The situation of unmarried mothers, faced with a delicate dilemma and deprived of rights, makes a telling allegory for modern Tunisia — a country increasingly liberated but that still promotes conservative values.
On one side, the mere existence of unmarried mothers breaks the great taboo of premarital sex. According to a survey by the Pew Research Center from 2013, 89% of Tunisians say sex outside of marriage is “morally wrong.” On the other side, a growing number of individuals are emancipating themselves from traditional family values.
This trend is mainly reflected in delayed marriage. In 2012, the average age of marriage was 28 for women and 33 for men, leading to an increase in premarital sex. According to psychoanalyst Nedra Ben Smail, who authored the book “Vierges? La nouvelle sexualité des Tunisiennes” (“Virgins? The new sexuality of Tunisian women”), only 20% of Tunisian women remain virgins until marriage.
Despite the country’s rapidly changing ways, Tunisia struggles to adapt its legislation to its modernizing society. In November 2011, 10 months after Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali fled the country, Souad Abderrahim, a female representative of the Islamist party Ennahda, called single mothers a “disgrace.” Her statement caused significant outrage in the media and on social networks. Articles were published in response on the award-winning collective blog Nawaat, while Tunisian activist Lina Ben Mhenni, a 2011 Nobel Peace Prize nominee, called Abderrahim’s declaration “outrageous.”
However, more than four years later, no real public debate has taken place on the issue. The country is ruled by President Beji Caid Essebsi, who was elected in December 2014 after a virulent anti-Islamist campaign against Ennahda, the governing party at the time. But Essebsi and his secular liberal party, Nidaa Tunis, allied with Ennahda just after the election. The two parties support conservative policies regarding moral issues, refusing to amend, for example, the law that criminalizes homosexuality.