Tunisian inheritance equality move faces threat of hostile fatwa

The fatwa threat is the first religion-inspired shot aimed at influencing the forthcoming legislative and presidential elections.
Wednesday 19/12/2018
Tunisian demonstrators hold pro-conservative signs during a protest against proposed reforms that include equal inheritance rights for women. (AFP)
Fatwa politics. Tunisian demonstrators hold pro-conservative signs during a protest against proposed reforms that include equal inheritance rights for women. (AFP)

TUNIS – Tunisian Islamic scholars threatened to issue a fatwa prohibiting voting for parliament members who would approve a draft law establishing equal inheritance rights for women and men.

The fatwa is part of efforts by Islamists opposing the proposed law. It reflects the polarisation between Islamists and conservatives, on the one hand, and secularists and modernists on the other, over the issue of equality between men and women ahead of elections next year.

“The fatwa move stems from our Ez-Zitouna Islamic background. The fatwa prohibits voting in the future for any parliament member who dares endorse the inheritance law,” said Ilyes Dardour, an Ez-Zitouna University teacher and a leading figure in an Islamist group opposed to the inheritance law.

Ez-Zitouna University is the oldest and most prestigious centre of Islamic teaching in Tunisia.

“Any person who revises our inheritance law will be prohibited by sharia from getting your votes whether in local, parliamentary or other elections in the future,” said Dardour.

“By sharia, you are prohibited from voting for anyone who approves the draft law over the inheritance equality,” he added while addressing a meeting of imams and other Islamists opposed to the measure.

He did not say when such a fatwa would be made public. Legal and official fatwas usually come from the office of the government-appointed Mufti of the Republic, not from self-appointed bodies.

Dardour and other scholars are part of a network of Islamist figures set up last year by pro-Ennahda Movement activists and conservative allies called “the national coordination committee for the defence of the Quran, the constitution and equitable development,”

The network has been spearheading the campaign against enacting a law equalising women with men in terms of inheritance.

It has organised demonstrations in Tunis and other cities. Its supporters began social media campaigns attacking the proposed law.

The group is credited by opponents of the draft law for sermons at mosques across Tunisia describing the legislative initiative as” a challenge to God’s sacred words.”

The Tunisian cabinet in November approved the draft law establishing equal inheritance rights between men and women, making Tunisia the first Muslim country to move forward with such legislation.

The move backed by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi drew praise from secularists and rights activists but triggered stinging attacks from conservatives and Islamists, including from outside Tunisia, who argued it contradicts Quranic texts.

It is not clear when the parliament will examine the bill and there is no certainty on how the 149 deputies who are not members of Ennahda in the 217-member parliament will vote

Ennahda, which wants to be perceived as a democratic party committed to human rights and personal freedoms, faces a political bind, experts said. If its deputies follow most of their leaders in rejecting the proposal, the party is likely to gain the support of its conservative base.

However, it could lose part of the international legitimacy Ennahda’s leaders have been striving to build, especially in the eyes of European governments and public opinions who worry Ennahda might not be that different of other Muslim Brotherhood affiliates in the Maghreb.

Based on sharia, Tunisian law generally provides women with half the inheritance rights of men. The proposed legislation would establish equality of inheritance as the rule but allow exceptions for families who want to observe sharia-aligned provisions.

The legislation is the brainchild of Caid Essebsi, who said on August 13 — Tunisia’s National Women’s Day — that he sought to make equal inheritance law by modifying the code of personal status.

Those backing equal inheritance claim the legislation would help Tunisia live up to the ideals enshrined in its 2014 constitution, which states that all citizens, male and female, are equal before the law without any discrimination. Islamists say it defies the constitutional provision that Islam is the state’s religion.

Analysts said Caid Essebsi’s introduction of equal inheritance rights was aimed at consolidating secularist forces ahead of elections, isolating Islamists politically and embarrassing them internationally.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and government ministers endorsed the draft law November 23, during a meeting led by Caid Essebsi.

Chahed’s secularist backers in parliament pledged to approve the measure, as did the leftist opposition Popular Front and the Democratic Current, a secularist group opposed to Caid Essebsi and Chahed.

Ennahda, the largest faction in parliament with 68 deputies, voiced opposition to the legislation. Noureddine Bhiri, Ennahda’s leader in parliament, slammed the proposal as “un-Islamic, immoral and aimed at sowing division and strife in the country.”

If parliament approves the draft law, it would be the first time in years that secularists had joined to defeat the Islamists, giving a signal of unity to supporters and leaders, who are locked in political infighting ahead of elections next year.

Tunisia’s laws are based on the constitution, not sharia. The planned fatwa effect would be a tangible test of Tunisia’s public opinion change since 2011 when resurgent Islamists took a prominent role in government and society.

The fatwa threat is the first religion-inspired shot aimed at influencing the forthcoming legislative and presidential elections.