After Tunisia, gender equality inheritance debate grips Egypt

Sunday 10/09/2017
Looking backward. Muslim scholars wait for the meeting between Pope Francis and Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, al- Azhar’s grand imam, in Cairo, last April. (AP)

Cairo - Many Egyptians are calling on Cairo to fol¬low Tunisia’s moves towards gender equality and grant women equal inheritance rights as men.
“Everything is changing, which makes it necessary for the religious establishment to reconsider the interpretation of texts governing women’s inheritance rights,” said liberal activist Khaled Montaser. “Men of religion insist on the ap-plication of religious texts govern¬ing inheritance, even as they do not do the same when it comes to other issues.”
When Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi called for ensuring equal rights for men and women in inheritance law on August 13, Egypt’s senior religious institution al-Azhar rejected the move.
Although al-Azhar did not offi¬cially address or mention Caid Es¬sebsi in a statement a few days after the Tunisian president’s speech, it asserted that “recent calls” for equality between men and women in inheritance issues ran “counter to Islamic teachings.” Al-Azhar cler¬ics explicitly denounced the con¬cept as “blasphemous.”
Islamic law states that female family members are entitled to half of what male family members receive in inheritance. Few Mus¬lims have questioned this rule, even as activists have sought to reform other issues related to Is-lamic law. However, following the move in Tunisia to promote gender equality, similar actions may be in the offing in Egypt.
Tunisia has become a trendsetter in the Arab world in cultural and political advancements. When Tu¬nisians rose up against long-time President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in December 2010, Egyptians were in the streets protesting against Hosni Mubarak less than a month later.
The same is apparently happen¬ing in Egypt after Tunisian calls for equal inheritance rights. Egyptian feminists strongly welcomed the new focus on gender issues.
“The fact is that the economic role played by women in society has totally changed, which requires a change in their share of the wealth of their families, if any,” said Hoda Badran, chairwoman of the Alli¬ance for Arab Women. “We need to reach new interpretations of the religious texts, ones that can cope with this change.”
Figures about female breadwin¬ners in Egypt prove Badran’s point. In as many as 30% of Egyptian households, women bring in some of the family income, independent sources state. Approximately 23% of the workforce was made up of women in 2015, the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statis¬tics said.
Those figures should not obscure the reality that certain verses in the Quran are explicit in referring to inheritance rights and cannot be changed or interpreted differently, al-Azhar said.
“Those calling for giving female family members equal inheritance rights to those of male members only want to change the Islamic religion,” said Sheikh Abbas Shou¬man, the deputy leader of al-Azhar.
He said Islamic law gives women half the inheritance of male family members only when they have no other means of support.
“In many cases, women are en¬titled to inheritance rights equal to those of male family members,” Shouman said.
While many Egyptians welcomed debate on the issue, it is unclear whether policy will move beyond discussion to actual change.
Montaser and other advocates said, while al-Azhar insists that Quranic verses on inheritance can¬not be challenged, it is happy to overlook other outdated applica¬tions of Islamic law, including pun¬ishment for theft and adultery.
Montaser called for a religious “revolution” to modernise and reform gender equality in Islam, matching requests from Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi to re¬form religious discourse.
“You cannot ask women to shoul¬der the burdens of life with men and support their families and then tell them that they will not be equal to those men when it comes to in¬heritance,” Montaser said. “This thinking needs to change.”