Possible polygamy revival raises debate in Tunisia
By Jamel Arfaoui for Magharebia in Tunis — 14/08/09
Tunisia has erupted in debate over a call to re-legalise polygamy as an Islamic solution to social problems such as extramarital affairs and unhappy spinsterhood.
Dalanda Sahbi, who made her appeal in a Tuesday (August 11th) seminar on the gains made by Tunisian women, supports polygamy because of what she described as the "rise in the number of unmarried women and in moral degeneration and excessive libertinism that allows extra-marital affairs".
"We have to allow polygamy because we aren’t better off than the rest of the Arab countries," added Sahbi, who is married. "More importantly, Islam allows it and we have a good example in the Prophet Mohammed in this regard."
Tunisia banned polygamy decades ago under its Code of Personal Status. Since 1957, polygamy has been punishable by prison terms of up to six months.
Sahbi's idea earned her a cold shoulder from many other participants in the seminar, which was organised by the Social Liberal Party to mark National Women's Day (August 13th) and to discuss Tunisian women's progress since the passage of the Code of Personal Status.
"This lone appeal didn’t get any support from seminar participants," said Roda Al Saibi, a member of the party's political bureau. "Instead, it faced strong opposition from many women, who insisted on sticking to the Code of Personal Status, which Tunisian women take pride in."
The idea of polygamy was met with sarcasm by seminar participant Nissrine, who asked if Tunisians were so capable of satisfying one woman that now they were ready to marry a second and a third.
In fact, spinsterhood seemed preferable to Khadija, an unmarried woman in her 50s, who said, "I'd rather be unmarried all my life than be a second wife."
Journalist Mokhtar Tlili, who was present at the seminar, said that polygamy had for all intents and purposes been rejected even before the Code of Personal Status. However, in the context of Tunisia's religious resurgence, the issue was being debated again.
"Women, as usual, are being turned into a tool for a battle that is on the surface religious, but is actually political," Tlili said, adding that many Tunisians "have now become obsessed with [polygamy] for animalistic and instinctive reasons. However, they wouldn't dare to express that in public."
Outside the seminar, opinions on polygamy varied from a warm embrace to outright rejection.
"In the final analysis, polygamy is a permissible and allowable thing, provided men are capable and just,” said Ramzi Al Badaoui.
"However, because polygamy carries a penalty, the situation has become more complicated," he said. "There are some human situations that compel men to marry a second woman — for example, to have children because their first wife is sterile."
However, Al Badaoui added that it would be unjust "to divorce and abandon the first wife after living with her for a long time, only to marry a second one".
Samira Laouati, a married woman in her 30s, criticised the Code of Personal Status as a manifestation of the wishes of former president Habib Bourguiba, as opposed to those of Tunisian women.
She felt that the law had helped spread moral decrepitude and promote divorce. According to recently released government data, Tunisia saw a record 9,127 divorces in 2008, compared to 16,000 marriages. Among the main causes listed for divorce were domestic violence and differing cultural and social levels; causes reported less often included sterility, disability, premarital loss of virginity, betrayal, lack of confidence and jealousy.
"I hope that the laws banning polygamy in Tunisia will be removed so that we can curb women’s drift towards arrogant libertinism that doesn’t respect the husband or any rules," said Laouati. "I wish polygamy would rein them in."
"I’m not coming up with anything new," added Laouati. "Our religion allows it, and there's no doubt about that."
However, Ahlam Bouchaouel, who is single, questioned polygamy's track record for solving social problems in the Arab world, asking: "Has polygamy in the Gulf countries put an end to moral corruption and spinsterhood?"
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