Tu­nisia pres­i­dent tack­les women’s in­her­i­tance law af­ter mar­riage re­forms

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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

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