In her Italian neighborhood, none of Monia’s acquaintances ever ask her about her religion or care whether she has fasted for a whole month. “My neighbors are concerned neither with my skin color nor with my being Muslim,” says Monia who has been in Italy for 12 years and has a half Italian son.

Monia was working in a sewing factory when she met her future husband, Roberto, who was the manager. They fell in love and he proposed marriage. “I loved him so much I accepted right away,” she said.

Monia’s uneducated and conservative family initially rejected the union fearing people’s gossip. Lawyers also told Monia that according to Tunisian law, she could not get married unless her husband converted to Islam.

Roberto refused the idea from the beginning and asked her: “Why should I change my religion? Did I ask you to change yours?”

According to official statistics, about five thousand foreigners have converted to Islam in Tunisia over the last seven years, mostly to Europeans. In most cases, the reason is marriage to a Tunisian woman due to the law requiring it.

This law “contradicts international conventions, the Personal Status Code and the Tunisian Constitution, which guarantees the freedom of belief and opinion,” says Monia bin Jameh, Head of Association Tunisienne des Femmes Démocrates (The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women).

“This patriarchal law favors men over women and was drafted to suit men,” she said.

Moving away from Sharia

Monia started a new life after getting married in Italy. Only the idea of her parents’ forgiveness occupied her mind.

Months later, she returned to Tunisia to hold a small wedding ceremony and announce her marriage, which she could not have officially registered in Tunisia.

Monia recalls the looks of the women at the wedding. “I saw the looks of disapproval on their faces. For them, I brought shame to my family through this marriage,” she says.

The looks have persisted over the years. “Every time I visit Tunisia,” says Monia, “I feel that people are whispering about me, although less now than before.”

Criticism by human right associations

A coalition of human and women’s rights associations have demanded the revocation of the law that prohibits Tunisian women’s marriage to non-Muslim foreigners.

Sixty human rights associations signed a petition to have this law revoked since it “harms a basic human right, namely the freedom to choose one’s spouse”.

The civil society coalition considered this prohibition a reason behind “the agony of thousands of Tunisian women and their families who are deprived of their basic right to legal security”.

Conservative law

“Once formed, the Constitutional Court can challenge the constitutionality of this law, which means its revocation,” says Lawyer Ramzi al-Jababli.

“Many foreigners convert to Islam against their will just to be able to marry a Tunisian woman,” he adds.

He emphasized that this law will continue to deprive many Tunisian women who married abroad, of their right to return and likely inheritance.

Judges usually reject requests to have marriages to non-Muslim foreigners registered, which leaves such marriages legally invalid.