Regularly since the fall of the Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali regime in 2011, some have suggested reinstating polygamy. They are generally personalities with controversial positions, who display their conservatism – like the late Bahri Jelassi, former presidential candidate –, or who claim a rigorous interpretation of the Koran.
These personalities are often not very credible. This is the case of Fathi Zghal, founder of the Liberties and Citizenship Forum. Or Adel Almi, a former vegetable merchant and zealous servant of Ben Ali, converted into a defender of a moral order in whose name he hunts down non-fasting people during Ramadan. His exaggerated remarks on polygamy, which “helps[rait] to cure cancer,” were greeted as a dodgy joke, but a joke nonetheless.
Finally, therefore, nothing that could represent a threat to the Personal Status Code, which, precisely, had repealed polygamy in 1956 at the same time as it extended the rights of Tunisian women.
History remembers this date. But it also retained the precedent of the so-called Kairouan marriage contract, established from the first century of Islam in Kairouan (Centre), a city considered as one of the holiest in Islam. This contract established de facto monogamy, giving the wife exclusive rights over her husband.
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These achievements, a thousand years old for one and sixty years old for the other, seemed unassailable. However, the idea – retrograde, according to feminist movements and a majority of Tunisian women – of authorizing polygamy again seems to be gaining ground. It is promoted by personalities whose seriousness, a priori, does not suffer any discussion.
For example, Nizar Chaari. Coming from the audiovisual sector, he evolved within the youth of the Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD), founded by Ben Ali. His broadcasts, his devouring political ambition and his marriage to Dora Miled, the daughter of Aziz Miled, captain of the tourist industry, made him famous.
Chaari is running for the presidency of the Republic, and tries to gain popularity by using populist levers, such as the question of polygamy, to regulate social imbalances. He thus implies that the fact that the Tunisian women are more numerous than the Tunisians creates frustrations.
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The trump card of his advocacy? Polygamy would prevent extra-marital relations. A shock argument, supposed to rally women to him. A waste of time: they castigate anyone who tries to take away the rights granted to them by revolutionary legislation, dating from 1956.
Although he admits that all this fuss serves his political career, Nizar Chaari is taken seriously, especially since he has joined a group of independent politicians – all Islamists and in search of power. Only their personal wealth distinguishes them from each other.
On this chapter, Chaari could in theory count on his wife. But it is not certain that the latter, originally from Kairouan – a city, as we have seen, initiator of a tradition of modernity in marriage – appreciates this regression in terms of equality between men and women. She is not afraid, however, of controversy. President of the Tunisian Hotel Federation, she had publicly adopted an “antivax” position during the Covid-19 epidemic.
Positions of concubines
To speak of polygamy at a time when, in Tunisia, living conditions are deteriorating under the combined effect of inflation, unemployment and shortages, is to say the least in bad taste. Of course, the fantasy of four wives docile coexisting within the same household remains; obviously, the machos of all persuasions will roll mechanics by adhering to this kind of ideas. And, of course, they will be confronted with reality. In the Koran, the Women’s Sura, which addresses the question of polygamy, is very clear: it conditions it, in particular, on perfect equity between co-wives. A pitfall that few take into account.
More pragmatic, Tunisian women protest against these backward-looking ideas, which no doubt suited a time when the emancipation of women was not on the agenda. On social networks, they ask Nizar Chaari and those who justify this societal reversal “how to explain to a child that the one he calls “aunty” is also daddy’s wife and that, later, he will have to share the legacy with the children from this union, not to mention that “mom, who often contributed to the purchase of the house, will be ‘cheated’”.
Others think of themselves, and refuse that their husband, who does not have the means to meet the needs of four families, dislodges them from their room to install a second, or even a third wife. “What else are we going to invent? Tunisian women are vastly better educated and more skilled than Tunisian men; they are looking for work and a satisfying life, not a job as a concubine. Why not imagine the opposite: four husbands taking great care of one wife, and establishing a matriarchy? “, proposes a sociologist.
A daily hell
An overhaul of the laws could redefine intra-family relations, but, very clearly, it would be hell to live with on a daily basis. “It’s mostly very unhealthy. These are tartuffes, who advocate dangerous populist ideas since they will lead, for the wrong reasons, to the dislocation of the family ”, asserts a lawyer.
Marital difficulties, divorces and social malaise remain significant issues in Tunisia. On closer inspection, they reflect the weight of the gaze on the life choices of individuals. Under the pretext of curbing the ill-being of society, the champions of polygamy will simply create another, much more important problem. “The Prophet was himself a polygamist”, retort the most relentless, forgetting that he is not a prophet who wanna…