Couples in Tunisia unable to wed despite law change
Despite the law now being on their side, Zeineb, a Tunisian woman, and her Italian fiance Sergio cannot find a local notary to marry them unless he converts to Islam.
"I never imagined that marrying a non-Muslim could be so complicated," 40-year-old Zeineb told AFP in her northern city of Hammamet.
A ban on marriage between a Muslim woman and non-Muslim man, unless he converts, is common in Arab countries.
Such legislation in Tunisia, which dated to 1973, was scrapped in September 2017 at the initiative of President Beji Caid Essebsi.
But Zeineb and Sergio, a 68-year-old factory director, cannot find a notary in the whole of Hammamet to tie the knot, with officials declining out of "religious convictions".
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"I've contacted many notaries and they've all refused to marry me because my partner is a non-Muslim. Some of them said that conducting such a marriage was against their principles and their conviction," explained Zeineb.
Sergio was baffled.
"The law allows me to marry a Tunisian woman without me having to convert to Islam but the people who are supposed to help with my marriage are preventing me from exercising my right," he said.
The couple decided back in June to get married and have prepared all the paperwork - but so far to no avail.
Two of the reluctant notaries in Hammamet, contacted by AFP, said they had yet to receive or read through the new regulations on such marriages.
But, according to the local affairs ministry, regional and municipal authorities across Tunisia have been sent the new text.
Rights groups have stepped in to demand an end to such obstruction by notaries.
The justice ministry should take "strong action against those who do not apply the law", the Tunisian association for the rights of minorities said in a statement.
The association has found at least two other cases this month which match the circumstances of Zeineb and Sergio.
Yamina Thabet, the group's president, told AFP the ministry should "force all notaries to apply the law" and accused some legal professionals of "putting their religious conviction before the law".
Tunisian human rights activist and lawmaker Bochra Belhaj Hmida said such action was "irresponsible".
Tunisia has long been seen as a pioneer for women's rights in the Arab world, but campaigners say civil society is still torn between conservative and progressive camps despite the aspirations for change born of the country's 2011 revolution.
Hundreds of people demonstrated last Friday in Tunisia against proposed reforms opposed by conservative Muslims, which include equal inheritance rights for women and decriminalising homosexuality.
A commission set up by Essebsi to bring the legal code in line with the 2014 constitution, adopted after the revolution, unveiled a raft of proposed reforms in June.
The proposals have been rejected by a coalition of religious groups.