect, Tunisia is setting a good example for other Middle Eastern and North African nations. Greater investment in education is the key to democratization, improving human development indices, and bolstering principles of gender equality even in a largely Muslim nation where religion plays an important part. In that sense, in the debate between Islam and modern democracy, education is the glue that can lead to a happy marriage between the two.

Times of India

 IST Rudroneel Ghosh

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