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Tunisia takes groundbreaking steps towards gender equality

New draft laws have been welcomed by activists [Getty]

Date of publication: 20 January, 2018

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A new bill being drafted in Tunisia could see gender equality within marriage through a selection of new laws, including a long-awaited reform on equal inheritance.
Tunisian MPs announced this week its drafting of a new bill to further promote gender equality in the country's legal system. 

The bill proposes naming both husband and wife as joint heads of the family, allowing both men and women to pass their names down to their children.

It could also see controversial marriage dowries being banned and allowing inheritance to be split equally between male and female heirs.

The president of the newly-formed Commission for Individual Freedoms and Equality, Bochra Belhaj Hamida, announced in a statement the drafting of the bill - that comprised the selection of reforms - would embed essential elements of equality between the sexes into the country's legal code.

Hamida announced that the bill would be presented to President Beji Caid Essebsi on 20 February, before being presented to parliament as draft laws for debate, amendment and voting.

The issues of naming both husband and wife as legal heads of the family, and abolition of the dowry in the marriage contract, will hopefully prove groundbreaking in advancing women's independence and equality in the country.

Currently, Tunisian husbands-to-be are required to pay a dowry in order to marry, which also designates him as the family breadwinner and obligates him to pay and provide for his wife's needs. In exchange, the wife is expected to carry out her "conjugal" duties, which mainly take place inside the home.

This arrangement ensures the economic dependence of wife on husband, which in turn forms the basis of women's legal inferiority. In more recent times with more and more Tunisian women educated and thriving in the workplace, such an arrangement is significantly outdated and hindering to women's social and economic progress.
Tunisia's host of reforms over the past year have given it 
trailblazing status in advancing equal rights in the
Arab world [Getty] 


In addition to the bill's stipulation that parents should be able to make the family name that of either the husband or wife, the bill also proposes that families should be able to opt to split inheritance equally between male and female children. 

Islamic law of inheritance, currently in effect in Tunisia and much of the Arab world, stipulates that female heirs receive half that of their male counterparts, and has long been the focal point of campaigns by equality activists.

The proposed amendments have been hailed by women's rights activists throughout the world. The North African country has traditionally been a trailblazer in promoting equal rights in the Arab world.

In September, the government scrapped a law that prohibited Tunisian Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men, a significant step in loosening the tight controls over women's life choices.

The government is also visibly taking steps to address the country's epidemic of gender-based violence, passing a landmark law in July which meant that rapists could no longer escape punishment by marrying their victims. Similar laws were also passed in Lebanon, Morocco, Egypt and Jordan.

Visibility of LGBT issues has also been on the increase in Tunisia recently. The past two months saw the opening of the "Mawjoudin Queer Film Festival", which screened twelve films produced in Tunisia and across the Middle East and North Africa, as well as the launch of an LGBT radio station

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