Tunisian leader’s gender equality proposals spark debate about religion and rights of women
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President of Morocco’s Federation of the Democratic League for Women’s Rights Fouzia Assouli said “experts agree on the outdated nature of the current inheritance laws.”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.