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“The Law Believes the Words of Women More Than the Words of Men”: Gendered Experiences of Divorce in Ben Ali’s Tunisia

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Tunisia was the first Arab country to reform its family law radically in favor of women’s rights, giving women and men equal rights in divorce. Based on ethnographic fieldwork in Ben Ali’s Tunisia, this chapter considers the feminist question of what happens when the state increasingly regulates family life and intervenes in the intimate affairs of its citizens. This chapter draws on different aspects of authority to explore how women and men perceived and experienced these divorce laws. It argues that shifts in authority—in the realms of kinship and citizenship—contributed to tensions that were embodied in the sentiment that the law believed women, at the expense of men. In practice, this meant that in some instances, although women had gained a voice in the divorce court, socially and within marriage, they may remain silent.

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  • DOI: 10.1007/978-3-030-45160-8_8
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  1. 1.

    All names are fictional to protect the confidentiality of my informants.

  2. 2.

    See for instance Joseph , Gendering Citizenship and The Public/ Private; Hoodfar, Iranian Women, Dahlgren , Women’s adah; Singerman , Avenues, Mir-Hosseini , Iranian Women.

  3. 3.

    Joseph, Gendering Citizenship; Hoodfar, Iranian Women.

  4. 4.

    Joseph, Gendering Citizenship.

  5. 5.

    Hasso , Bargaining, 107.

  6. 6.

    Ibid., 112.

  7. 7.

    Ibid., 107.

  8. 8.

    Arendt, What is Authority?; Weber cf Donovan , Legal Anthropology.

  9. 9.

    See Hasso, Bargaining, 107.

  10. 10.

    Fieldwork was partially funded by a Sutasoma Award from the Royal Anthropological Institute. I would like to thank the editors, as well as the two reviewers, for their comments on the original text.

  11. 11.

    See Hasso, Bargaining. See also Joseph, Gendering Citizenship (which also refers to “modern patriarchy,” “neo-patriarchy” and “international patriarchy”), to suggest just some of the variations in meaning attached to this term, while reflecting shifts in meaning across place and time.

  12. 12.

    In Le code tunisien, Tunisian feminist activist Sana Ben Achour contrasts the “model of the traditional patriarchal family” with the “Tunisian conjugal family.” This idea is also present in the writings of the ATFD (Association des Femmes Tunisiennes Démocrates), a Tunisian women’s organization.

  13. 13.

    In Turkey, Ataturk had changed family law radically in 1926. However, he consciously departed from Islamic law, introducing a version of the Swiss Civil Code of 1889. Although the law nonetheless maintained some features of Islamic law (Yildirim, Aftermath), Hafsia has argued that the Turkish code has been poorly received by Turkey’s Muslim majority population. In response to this, Bourguiba—Tunisia’s first President—strove to position his reforms in an Islamic framework (Hafsia , Le contrat, 79).

  14. 14.

    Arfaoui , The Development, 55.

  15. 15.

    Charrad , States, 202.

  16. 16.

    Donovan, Legal Anthropology, 51.

  17. 17.

    Ibid., 51.

  18. 18.

    For instance, a preface to the 1958 edition of the code explicitly positions it as an interpretation of Islamic law: “Hence, the drafter of the Code has chosen from the depths of this Islamic legislation what can respond to all these needs […] with a style that is easy and understandable in all its parts and that can be accepted by the elites and be clear for the masses” (cited in Zeghal , The Implicit Sharia, 123).

  19. 19.

    S. Ben Achour, Les Chantiers, 9.

  20. 20.

    Arendt, What is Authority?, 10.

  21. 21.

    Joseph, Civic Myths, 123; See also: S. Ben Achour, Le code tunisien; ATFD, Femme et République.

  22. 22.

    Moghadam , Feminism, 10.

  23. 23.

    Camilleri , Modernity, 591.

  24. 24.

    Abu Zahra, Sidi Ameur, 128.

  25. 25.

    Paraphrased and translated from Y. Ben Achour, Politique, 212.

  26. 26.

    Charrad, Unequal Citizenship, 10.

  27. 27.

    See Blili , Histoire de Familles, 187. The waiting period was to ensure that she was not pregnant and to establish paternity.

  28. 28.

    Charrad, Tunisia at the Forefront.

  29. 29.

    Y. Ben Achour, Politique, 208–9. Camilleri, Modernity and Abu Zahra, Sidi Ameur also make this argument.

  30. 30.

    S. Ben Achour, Le code tunisien.

  31. 31.

    Ben Jemia et al, Rapport tunisien, 10.

  32. 32.

    Text and English translation from Shehada , House of Obedience, 27.

  33. 33.

    Mir Hosseini, Marriage on Trial.

  34. 34.

    Arendt, What is Authority? 10 and 24.

  35. 35.

    Hafsia, Le contrat, 60.

  36. 36.

    Although the couple meet a judge in person for a reconciliation session, it is the written record of this session (taken by the judge dictated to a clerk) that enters the file and is used as evidence.

  37. 37.

    Riles , Introduction, 21.

  38. 38.

    This means a judgment that can no longer be subject to appeal and that was not delivered in the absence of the litigant. Confessions could also be used as evidence, but these were rare and I did not find these in the files that I examined.

  39. 39.

    Messick , Just Writing, 34.

  40. 40.

    Hasso, Bargaining, 107 (paraphrased).


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Grosso, S. (2020). “The Law Believes the Words of Women More Than the Words of Men”: Gendered Experiences of Divorce in Ben Ali’s Tunisia. In: Bardazzi, A., Bazzoni, A. (eds) Gender and Authority across Disciplines, Space and Time. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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