Tunisian TV series sparks row over polygamy

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Tunis (AFP) – A Ramadan TV series dealing with polygamy has sparked heated debate in Tunisia, an Arab country that pioneered women’s rights and banned the practice decades ago.

“Baraa” (Arabic for “innocence”) has also been criticized by rights activists and secular politicians for its portrayal of customary “orfi” marriage, religious unions not sanctioned by the state.

Both practices are punishable by one year in prison under the 1956 Family Code.

But in one episode, the show’s main character, Wannas, tells his wife and children that he has the right to marry a second wife under Islamic law, which “trumps all other laws”.

The series, which aired in prime time after observant Muslims broke their daytime fast, sparked a backlash on social media.

“It’s disappointing to see these topics debated,” said Tunisian actress Mariem Ben Hussein.

Post-independence leader Habib Bourguiba banned polygamy in the family code passed just five months after the country’s independence from France in 1956, legislation that was nothing short of groundbreaking in the Arab world at the time. ‘era.

In one episode of the series, the main character declares to his wife and children that he has the right to marry a second wife under Islamic law. Achraf OUERGHEMMIAFP

He also changed the law so that divorce cases had to go through the courts, meaning a husband could no longer simply declare a marriage over.

‘Out of the question’

The 2011 Tunisian revolt, which toppled Bourguiba’s successor, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, introduced a parliamentary system ideologically divided between secularists and Islamist-leaning parties like Ennahdha.

The strongly secular Free Destourian Party (PDL), founded by former members of Ben Ali’s ruling party, has been one of the loudest voices against “Baraa”, saying there is “no question to put these questions back on the table” and an attack on the dignity of women.

The PDL also accuses Ennahdha, politically dominant after the 2011 revolt, of a rise in “crimes” under the family code and has frequently called for the dissolution of its rival.

Rights group Aswat Nissa (“Voices of Women”) said polygamy and customary marriage were “forms of violence against women” and discussing them “normalizes a culture of impunity”.

Polygamy was banned in Tunisia's family code, adopted in 1956 just five months after independence from France
Polygamy was banned in Tunisia’s family code, adopted in 1956 just five months after independence from France ACHRAF OUERGHEMMI AFP

The group urged the country’s broadcast regulator to take the program off the air.

But sociologist Mohamed Jouil said the series “does not necessarily reflect Tunisian society”.

“Talking about polygamy and orfi marriage does not threaten women’s gains,” he told AFP.

Jouil added that many Tunisians willingly discuss these issues in private, but are angry when aired in public – where commentators “instrumentalise” the issue for political gain.

“subject to debate”

Civil servant Nadia Abdelhak agreed.

“The overreactions to the show are trying to convince people that everything about Islam is upside down,” the 28-year-old said.

Sociologist Foued Ghorbali said while the subject remains taboo, polygamy is still a problem in Tunisia.

Rights groups say polygamy and customary marriage are
Rights groups say polygamy and customary marriage are ‘forms of violence against women’ and discussing them ‘normalizes a culture of impunity’ Achraf OUERGHEMMIAFP

After the rise of Islamist movements following the 2011 uprising, “religious marriage has become more common”, especially among university students seeking ‘halal’ sex, he added.

“Some Tunisians support customary marriage,” he said.

The Justice Ministry said courts had considered 1,718 orfi marriage cases between 2015 and 2020 in the country of 12 million people.

Moreover, the freedom of expression that came with the end of Ben Ali’s dictatorship allowed supporters of such practices to say so openly.

In early 2018, a group of women organized a protest to demand the re-legalization of polygamy.

Such controversies should be reflected in the arts, Ghorbali said.

“It is not the role of theater to present a positive image of society. It can show a point of view or social phenomena that could be debated,” he said.

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