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Sophie Bessis

Equal inheritance for daughters is key to Tunisian women's empowerment

There is strong support among Tunisian women for equal inheritance rights [AFP]

Date of publication: 19 October, 2017

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Comment: While marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man is now permitted, the question of equal inheritance rights between the sexes is a thornier issue, writes Sophie Bessis.
It was to be expected. The speech given by the Tunisian president on Women's Day in August of this year, marking the 1956 anniversary of the Code of Personal Status, reignited a recurring debate in Tunisia over the equality of the sexes. 

In his address, the president tackled two issues which have been the subject of heated debates since the 70s. He announced his determination to repeal the ministerial decree of 1973 which prohibited marriage between a Muslim Tunisian woman and a non-Muslim man.

Second was his intention of moving towards equal inheritance rights between daughters and sons, as the present law, in keeping with the Sharia, grants female heirs only half of that which male heirs receive.

His statements gave rise to a chorus of impassioned commentary from NGOs, charities, the media, political parties, trade unions and the blogosphere. In scarcely a week, the speech registered a record number of 28,000 views and received 1,370 comments, divided between resolute champions of the Sharia, cybernauts doubtful of Beji Caid Essebsi's actual intentions, enthusiastic women and men who favour equality.

The return of state feminism?

Situated in the context of other heated debates around domestic politics, the discussion quickly spread to the rest of the Arab-Muslim world. In Tunisia, different schools of thought exist on the issue.

One, which avoided taking sides on the basic issue, saw in this speech an opportunistic presidential manoeuvre, meant to gain the support of the "modernising democrats", put off by other policies and his efforts to reinstate a number of officials from the old regime.

There is no doubt that Beji Caid Essebsi had chosen his moment carefully, to revive the much-discussed "state feminism" - an ambiguous policy at best - which had marked the beginnings of the Bourguiba era.

A change in the rules of inheritance would completely upset the distribution of property holdings, which until now have been largely in the hands of men

In August 2016, he had steadfastly refused to deal with these issues despite pressing demands to do so. His recent turnaround is part of a strategy aimed at winning back a sector of public opinion. This has enabled him to impose upon his prime minister, Youssef Chahed, a reshuffling of his cabinet to include many people in his personal entourage, and to put through parliament what amounts to an amnesty for all the civil servants compromised in the corruption scandals of the Ben Ali period.

Another group - though it does not underestimate the president's ulterior motives - has received these proposals enthusiastically, seeing them as potentially historic steps for women's rights in Tunisia.

For many years now, various charities and intellectuals have campaigned against the laws which discriminate against women. They have forged solid arguments to counter the rhetoric based on Quranic rules, especially in matters of inheritance. Law books, manifestos, public stands and coalitions of charities and NGOs have worked tirelessly, with an eye to convincing public opinion it is high time that laws reflect with the evolution of society.

The January 2014 Constitution provided an institutional basis for these demands by guaranteeing equality between citizens of both sexes in the eyes of the law with no discrimination. Article 46 stipulates the protection, consolidation and improvement of the rights of women. It was in fact with reference to this new Basic Law that some 30 organisation got together in 2016 to demand the abolition of the marriage decrees.

All five of these decrees - plus one dating from 1973 which was simply an extension of the range of prohibitions - were abolished on 14 September of this year, a month after the president's speech. A Tunisian woman of Muslim faith may now marry any man she pleases, without his having to convert to Islam if his religion is different.

Pre-existing marriages which have not been recognised can now be officially recorded with the public registry or in consulates abroad. While this change in the law was greeted with a gnashing of teeth in conservative circles, as it is part of an ongoing secularisation of the private rights of citizens, it is a move in keeping with a reality that is now clear for all to see.

Inheritance equality has also increasingly earned the backing of working-class women who are tired of being deprived, in part or in whole, of their modest share of property holdings

Today, the number of "mixed" marriages undertaken by couples of every social background with two different nationalities has grown steadily since the 90s. In addition, the number of young women abroad and in higher education has also increased. So that in spite of a few battles with the old guard, and even within the ministry of justice itself, the change in law did not really cause much of an outcry.

Growing support, and solid opposition

The issue of inheritance equality however, is another matter altogether, as illustrated by the impassioned disputes sparked by the 13 August speech.

And yet the debate goes way back. Already in 1974, Habib Bourguiba had tried to put through this reform but had been obliged to retreat in the face of broad opposition, even among members of his cabinet and his personal entourage. Since then - and despite the undeniable fact that religious practice has become increasingly ostentatious - the issue has featured consistently on the agenda of Tunisian feminists.

After 2011 it was made a key issue by various NGOs and charities, with the backing of many jurists and Islamic scholars - most of them women - convinced of the need to reinterpret the scriptures.

The Islamists are by no means the only opponents of egalitarian inheritance

In June 2016, MP Mehdi Ben Gharbia brought a bill to parliament on inheritance, which made equality the rule while leaving open the possibility of an unequal division in exceptional cases.

President Caid Essebsi then, is not venturing onto unexplored territory. Be that as it may, the opposition remains fierce, because a change in the rules of inheritance would completely upset the distribution of property holdings, which until now have been largely in the hands of men.

In rural areas, men in fact own practically everything, and women are usually deprived of their rightful share. In fact, out of fear of an egalitarian inheritance law - a concern which is not religious but economic - "certain families have hastened to give female members the share of the family property due to them under the Sharia," according to data collected by Ons Hattab of the Nidaa Tounes party, and published in Assabah El-Ousboui journal. 

At first, the fact that the president of Ennahdha failed to comment on this matter may have seemed surprising. A consequence of Rached Ghannouchi's subtle balancing act, attempting to maintain his alliance with the Chief of State and the Nidaa Tounes Party, it is not tantamount to approval.

Read more: Despite positive reforms in Tunisia, more democratic changes are needed

Moreover, the Islamist party quickly saw to it that some of its most prominent female members spoke out loudly against this announcement, which was accused of violating the Quranic dogma. This outcry from Islamist and conservative circles received the support of Al-Azhar University in Cairo and various other religious authorities in the Near East, as well as Salafist lay preachers who once again promised Tunisia the flames of Hell for its impiety.

In addition to the wholehearted support coming from modernising circles, inheritance equality has also increasingly earned the backing of working-class women who are tired of being deprived, in part or in whole, of their modest share of property holdings by the men of their families.

The increased number of girls in full-time schooling, the fact that many women of the younger generation are the sole wage earners in their families while their brothers and husbands are unemployed and the diversification of sources of information since 2011, have all led to more progressive attitudes among women, while the men still cling to their privileges.

It is true that many women - in interviews or studies carried out by certain media - still express hostility towards equality in the name of religion. The propaganda spouted by religious channels, widely watched in Tunisia certainly has something to answer for here. There is no doubt however, that a sizeable share of Tunisian women would be in favour of any measure that aims to increase the financial autonomy of women.

An ambiguous trade union position

Will the Tunisia of 2017 succeed where Bourguiba had had to lay down his arms, winning the sympathies of many women throughout the Arab world?

The game is far from over.

Read more: Manufacturing virginity: The Tunisian women choosing to 'repair their honour'

Indeed, the Islamists are by no means the only opponents of egalitarian inheritance, and the convergence between different conservative forces is enough to block the draft law in parliament.

The general secretary of the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT), with its well-established sexist traditions, has declared that it is a "sensitive" issue which should be dealt with "wisely" and should not distract the country from its priorities.

The most cautious opponents say that "the moment is not ripe," to table this question. For the moment, a nine-member committee has been created by decree with the task of promoting equality.

Presided over by a woman, Bochra Bel Haj Hamida, a lawyer who has worked with The Tunisian Women's Association for Democracy (Association des Femmes Tunisiennes pour la Democratie, AFTD), it is due to submit within six months a report on the feasibility of the presidential announcement.

The opposition will not give up easily and it will take time, commitment and education for inheritance equality to become law

Another feminist voice, Saida Guarach, spokesperson for the presidency of the Republic, has appeared frequently in the media to systematically dismantle the arguments of those opposing equality.

Whatever the reasons behind the launch of this movement, it is well and truly under way, and has solid support among Tunisia's women. But the opposition will not give up easily and it will take time, commitment and education, for inheritance equality to become law and common practice.


Sophie Bessis is an award winning Tunisian journalist, historian and author. Her most recent book is 'Les Valeureuses: cinq Tunisiennes dans l’histoire'. 

A version of this article was previously published by our partners at Orient XXI.



Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.

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