Tunisian leader’s gender equality proposals spark debate about religion and rights of women

August 20, 2017

Tunis- Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi has sparked a heated debate not only about the rights of wom­en but also about the margin of manoeuvre that a Mus­lim leader has in matters related to religion and society.
Although Ennahda, Tunisia’s main Islamist party, refrained from taking a stand, religious con­servatives rejected Caid Essebsi’s announcement August 13 that he would seek reforms towards insti­tuting gender equality in matters of inheritance and allowing women to marry non-Muslims.
Tunisian political leaders since independence have considered the issues too religiously sensitive to try to address.
As expected, the debate did not stop at Tunisia’s borders.
Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based insti­tution that is the most prominent authority on Sunni Islam, joined the fray, ruling against gender equality in inheritance. Without mentioning Tunisia, a statement by al-Azhar said the concept of equal inheritance was “against Islamic teachings.”
A more extreme reaction came from the President of Egypt’s Na­tional Opposition Political Coun­cil Adel al-Samouli, who appealed for Saudi Arabia to take an official stand against Tunisia. He specifi­cally called for imposing sanctions against the North African country.
Some in Tunisia tried to contain reactions in the Arab world by bill­ing Caid Essebsi’s move as a purely domestic initiative.
“Caid Essebsi’s proposals are of interest to the Tunisian people only,” said Borhen Bsaies, an offi­cial from the ruling Nidaa Tounes party.
There was, however, no curtail­ing of the ripple effects at home or in the region. In Morocco, the Tunisian president’s initiatives revived a debate among civil society groups on gender equality and inheritance.
The President of Morocco’s Fed­eration of the Democratic League for Women’s Rights Fouzia Assouli said “experts agree on the outdated nature of the current inheritance laws.”
In Egypt, women’s organisations welcomed Caid Essebsi’s initiatives while highlighting the differences between the social contexts in Tu­nisia and Egypt.
The moves of the Tunisian presi­dent are “progressive and enlight­ening but it is difficult to imple­ment them in Egypt as the issue of inheritance remains quite contro­versial,” said Ambassador Mervat Tallawy, director-general of the Arab Women’s Organisation.