Debate heats up in Egypt over women’s inheritance rights

About 37% of Egyptian households are supported by women, government figures indicate.
Sunday 09/09/2018
Hurdles to Reform? Vehicles drive past al-Azhar mosque complex in Cairo. 			   (AFP)
Hurdles to Reform? Vehicles drive past al-Azhar mosque complex in Cairo. (AFP)

CAIRO - After Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi called for women to be granted equal inheritance rights, many in Egypt issued similar appeals, sparking a nationwide debate.

“Women carry the same social and economic responsibilities as men and sometimes more,” said Egyptian writer Farida al-Shubashi. “This is why they deserve to be treated on equal footing with men as far as inheritance rights are concerned.”

Caid Essebsi last month expressed support for the introduction of legislation that would reform the inheritance system in Tunisia towards gender equality.

The inheritance system in operation in most Arab countries, including Tunisia and Egypt, is based on Islamic law and typically allows men to inherit double what a woman would receive. If Caid Essebsi’s proposal becomes law, Tunisia would enforce full gender equality in matters of inheritance with sharia-based rules becoming optional.

Caid Essebsi’s stance emboldened Egyptian feminists who say the current system is outdated and fails to consider growing social equality between men and women.

About 37% of Egyptian households are supported by women, government figures indicate. Women make up 22.9% of Egypt’s workforce. Women hold almost 15% of the seats in parliament and eight members of the 33-member Egyptian cabinet are women.

This growing importance of the role of women, feminists say, requires a reinterpretation of the religious texts on which current laws are based.

“The interpretation of the religious texts needs to match the changes happening on the ground,” said Dena Anwer, an Egyptian TV commentator on women’s issues. “Many of the practices that were based on a misinterpretation of the texts have already changed because they no longer match developments on the ground.”

There are major historic parallels between major sociopolitical developments in Tunisia and Egypt. The popular uprising against longstanding Tunisian President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali erupted in Tunisia in December 2010. One month later, similar protests saw the ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The Islamist Ennahda Party won a majority of seats in the Constituent Assembly of Tunisia in 2011. Just months later, Egyptian Islamist parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, secured a majority in the Egyptian lower house.

However, when it comes to inheritance rights and the wider issue of gender equality, Egypt may have more ground to cover than Tunisia, which grants women more rights than most countries in the Arab and Muslim world.

Few Egyptian parents treat their daughters as equal to their sons, particularly in terms of education and social mobility. In 2015, government figures indicated that 27.3% of women were illiterate, compared to 14.7% of men.

In some parts of Egypt, particularly the countryside, where issues over inheritance are viewed as extremely important due to land ownership considerations, some husbands divorce their wives when they do not give birth to boys.

Al-Azhar, the highest religious authority in the Sunni Islamic world, reacted angrily to Caid Essebsi’s call and its officials spoke out against Egyptians backing inheritance reform.

Al-Azhar said those proposing equal inheritance rights between men and women violate the rules of Islam.

“Financial burdens are heavier in the case of men,” said Mohamed al-Shahat al-Guindi, a member of the Islamic Research Academy, the decision-making body of Al-Azhar. “True, there can be more than one interpretation for the same religious text, when it comes to inheritance, the Holy Quran is very clear.”

In a statement last month about the Tunisian legislative proposal, Al-Azhar said some people’s “extreme ideas” could threaten the security and stability of societies.

Egypt’s parliament has entered the equal inheritance rights debate yet. Some legislators declined to comment on the issue and said they would not propose legislation that could prove divisive or anger the religious establishment.

Feminists, however, say granting women equal inheritance rights would push religious reform in Egypt forward.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has made several public calls for Al-Azhar to lead a reform process. In August, Sisi criticised Egypt’s religious authorities for failing to make changes regarding divorce.

Under Islamic law, a husband is permitted to verbally divorce his wife. Sisi called for divorce to be recognised by the state only when it has been issued in a written document, giving husbands the chance to reconsider calls for divorce made during heated arguments. Al-Azhar refused, citing Islamic law.

Many say the issue of equal inheritance could become the next major battleground between Egypt’s civilian and religious authorities, with Sisi still believed to be keen on pushing forward religious reform.

“Equating women with men when it comes to inheritance cannot be viewed as a violation of the Islamic religion,” said Azza Kamel, a civil society campaigner active in defending women’s rights. “It should be viewed, in fact, as part of the aspired religious reform.”