Tunisian president pushes for equal inheritance rights for women

The proposed bill would allow exceptions for families that want to continue applying the Sharia-aligned provisions for inheritance.
Tuesday 14/08/2018
Tunisian women demonstrate for equal rights in Tunis, Monday, Aug.13, 2018. (AP)
Tunisian women demonstrate for equal rights in Tunis, Monday, Aug.13, 2018. (AP)

TUNIS - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi will put forward a bill granting equal inheritance rights for women, drawing the ire of Islamists and conservatives who say the provision contradicts Islamic Sharia.

In a televised speech marking national Women’s Day on Monday, Essebsi called to “make equal inheritance law...by modifying the code of personal status.” 

"This should have been done in 1956 but the constitution did not provide for it then," he said. 

However, the bill would allow exceptions for families that want to continue applying the Sharia-aligned provisions of allocating to female heirs half the inheritance of males. 

Despite the compromise, the proposal is likely to face opposition in parliament, where the Islamist Ennahda party has the majority of seats.

It also comes amid fierce debate over the role of religion in public policy following a report by a government-backed commission that recommended a series of reforms that are unpopular with many conservatives.

In addition to ensuring equal inheritance rights, the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee (COLIBE) recommended decriminalising homosexuality and abolishing the death penalty in June. 

Last week, thousands demonstrated against those proposals outside of parliament in downtown Tunis, saying they went against Islamic precepts and would undermine the Muslim character of the nation. 

However, the report’s authors and its supporters said the reforms were necessary to bring Tunisia’s laws into step with its 2014 constitution, which ensures “the freedom of the individual” and “the freedom of belief.”

"They in no way contravene Islamic precepts, but embody an enlightened reading of these precepts, which put them in step with the evolution of society," Abdelmajid Charfi, a university professor who is one of the report's authors, told the Associated Press. 

Essebsi, nearing the end of his 5-year term as president, has sought to build off of Tunisia’s history as a pioneer of women’s rights in the region and cement his legacy as a progressive leader.

Last year, he successfully pushed to overturn a restriction on Tunisian women marrying non-Muslim men, which he said  was "an obstacle to the freedom of choice of the spouse.” 

However, with politicians eying crucial 2019 parliamentary and presidential elections, it is unclear whether his proposed inheritance reforms will garner enough support in parliament to become law.