Tunisians of all walks of life are divided over the issue of gender equality in inheritance rights. A controversial reform of the inheritance law unveiled in this regard by President Beji Caid Essebsi and backed by the mufti of Tunisia has sparked fierce and endless debates between conservatives and liberals.
Islamic (sharia) law generally gives women half of what it gives men in inheritance, while making men financially responsible for women. Besides equal inheritance rights, Tunisian women want also be given the rights to marry non-Muslim foreigners.
President Béji Caid Essebsi, who announced these reforms on the occasion of Tunisian Women’s National Day, said ”we will find a way to reconcile religion and constitutional principles. The inheritance is an issue for humans. God and His prophet left humans to manage these issues”.
These remarks prompted sharp criticism from the conservatives, while they were commended by liberals and human rights militants.
In 1974, late Habib Bourghiba, first president of Tunisia, tried to bring in similar changes when he tabled a motion offering tax breaks to those who grant equal rights in their wills to their sons and their daughters. But these ideas triggered an outcry and he was ultimately compelled to drop the draft legislation.
For Egypt’s Al-Azhar, one of the highest religious authorities in Sunni Islam, the proposals announced by the Tunisian President regarding women’s inheritance rights and marriage to non-Muslims are ”against divine law, Islamic precepts and the teachings of the Prophet”.
In his address on the occasion of Women’s National Day, President Beji Caid Essebsi called for the repeal of the law which prohibits Tunisian Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men and for amendments granting women equal rights as men, including those governing women’s inheritance.
In July, Tunisia’s parliament passed a bill protecting women from violence. Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the law as a “landmark step for women’s rights.”
The new law brings about new criminal provisions and increases penalties for various forms of violence, sexual harassment, and discrimination against women.
Among other things, the law criminalizes sexual harassment in public spaces, bans the employment of children as domestic workers, and removes a controversial article that allowed rapists to marry their victims to escape punishment and prosecution.