Tunisia president tackles women’s inheritance law after marriage reforms
Some denounce it as a flouting of Islamic law, others embrace it as revolutionary. An initiative by Tunisia’s president to make inheritance and marriage rules fairer to women is reverberating around the Muslim world, and risks dividing his country.
The 90-year-old president, Beji Caid Essebsi, argues that Tunisia needs to fight discrimination and modernise.
On Thursday, Mr Essebsi’s office announced the abolition of a 44-year ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men, and posted a congratulatory message to women on Facebook.
He now wants to reform inheritance law to allow women the same rights as men instead of the system based on Sharia – which in general grants daughters only half the inheritance given to sons – and has announced a commission led by a female lawyer to draft revisions to the law.
After pushing through the revised marriage law, Mr Essebsi believes he can shepherd the changes through because his secular party is in a coalition with an Islamist party.
Tunisia has a history of relatively progressive views towards women. But changing the law on inheritance may prove a step too far for the country’s clerics, some of whom say that tampering with rules enshrined in the Quran could stir up extremism in a country that has already suffered deadly attacks.
Tunisia’s leading imams and theologians issued a statement denouncing the president’s proposals as a “flagrant violation of the precepts” of Islam.
The country’s Islamist party, Ennahda, has not taken an official line yet, but former prime minister Hamadi Jebali warned against anything that would “threaten social peace”.
Mr Jebali said the president’s ideas did not take into consideration the feelings of all Tunisians, just a liberal segment.
Mr Essebsi argues that existing practice breaches Tunisia’s constitution, adopted in 2014 after the Arab uprisings. He wants Tunisia to reach “total, actual equality between men and women citizens in a progressive way”, as called for in the charter.
He said he wanted to fight discrimination in a country where half of the engineers and most medical, agricultural and textile workers and best-educated citizens were women.
The first president of independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, championed a landmark social code in 1956 that set a standard for the region by banning polygamy and granting new rights to women. But even he did not dare to push for equal inheritance. The chief editor of daily Le
Maghreb, Zied Krichene, expressed hope that Mr Essebsi’s initiative would bring a “second revolution”.
But in Egypt, Al Azhar, the world’s foremost seat of religious learning for Sunni Muslims, swiftly rejected the proposals.
“Calls for the equality of men and women in inheritance do an injustice to women, don’t do women any good and clash with Sharia,” said Abbas Shoman, Al Azhar’s second most senior cleric.
Mr Shoman argued that, while Muslim men were likely to respect the beliefs and the freedom to worship of their non-Muslim spouses, non-Muslim men were unlikely to do the same for their Muslim wives.
Muslim parents who regard the inheritance laws as unjust often put assets in their daughters’ names during their lifetimes.
Some analysts suggest the president is trying to regain support from women who backed him in the 2014 elections for his modernisation agenda.
But then they grew disillusioned after he allied with the Islamist party.
Moroccan academic Nouzha Guessous welcomed the Tunisian proposal as “a beautiful bright spot in the grim political and social skies in Morocco and elsewhere in the Muslim world”.
In the Moroccan magazine
L’Economiste, Ms Guessous wrote that the Tunisian president could “go down in history as an enlightened Muslim leader characterised by a political conscience and attuned to the changes in society”.
“As a proud, full-fledged Moroccan woman, I must admit that today, yes, I would have liked to be Tunisian.”
Tunisia’s leading theologians denounced the proposals as a ‘flagrant violation of the precepts’ of Islam