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Tunisia: Personal Status Code


Set of family laws that reduced gender inequality in Tunisia.

On 13 August 1956, less than five months after the proclamation of independence from French colonial rule, the Republic of Tunisia promulgated the Code of Personal Status (CPS). A set of laws regulating marriage, divorce, custody, and inheritance, the code profoundly changed family law and the legal status of women. Together with the Turkish civil code of 1926, the Tunisian CPS of 1956 represented a pioneering body of legislation that reduced gender inequality before the law in an Islamic country.

A reform from above, the CPS was initiated by the political leadership in the absence of a feminist grassroots mass movement. Although it expanded women's rights, the CPS should not be seen as a response from the state to pressures from women's protest groups. Individual women had participated in the struggle for national liberation and espoused a nationalist ideology, but no women's mass movement defending women's causes had developed in Tunisia in the 1950s. The initiators of the CPS described it primarily as an instrument of change, a way of bringing about a transformation in kinship patterns and family life, which they saw as a necessary condition for broader social, political, and economic changes.

The Tunisian code is called the majalla in Arabic. Several amendments further equalizing the legal status of men and women have been made and the text has been regularly updated since 1956. The CPS altered regulations on marriage, divorce, alimony, custody, adoption, and to a lesser extent inheritance, leaving few, if any, aspects of family life untouched. The best known and most daring reforms embodied in the CPS concern polygamy, or the man's right to have as many as four wives, and repudiation, or the unilateral right of the husband to end the marriage at will. The majalla outlawed polygamy altogether. It stated unequivocally that polygamy was forbidden. An attempt at marrying again while one was still married was punished with imprisonment of a year and a fine of approximately $500, which represented the equivalent of a year's income for many Tunisians when the CPS was promulgated in 1956. The CPS also abolished repudiation and changed regulations on divorce in fundamental ways. A divorce could now only take place in court. The wife and husband were equally entitled to file for divorce, and they could do so by mutual consent. One of them could also file alone, in which case the judge would determine whether compensation should be given by one spouse to the other and what the amount ought to be. A woman was liable to pay compensation to her husband if the judge estimated that it was the husband who had been wronged.

Among other innovations, the CPS made the wife responsible for contributing to the expenses of the household and to the financial support of children, if she had to means to do so. It expanded the right of mothers to have custody of their children. It made the registration of marriages and divorces mandatory, something that was not systematically the case earlier. It made adoption legally valid. It somewhat modified the rules on inheritance by favoring the spouse and female descendants over male cousins in some specific kinship configurations.

The CPS gave women greater rights by increasing the range of options available to them in their private lives. It also gave them greater obligations, as for example in the case of divorce and with respect to the financial responsibility for the household. Some aspects of the CPS overtly maintained gender inequality, however. The code left unaltered the general rule according to which women inherit half as much as men. The 1956 text required a wife to obey her husband; this was later debated and changed in the 1990s.

The reforms of the CPS can be seen as an effort to reshape kinship in Tunisian society in the aftermath of independence from colonial rule. The CPS replaced the vision of the family as an extended kinship group built on strong ties crisscrossing a community of male relatives with the vision of a conjugal unit in which ties between spouses and between parents and children are prominent. The elite in power in the 1950s treated family law reform as part of the transformation of society necessary for the development of a modern state.

see also gender: gender and law.

mounira m. charrad

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