Tunisian president tests controversial issue of equal inheritance

The division adds to a murky political landscape ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections next year.
Sunday 19/08/2018
High hopes. Tunisians chant slogans during a demonstration to demand equal inheritance rights between men and women, on August 13. (AFP)
High hopes. Tunisians chant slogans during a demonstration to demand equal inheritance rights between men and women, on August 13. (AFP)

TUNIS - Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi proposed codifying equal inheritance between men and women, making him one of the first Muslim leaders to test the controversial issue.

“I say equality of inheritance should become law,” Caid Essebsi said in a televised address on August 13, Tunisia’s National Women’s Day. “This should have been done in 1956 but the constitution did not provide for it then.”

Caid Essebsi said he wanted to see an inheritance bill before parliament “as soon as possible.”

Tunisian law generally provides women with only half the inheritance rights of men, in accordance with sharia. Caid Essebsi’s proposed legislation would change that and allow exceptions for families who want to continue observing sharia-aligned provisions.

“As the president of all Tunisians, I’m bound by the duty to unite and not to divide,” Caid Essebsi said in a nod to the conservative forces in parliament and at large.

Despite the apparent compromise, the proposal sparked heated debate throughout the country. Progressives and rights’ activists generally supported the idea but many conservatives and Islamists rejected it.

After the president’s speech, thousands took to Tunis’s main Habib Bourguiba Avenue to show support for equal inheritance, chanting “We are back to the streets” and “We will stage another revolution.”

Those in favour of equal inheritance say the legislation would help Tunisia live up to the ideals enshrined in its 2014 constitution, which is hailed as one of the most progressive in the region and states: “All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties and are equal before the law without any discrimination.”

Dalenda Largueche, a professor at Manouba University, said equal inheritance was an important way of “applying the fundamental principles of the constitution.”

“There are no taboos nowadays,” she said. “With this new Tunisia, we are an example to the Arab world and an example for other women and Muslim countries. If we were able to create a progressive constitution, it was thanks to Tunisian women.”

“They (the proposals) 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 and one of the report’s authors, told the Associated Press.

But there was strong pushback to the proposal from conservatives and Islamists, who turned out in the thousands August 11 — two days before Caid Essebsi’s speech — to voice opposition to equal inheritance and other recommendations made by the government-backed Commission on Individual Freedoms and Equality.

Such division adds to a murky political landscape ahead of parliamentary and presidential elections next year. Tunisia’s leading Nidaa Tounes party has been embroiled in a months-long internal dispute and the country’s leaders have struggled to reverse a stubborn economic downturn.

It also adds fuel to the secularist versus Islamist divide, which is likely to intensify as the election approaches.

Tunisia’s Islamist Ennahda Movement, which remains in a tenuous coalition government with Nidaa Tounes, has distanced itself from the proposal.

Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi, who is often seen in prominent placement at presidential events, was notably absent during Caid Essebsi’s speech. He also missed the president’s National Women’s Day speech in 2017 during which Caid Essebsi defended equal inheritance.

Abdelkrim Harouni, head of Ennahda’s Shura Council, said “the basic rule is the respect of Islamic tenets.”

“We have expressed our reservations about the issue of the equality in inheritance between men and women but we are open to debate other issues related to expanding rights and freedoms,” he added.

Other senior Ennahda officials referenced the country’s “Islamic values” and said the party would likely propose different legislation. It would stipulate that “women get half (the amount of) their brothers in inheritance” and that “those who want equality between their daughters and sons should state so in passing over their propriety,” they said.

For Caid Essebsi, who, at 91, is likely on the last lap of his 60-year political career, securing equal inheritance between genders is a way to carry Tunisia’s progressive legacy on women’s rights forward.

Former Tunisian Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali pushed through numerous reform measures, including banning polygamy and ensuring women’s right to vote, file for divorce and access abortions. They also cracked down on political Islam, limiting its reach in education and the media.

However, in post-revolution Tunisia, Caid Essebsi must break with his predecessors’ “top-down” approach to securing reforms and seek compromise from his partners in government.

That has left him at odds even with some progressives, who say his proposal does not go far enough in protecting women’s inheritance rights.

“We are witnessing the anguish of progressive forces like us who feel deep in their hearts the president’s proposal is far less than they expected,” said Maya Ksouri, a lawyer and anti-Islamist writer.