16/09/2017 10:14 AM AEST

Tunisia Just Took A Big Step Forward On Muslim Women's Rights

A new law allows Muslim women to marry outside the faith, just like their male counterparts.

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Tunisia has recently been at the forefront of women's rights among countries in the Middle East and North Africa.

For decades, Muslim women in Tunisia have been forbidden to marry non-Muslim men. But that’s about to change.

The government of the small North African country announced Thursday that the ban on such marriages was being abolished.

“Congratulations to the women of Tunisia for the enshrinement of the right to the freedom to choose one’s spouse,” presidential spokeswoman Saida Garrach wrote on Facebook, according to a translation by Al Jazeera.

A previous law, dating back to 1973, mandated that if a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man wished to marry, first he had to convert to Islam and show documented proof of his conversion. A Muslim man, however, was legally free to marry a non-Muslim woman without her joining the faith.

The move sets Tunisia apart from other Middle Eastern and North African countries where women still face obstacles to marrying outside the official state religion, the BBC noted. It is the latest in a series of recent progressive measures enacted by the overwhelmingly Muslim country under the leadership of 90-year-old President Beji Caid Essebsi.

“The state is obliged to achieve full equality between women and men and to ensure equal opportunities for all responsibilities,” Essebsi said in August, citing the country’s 2014 constitution, which was enacted in the wake of the Arab Spring uprisings.

The president has also established a commission tasked with revising policies pertaining not only to women’s marriage rights but also to inheritance laws. Under Tunisia’s current inheritance laws, daughters are eligible for just half of what sons receive from their parents.

Essebsi has said he hopes Tunisia will reach “total, actual equality between men and women citizens in a progressive way.”

President Beji Caid Essebsi has helped pushed the needle forward on women's rights in Tunisia.

In another move expanding women’s rights, the country in July repealed a law that pardoned rapists if they married their victim. In the same month, the government passed a law outlining specific policies for preventing and prosecuting violence against women, including domestic violence. It also addressed sexual harassment and economic discrimination.

“Tunisia’s new law provides women with the measures necessary to seek protection from acts of violence by their husbands, relatives, and others,” Amna Guellali, senior Tunisia researcher with Human Rights Watch, said in a statement at the time.

But the push for women’s rights in Tunisia, particularly in the area of inheritance, has brought criticism from some religious leaders, as well as some female activists, who say the changes go against their religion. A group of imams and theologians released a statement in August denouncing the proposed changes to the inheritance laws as a “flagrant violation of the precepts” of Islam.

Mona Ibrahim, deputy leader of the country’s conservative Ennahdha political party, told NPR last month that Islamic scripture outlines an inheritance system based on the idea that men, unlike women, must spend their earnings to provide for their families. 

The issue “goes to the heart of the Islamic religion,” Ibrahim said, and “touches at the very identity of Tunisian society.”