TUNIS, Tunisia – Tunisian activists are stepping up their campaign in support of new laws that grant men and women equal inheritance rights.
More than 1,000 people, mostly women, took to the streets of Tunis on Saturday in a national demonstration organized by the Tunisian Coalition for Equality in Inheritance. The women, and some men, marched under the slogan, “Equality: a Right, not a Privilege.” Islamic law in the country currently provides men double the inheritance that women receive.
Representatives of 73 feminist groups, human rights associations, NGOs, unions and the civil society chanted, “The people want justice done” and carried banners that read, “Half and half, it’s full citizenship” and “Equality is my right, this is why I fight.”
“We’re here to fight economic inequality, and claim full equality between men and women. We don’t want complementarity,” said Saloua Guiga, president of the Coalition for Tunisian Women, standing at the assembly point. “It’s a popular, progressive demand.”
The demonstrators were marching to show support for plans proposed by President Beji Caid Essebsi to pass a reform to attain gender equality in inheritance laws, in accordance with Tunisia’s 2014 constitution.
Article 21 of the constitution states: “All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination.”
But under Islamic law, women and men have different rights when it comes to inheritance: The male heir receives at least twice the share of the female heir when parents die. A surviving husband inherits a quarter or half from his spouse depending on the presence or absence of children, whereas a surviving wife inherits between one eighth and a quarter.
In the event a child dies with no descendants, the child’s mother only gets one sixth of the inheritance whilst the father is entitled to the remainder. A grandfather inherits one third in the presence of brothers of the deceased, while the grandmother inherits one sixth.
“Equality is enshrined in our constitution. We need to have our laws aligned with the constitution,” said Meryem Mili, a member of Tunisia’s centrist liberal Republican party who was wearing a red T-shirt that said “The Tunisian woman is equal to one woman and a half.”
“We’re simply asking for implementation of the law,” said Moufida Abassi, treasurer of the Association of Tunisian Women for Research on Development. “It’s the continuation of all the struggles that Tunisian women have led towards equality until today.”
Supporters and activists campaigning for equality in inheritance claim it is time that the principle of equality between men and women is applied in all aspects of life, as guaranteed by the constitution, particularly in terms of equal inheritance rights. The question is becoming more pressing as more Tunisian women participate in the country’s economic and social life.
The Debate Over Equality
Women may contribute to the Tunisian economy, but they are financially uniquely disadvantaged compared to men. Figures provided by the Tunisian Coalition for Equality in Inheritance show that women are twice as likely to be unemployed as men, and that half of women over 60 have no source of income, compared to a quarter of men. There are seven times more widowed women than widowed men in the country.
Against this background, discriminatory inheritance laws can further reduce women’s economic autonomy. Often women are left financially deprived or without any income when their husband dies, though they have worked hard throughout their lives to care for their children and ensure the well-being of the family.
The proposed reform for equal inheritance has garnered a mixed response, with tensions often emerging between conservatives and reformists.
Islamist party Ennahda and Tunisia’s highest religious establishment, Diwan al-Ifta, have welcomed the presidential proposal and some Muslim scholars argue for reinterpretation of the inheritance rule in Islamic law to be adapted to Tunisia’s changing society.
“There are many outmoded precepts in the religious text that clash with the principle of justice. Those should be scrapped,” said Mohamed Ali, a member of the Popular Front, a political alliance made up of left-wing Tunisian parties and independents. “Equal inheritance is a question of justice.”
But Ennahda’s political opponents reject the proposed bill, arguing it is a distraction from higher-priority issues for the country such as unemployment and a sluggish economy.
Last year, Essebsi announced plans to create a committee to draft proposals to advance women’s rights, including inheritance. His announcement sparked outrage among conservatives, who denounced the reform proposals as a violation of Islamic precepts.
The Commission for Individual Freedoms and Gender Equality, set up by the government in August, was supposed to introduce its recommendations to allow women to have equal inheritance with men, and enable both husband and wife to pass on their family name, in February.
But the presentation of the proposals to reform the inheritance law was postponed until after upcoming municipal elections in May to widen consultation and prevent the new bill from turning into “an issue of electoral tension,” according to the Commission’s president, Bochra Belhaj Hamida.
A Leader in the Region
Tunisia is often seen as a pioneer for women’s rights in the Arab region. It introduced critical legal reforms in 2017 that criminalized domestic violence, lifted a ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men and put an end to a loophole that allowed rapists to escape punishment by marrying their victims.
“Tunisia cannot evolve without women’s emancipation. This is how the Tunisian society has progressed throughout history,” Ali said.
Mili agrees. “We’re heading forward in the right direction, consistent with our history. No matter how long it will take, I’m confident we will win our struggle,” she said.
If Tunisia succeeds in granting equal inheritance, it will be the first to do so in the Arab world. Neighboring countries are watching with interest as the passing of the draft law could set a precedent for Arab women.
“Our friends in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and other Arab countries hold high hopes,” Abassi said. “They’re telling us: ‘Go ahead, we will follow you next.’”