‘Temporary marriage’ on the rise in post-revolutionary Tunisia
In Tunisia, temporary unions, or "urfi" marriages, are officially illegal. But since the revolution, they have been on the rise as couples are seeking to relieve sexual frustrations in a conservative society while circumventing expensive weddings.
In the Muslim world, an “urfi” marriage is the simplest of all possible procedures and ceremonies. Performed before two witnesses and requiring neither fee, nor official contract, nor parental consent, the purpose of the union is to secure the recognition of a couple before God, even though the marriage has no value in the eyes of the law.
The custom was once particularly common in poorer segments of Tunisian society, and while it still continues to spread in certain economically depressed neighbourhoods of capital Tunis, it is also becoming more common on university campuses.
Now, some students are calling on authorities to legalise the practice.
“Making this kind of marriage legal is necessary today,” said 27-year-old student Mona, who secretly married her boyfriend in an “urfi” marriage, confided to FRANCE 24. “The law must be revised so it no longer forbids what Allah allows.”
Dalenda Larguech, historian and director of the Center of Research, Documentation and Information on Women in Tunis, elaborated in a separate interview with France24: “This social phenomenon surfaced with the rise of Salafist groups [Muslims urging the most strict interpretation of Islam] in Tunisia after the revolution, enabled by difficult social conditions, poverty, and lack of education among certain young people”.
Encouraged by Salafist ‘brothers’
Salafists have a strong presence at the University of Manouba in northeastern Tunisia, which is attended by nearly 13,000 students, and where, for two months, Salafist students disrupted classes and staged sit-ins as part of a movement to require the niqab to be worn by women in class.
Their presence also seems to have fostered an on-campus “urfi” marriage trend.
According to Dalenda Larguech, Tunisia’s political instability has provided an opening for the practice, with young Tunisians increasingly susceptible to “reactionary influences” and the tug-of-war between various political leanings.
Samia, a 25-year-old student at Manouba, admits that she was encouraged by “Salafist brothers” to opt for an “urfi” marriage. Her decision was also motivated by the high number of “urfi” unions in her university since the revolution.
“The new era greatly helped me make my choice, because now we can talk openly about this kind of subject that involves both religion and society,” Samia said. “I was able to consult, without any shame, some of my brothers and sisters here at the university.”
Samia says an “urfi” marriage was the best solution for her, because it allowed her to legalise her relationship with her boyfriend (now her husband).
Wearing a headscarf and describing herself as “very devout”, Samia said that her love story was complicated because her educational upbringing and social values prevented her from fulfilling her and her boyfriend’s sexual desires. A “ufi” marriage thus allows them to consummate without moral qualms.
“The most difficult thing psychologically was choosing between living my love to the fullest while breaking with the principles and values that are important to me, or living in frustration while respecting them,” she said.
A ‘halal’ union
The couple’s financial situation, which did not permit them to pay the traditional wedding fees, ultimately convinced them to follow the advice of their “brothers”.
Samia hopes that “urfi” marriages will soon be legalized, “since [that kind of union] could interest a large number of young people looking for a ‘halal’ marriage, one that is legal from a religious point of view, but don’t have the means to have a traditional state-recognised wedding.”
If the “urfi” marriages have offered an out for certain young Tunisians facing financial or personal difficulties, they have also led to the exploitation of young women, often being condemned by women’s rights groups since they afford no rights to the wife, notably in cases where the husband decides to leave.
But “urfi” marriages had for the main part virtually disappeared from Tunisian society over the past few decades.
“Unions of this type were visible only in certain isolated, rural regions of the country, especially because the inhabitants had difficulties registering their marriages with the local administrations,” Dalenda Larguech.
Their resurgence is nevertheless “bound to fade”, Larguech concluded, “because there is no place for them in a modern, open Tunisian society.”