North Africa

Links to legal datasheets for countries in this region.

Algeria I Egypt I Libya I Morocco I Tunisia



      Islam swept North Africa very early in its history, spreading west from Egypt starting in the 8th century A.D.[1]  At first it was spread into the cities through conquest, but once the nomadic Berbers began to convert to Islam, it spread through their contacts all across North Africa.[2]  While Arab peoples from the East settled in the cities, most of the rural areas remained dominated by Berbers, whose traditions and beliefs were absorbed into the practice of Islam in this area.[3] 

      Starting around the beginning of the 10th century, religious Islamic regimes began appearing in North Africa. Among the most powerful and influential was that of the Almoravids. This was a Berber regime, largely responsible for the spread of the Maliki school of Islamic jurisprudence in Morocco.[4]  The Almoravids were followed by another dynasty of Berbers, the Almohads. This regime spread Islam to Spain and much of the rest of North Africa.[5]  It was much less successful, however, in its attempt to purge Moroccan Islam of Berber and other non-Islamic influences.[6] 

      By the beginning of the 17th century, more than 90% of the population of North Africa was Muslim, primarily following Sunni Islam.[7]  Most continue to follow the Maliki school, though the states may profess official adherence to a different school of jurisprudence, as a result of years of Ottoman dominance of much of the Muslim world.[8]  Meanwhile, the Berbers, and particularly the Tuaregs, a sub-group of Berbers, continue to practice a somewhat syncretic version of Islam, mixing their pre-Islamic traditions in the practice of Islam.[9] 

      The struggle to end French colonialism had distinct and important impacts on the practice of Islam in the Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. In Tunisia and Algeria, the nationalist independence movements were basically secular, though they worked alongside reformist clerics.[10]  As a result, the people who came to power after independence drew their legitimacy from secular sources and their policies reflected this.

     Morocco, however, had a more politicized Islamist movement. Muslim unity had been an important political cause in Morocco since the 1930s when France had tried to divide the population by governing Berbers under different law than the Arab population.[11]  Thus, Islam had already become something of a political organizing tool, and it continued in this role through the struggle for independence.


      Generally, most North Africans trace descent patrilineally, as is usually expected in Muslim countries. Among almost all the sedentary ethnic groups in Algeria and Morocco, for example, descent is universally trace though the father.[12] 

      Among the pastoral and semi-pastoral cultures, however, there is more variation. Though almost all Berbers trace their families patrilineally, one sub-group of Berbers, the Tuaregs, does not have a consistent descent pattern. Some trace their families patrilineally, but some 80,000 Tuaregs trace their families and inherit social standing through the mother.[13] 

Marital Arrangements


      Throughout most of North Africa, polygyny is allowed and basically accepted, but rarely practiced. However, the practice varies between and within the different countries.

      In Algeria, polygyny is practiced, but only rarely. A study done in the 1950s showed that only 2% of Muslim men had more than one wife.[14]  Despite its rarity, it remained an important issue. A study done more than twenty years later in Algiers found that almost 2/3of the women studied wanted changes in the personal status laws, including the abolition of polygyny.[15] 

      Information about polygyny in Egypt suggests that there are enormous differences in the practices of different socio-economic groups. On the whole, polygyny does not appear to be widely practiced. In the early 1950s, 8% of Egyptian Muslim men were polygynists.[16]  There are sectors of society where polygyny has continued to be common however, such as the traditional, working class areas of Cairo.[17]  There is also some indication that polygyny became more common in the 1970s, possibly as a result of economically motivated migration, which both brought in money, making having a second wife more affordable, and kept people moving around.[18] 

      In 1979, the government passed a package of personal status law reforms, including a limit on polygyny which granted a woman the right to a divorce if her husband took a second wife without her consent.[19]  However, this law was not consistently enforced and the 1979 reforms were declared unconstitutional in 1985. The law eventually passed regarding limits on polygyny only allowed a woman to divorce her husband for taking a second wife if she could prove that she suffered "moral or material damage" as a result.[20] 

      In Morocco, polygyny is practiced but only rarely.[21]  A more common practice is serial monogamy, practiced by both men and women.[22] 

      Polygyny in Libya was thought to be fading away in the 1970s, but continues to be occasionally practiced.[23]  Polygyny is only officially allowed if the first wife consents, and the husband is both healthy and wealthy enough to be able to support two wives.[24]  It is unclear what these legal limitations on polygyny mean in practice.

In Tunisia polygyny has been illegal since the 1950s and there is no particular indication that it is practiced in spite of the law.

Preferred and Prohibited Marriages

      In much of North Africa, there is a general preference for marriage between the children of two brothers, with the cousins playing little role in the choice of a marriage partner. As with other aspects of marital practice this is both not a universally held preference, nor is it always the reality.

      Algerian society favors the marriage to a paternal parallel cousin (father's brother's child).[25]  However, a study done in the late 1970s found that this was one of the aspects of family law and tradition that almost 2/3 of the Algiers women surveyed wanted to change.[26] 

      In Egypt, in the past and probably still in rural areas, a girl's father chose her husband for her, often a cousin, and she had little say in the matter.[27]  This appears to be changing with higher levels of education for girls and women. One study showed that among women with 6 years or more of education, women play a role in the choice of their own husbands.[28] 

      Throughout Morocco, marriage to a paternal parallel cousin is common.[29]  It appears that this marriage pattern has particularly strong support among the upper classes and in conservative, older cities and towns.[30] 

      In Libya, marriage to first cousins is acceptable, but it is unclear whether it is particularly preferred over other marriages.[31]  Whether to a cousin or not, a girl can be married off by her guardian without having any input in the decision.[32]  If her first marriage does not work out, a woman will have more ability to choose subsequent husbands.[33] 

      Though many Berbers allow first cousin marriages, the Tuaregs reject any form of it.[34] 

Age of Marriage

      Throughout the region, laws limit the minimum age of marriage to around 16 for girls. However, often girls are married earlier than the legal limits, just waiting until the legal age to register the marriage. This is frequently the case in Algeria for example.[35] 

      One of the primary factors in the age of a girl's first marriage is whether she lives in an urban area or a rural one, marriage coming earlier age for girls in rural areas. For example, rural girls in Morocco often get married between the ages of 10 and 14.[36] 

      Another difference in marriage ages is the economic position of a family. In Egypt, for example, a girl from the lower-middle classes is likely to get married quite young, and her husband will probably be many years older than her, as her parents would want to be assured that he would be a good provider.[37]  Among upper-middle class Egyptians on the other hand, there is a growing preference for later marriages, with the future spouses knowing each other and choosing to marry based on love rather than family alliances or the ability to provide.[38] 

Dowry and Brideprice

The information available on brideprice in North Africa is somewhat limited, it appears that it is not universally given, nor does it always belong to the same person once it has been given.

      Traditionally in Algeria, a bride always received a brideprice. Everything the couple owned other than the brideprice belonged to the husband. The brideprice, however, belonged to the wife, and she kept it even in the case of divorce.[39]  This is in direct contrast to the practice in Egypt, where divorced women must return the brideprice.

      In Morocco, whether or not a woman receives a brideprice upon her marriage depends in large part on her social class. Women from wealthy families usually receive some brideprice, though some do not.[40]  Lower class women and women in rural areas often receive nothing.[41]  However, in one Berber town in Morocco, people say that brideprice is necessary and there are no marriages where the woman does not receive it.[42] 

      Libyan tradition calls for a brideprice that is given all at once at the agreement to marry, rather than one part being given at the agreement, one part at the marriage itself, as is common elsewhere.[43] 

Divorce and Custody of Children

      Divorce is common in North Africa. Generally men have more rights in initiating a divorce, but women have informal ways of getting out of an unhappy marriage. The question of who retains custody of children after a divorce varies across the region, with men often having the right but not necessarily the inclination to keep their children with them after a divorce.

      In Algeria, divorce is quite common.[44]  Women have certain protections, at least from being divorced by their husbands on the spur of the moment. Divorce, to be legal, must be carried out in court.[45]  After a divorce, the father is entitled to custody of the children, though it is unclear at what age children may be taken from their mothers.[46] 

      In Egypt too, divorce is a regular occurrence and there was an increase in the rate of divorce starting in the 1970s.[47]  Men have greater rights in divorce than do women. However, as in Algeria, divorce must be carried out in a court. [48]  One of the differences in rights in divorce is that men may initiate divorce for basically any reason, though there must be some reason, as it must be stated in court. That the requirement of having divorce proceedings carried out in court is seen as an important protection of women's rights is shown clearly by the fact that one of the 1979 personal law reforms was that a woman had to be informed when her husband divorced her.[49] 

     Women on the other hand, can initiate a divorce only in certain limited circumstances.[50]  Nonetheless, at least one writer on Egypt described women as being able to get a divorce with "relative ease."[51]  However, few women seek to initiate a divorce, perhaps in part because divorced women who live alone are socially stigmatized.[52] 

      After a divorce, Egyptian children traditionally stayed with their mothers until the age of 9 for boys, 12 for girls, at which time they would go to live with their fathers. Now, they usually stay with their mothers until they reach puberty or even later, and then go to their fathers.[53] 

      In Morocco, particularly in small towns, divorce is common. In one town, half of all marriages end in divorce.[54]  A man has the right to unilaterally divorce his wife, whereas the woman cannot do the same to her husband.[55]  Officially, a divorce must be registered with a court, though there is no requirement that the husband explain why he is divorcing his wife.[56]  Also, the requirement that divorce be registered in the court may be somewhat misleading, as many marriages are not ever registered with the state, meaning that the divorce in such situations cannot be registered either.[57] 

      After a divorce, a woman generally returns to her father's home.[58]  Occasionally, women do not, choosing instead to live as "free women," perhaps including having sexual relationships with men outside of the marriage context.[59]  Though there is only a fine line between women who choose to live this way between marriages and women who are essentially not marriageable, it appears that these women remain in the mainstream of society and can re-marry.[60] 

     As for children, after a divorce, the ex-husband is entitled to custody of the children. However, often they do not claim the children after a divorce.[61] 

     In Libya, divorce is widespread and can be done simply through repudiation.[62]  Though women have few rights to initiate divorce, they can, and apparently do, pressure their husbands into granting a divorce.[63]  There is little, if any, social stigma attached to divorce, either for the man or the woman.[64]  While divorced women can remarry fairly easily and many desire to do so, it appears that some women do not try to remarry, preferring to remain single.[65]  This suggests that the society accepts the presence of a certain number of divorced, single women.

     After a divorce in Libya, children belong to their father and stay with him unless they are very young.[66] 

     Tunisian divorce law grants equal rights to men and women in terms of initiating a divorce.[67]  Divorces must be carried out in a court, and the judge must question both parties on their reasons for ending the marriage.[68] 

Purdah and Seclusion

      Few generalizations can be made about North African women. Some women are fully covered, others do not abide by Islamic dress codes at all. Some are strictly secluded, others mix freely with men. One trend was clear, however, in the decades following independence. In much of North Africa, women who had not previously chosen to wear a veil began to do so. This was apparently an outward sign of holding onto local or national culture, in particular the adherence to Islam, and a rejection of at least aspects of Western culture.[69] 

      Algerian women have traditionally been very secluded from men, staying in the home except for necessary errands.[70]  In recent years, the seclusion may be less, but the sexes are still largely separated, with women often staying in and around the home and men being out in public.[71] 

     Algerian girls start being aware of the need for modesty quite young, covering their arms and hair, even in front of their fathers.[72]  They continue to cover themselves throughout their youth, and until they themselves have sons who have married.[73]  At that point they have more freedom to be out in public, unaccompanied and with less concern about modesty. While it does not appear that Algeria had a period in the 20th century when women stopped wearing head coverings, and thus the headscarf did not have the same renaissance it did in several other countries, it did become heavily politicized during the struggle for independence.[74] 

      In Egypt, many women had stopped wearing headscarves, starting in the early 1900s.[75]  However, women have again begun covering themselves since the 1970s, particularly among the educated and professional classes.[76]  As elsewhere in North Africa, following Islamic dress regulations is seen as supporting indigenous culture and, according to one researcher, asserting that choices can be made as to which parts of European culture ought to be adopted.[77] 

      However, this should not be read to say that there are no variations within Egypt. The women whose families have lived in working class neighborhoods of Cairo for generations, for example, cover themselves, but with black outer dresses left somewhat open to show the colorful dresses underneath. The outer dresses are tight at the waist to flatter the woman's figure, and often allow a woman's arms to be seen.[78]  These women interact regularly with men in public.[79]  On the other hand, women who are relatively new to Cairo are much more careful about covering themselves.[80]  The newcomers to Cairo accept less interaction between men and women.[81]  The upper-middle classes allow much greater interaction among men and women, even to the point that some young people have started dating.[82] 

      In small towns and rural areas of Libya, few women cover themselves. In such places, it is unusual for a woman to run into an unfamiliar man, and when she does, she simply covers her face with her hands or turns her head away while speaking with the man. [83]  It is unclear whether most Libyan women in urban areas are concerned about Islamic prescriptions for modesty.

      In Morocco, for the educated and professional classes wearing a head covering or not is a woman's choice, apparently with less of the political implications seen in Egypt, Tunisia and Algeria.[84]  Among the more traditional, wealthy sectors of urban society, women are kept secluded and well covered when they do go out.[85]  In the countryside and in small towns, women are generally somewhat freer to go out in public, though this depends largely on the economic position of the family.[86]  Young married women in such areas are often free to go out with other young married women, without being accompanied by any male.[87] 

      Among the different Berber groups, there are distinct variations. In one Berber town, the segregation of the sexes is quite strict. There are different sleeping quarters for males and females, and girls are largely kept home from the time they reach puberty.[88]  In terms of dress, Jbala women only cover their heads with large straw hats.[89]  The Tuaregs do not seem to follow common Islamic prescription for dress at all: men keep their heads covered with large scarves, whereas head coverings are less important for women.

Inheritance and Land Rights

      Though the information is somewhat scarce, it appears that some women in North Africa inherit according to the shares laid out in the Qur'an. Nonetheless, many women inherit less, if anything, leaving women in a somewhat precarious state.

      In Egypt, it is recognized that, according to the Qur'an, women are supposed to inherit half as much as male relatives of the same degree of relation to the deceased. However, frequently women inherit nothing from their parents, a practice justified by the woman being able to use the land of her husband.[90] 

      When Egyptian women do own land, either through inheritance or by purchasing it, they find ways to protect their ownership of it. A woman may limit her husband's access to her land, either by legally owning it in her name only or by transferring it to one of her brothers.[91]  Such practices show that women are concerned about retaining control over their land after a divorce or the death of the husband.

      Moroccan women who come from upper class families in towns usually inherit according to the Qur'anic prescriptions. In the countryside, however, women often receive less than their share.[92] 


      Among the urban populations of North Africa, two general trends are recognizable. Starting well before independence, there was a tendency to abandon certain aspects of Islamic family law. In several countries, polygyny appeared to be fading out, and it was even outlawed in Morocco. Divorce by repudiation was limited in most of North Africa, requiring that a couple register their divorce in a court. Women in much of urban North Africa seemed to be choosing not to cover themselves. Some women began demanding a role in choosing their husbands, rather than marrying a cousin in an arranged marriage.

      However, some of these changes have slowed, or even reversed. Polygyny rose in the 1970s in Egypt, possibly as a result of economic changes. Women have taken up the veil again in ever increasing numbers, accepting it as a symbol of the value they place on their own culture.

At the same time, rural and nomadic cultures in North Africa show few signs of change, retaining those aspects of Islamic family law that they have always followed, rejecting those they have always rejected.

[1]  Martin, B.G. "The Spread of Islam," in Africa, 2nd ed., Martin, Phyllis M. and Patrick O'Meara, eds. (Bloomington IN: Indiana University Press, 1986) p. 88. Return to Text

[2]  Id. Return to Text

[3]  Nanji, Azim, The Muslim Almanac: A Reference Work on the History, Faith, Culture, and Peoples of Islam (Detroit: Gale Research, 1996) p. 115. Return to Text

[4]  Id., p. 117. Return to Text

[5]  Id. Return to Text

[6]  Id. Return to Text

[7]  Martin, p. 91. Return to Text

[8]  See, e.g., Sullivan, Earl L., Women in Egyptian Public Life (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 1986) p. 26. Return to Text

[9]  Spencer, William, "Berbers" in Muslim Peoples: A World Ethnographic Survey, 2nd ed., Weekes, Richard V., ed. (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1978), p. 101. The Berbers are about 14 million people stretched across the Sahara desert. Return to Text

[10]  Nanji, p. 126. Return to Text

[11]  Id. Return to Text

[12]  Rezig, Inger, "Women's Roles in Contemporary Algeria: Tradition and Modernism," in Women in Islamic Societies: Social Attitudes and Historical Perspectives, Utas, Bo, ed. (London: Curzon Press, 1983) p. 193; Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock and Robert A. Fernea, The Arab World: 40 Years of Change, (New York: Doubleday, 1997) p. 208. Return to Text

[13]  Spencer, p. 105. Return to Text

[14]  Baraket, Halim, The Arab World: Society, Culture and State (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1993) p. 112. Return to Text

[15]  Rezig, p. 199. Return to Text

[16]  Baraket, p. 112. Return to Text

[17]  El-Messiri, Sawsan, "Self-Images of Traditional Urban Women in Cairo," in Women in the Muslim World, Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) p. 536. Return to Text

[18]  Kader, Soha Abdel, Egyptian Women in a Changing Society, 1899-1987 (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1987) p. 133. Return to Text

[19]  Sullivan, p. 37. Return to Text

[20]  Id. Return to Text

[21]  Rosen, Lawrence, "The Negotiation of Reality: Male-Female Relations in Sefron, Morocco," in Women in the Muslim World, Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) p. 565. Return to Text

[22]  Id. Return to Text

[23]  Khalidi, Musa S., "Divorce in Libya," in Journal of Comparative Family Studies, v. 20:1, 1989, p. 124. Return to Text

[24]  Report of the Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), 13th Session, Report on Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, U.N. Reference Number A/49/38, 1994. para. 172. Return to Text

[25]  Rezig, p. 194. Return to Text

[26]  Id., p. 199. Return to Text

[27]  Morsey, Soheir, "Sex Differences and Folk Illness in an Egyptian Village," in Women in the Muslim World, Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) p. 609. Return to Text

[28]  Hoodfar, Homa, "The Impact of Male Migration on Domestic Budgeting: Egyptian Women Striving for and Islamic Budgeting Pattern," in Journal of Comparative Family Studies, v. 28:2, 1997, p. 90. Return to Text

[29]  Fernea, p. 208. Return to Text

[30]  Mayer, Vanessa, "Women and Social Change in Morocco," in Women in the Muslim World, Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) p. 107 Return to Text

[31]  CEDAW, para., 170. Return to Text

[32]  Khalidi, p. 120 Return to Text

[33]  Id., p. 122. Return to Text

[34]  Spencer, p. 105. Return to Text

[35]  See, e.g., Rezig, p. 127. Return to Text

[36]  Maher, p. 110. Return to Text

[37]  Mohsen, Safia, "New Images, Old Reflections: Working Middle-Class Women in Egypt," in Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change, Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock, ed. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1985) p. 65. Return to Text

[38]  Id., p. 59. Return to Text

[39]  Minces, Juliette, "Women in Algeria," in Women in the Muslim World, Lois Beck and Nikki Keddie, eds. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978) p. 165. Return to Text

[40]  Maher, p. 107. Return to Text

[41]  Id., p. 109. Return to Text

[42]  Rosen, p. 565. Return to Text

[43]  Khalidi, p. 120. Return to Text

[44]  Rezig, p. 194. Return to Text

[45]  Baraket, p. 115. Return to Text

[46]  Minces, p. 165. Return to Text

[47]  Kader, p. 133-34. Return to Text

[48]  Mohsen, p. 67. Return to Text

[49]  Sullivan, pp. 36-37. Return to Text

[50]  Morsey, p. 606. Return to Text

[51]  Baraket, p. 115. Return to Text

[52]  Mohsen, p. 67. Return to Text

[53]  Goodwin, June, "Arab Women Lift the Veil from Western Eyes," Christian Science Monitor, Aug. 21, 1980, p. B6. Return to Text

[54]  Maher, p. 109. Return to Text

[55]  Rosen, p. 565. Return to Text

[56]  Baraket, p. 116. Return to Text

[57]  Rosen, p. 565. Return to Text

[58]  Fernea, p. 208 Return to Text

[59]  Maher, p. 111-12. Return to Text

[60]  Id. Return to Text

[61]  Id., p. 115. Return to Text

[62]  Khalidi, p. 121. Return to Text

[63]  Id. Return to Text

[64]  Id., p. 122. Return to Text

[65]  Id. Return to Text

[66]  Id. Return to Text

[67]  Musallam, Basim, The Arabs: A Living History (London: Collins/Harvill, 1983) p. 143. Return to Text

[68]  Baraket, p. 116. Return to Text

[69]  See, Musallam, p. 136, discussing veiling in Tunisia and Egypt. Return to Text

[70]  Minces, p. 165. Return to Text

[71]  Rezig, p. 194. Return to Text

[72]  Id. Return to Text

[73]  Id., p. 195. Return to Text

[74]  Id., p. 196. Return to Text

[75]  Musallam, p. 136. Return to Text

[76]  Id. Return to Text

[77]  Kader, p. 137. Return to Text

[78]  El-Messiri, p. 526. Return to Text

[79]  Id., p. 525 Return to Text

[80]  Id., p. 529. Return to Text

[81]  Id., p. 533. Return to Text

[82]  Mohsen, p. 587. Return to Text

[83]  Attir, Mustafa O., "Ideology, Value Changes, and Women's Social Position in Libyan Society," in Women and the Family in the Middle East: New Voices of Change, Fernea, Elizabeth Warnock, ed. (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 1985) p. 132-3, n. 1. Return to Text

[84]  Musallam, p. 136. Return to Text

[85]  Maher, p. 107-8. Return to Text

[86]  Id., p. 108. Return to Text

[87]  Id. Return to Text

[88]  Rosen, p. 562. Return to Text

[89]  Spencer, p. 105. The Jbala are one sub-group of Berbers. Return to Text

[90]  Morsey, p. 606. Return to Text

[91]  Id. Return to Text

[92]  Maher, p. 109. 17