Tunisian president triggers debate after call for gender equality in inheritance, marriage
Tunis- On National Women’s Day, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi kicked off a heated debate on the sensitive issue of equality between the sexes in inheritance and marriage to non-Muslims.
In a ground-breaking speech, Caid Essebsi called on the prime minister and minister of justice to review a 1973 ministerial decree that bans Tunisian women from marrying non-Muslims. He insisted that the Tunisian Constitution “cannot be violated” by decrees and unconstitutional legislation.
Article 6 of the Constitution “guarantees freedom of conscience and belief” and charges that the state is responsible for protecting those rights. “In the Constitution of 2014, there are binding articles,” Caid Essebsi said.
He announced the formation of a committee to review constitutional reforms related to freedoms and equality, which will push for debate on gender equality in inheritance.
The new committee is led by Tunisian lawmaker Bochra Belhaj Hmida and includes professor and expert in civilisation and Islamic thought Abdelmajid Charfi, Professor of Constitutional Law Slim Laghmani, writer and activist Slaheddine Jourchi, Professor Salwa Hamrouni, film producer Dorra Bouchoucha, Professor Malek Ghazouani, Professor Ikbal Gharbi and journalist Kerim Bouzouita.
Following Caid Esssebsi’s speech August 13, most of the controversy centred on gender equality in inheritance, which has long been an extremely sensitive subject in Tunisia.
In 2016, Mehdi Ben Gharbia, then a member of the legislature and now a minister overseeing relations with constitutional bodies and civil society, presented a bill supporting equality in inheritance. Mufti of the Republic Othman Battikh soon issued a statement opposing the measure.
Surprisingly, Diwan al-Ifta, the authority still headed by Battikh, issued a statement the day after the president’s speech in support of Caid Essebsi’s call for a debate on inheritance.
Caid Essebsi’s “proposals in the support of women’s status come as a reinforcement of the Islamic principle of equality between men and women in rights and duties,” Diwan al-Ifta said.
Secular parties welcomed Caid Essebsi’s speech, saying that the president’s proposals are “positive steps” towards achieving equality between men and women.
“The promotion of the culture of equality will contribute to the development of societal attitudes and the protection of individual rights,” the Social Democratic Path (Al Massar), a centre-left secularist party, said in a statement.
The ruling Nidaa Tounes party expressed full support for Caid Essebsi’s declarations. The party “will mobilise to guarantee the success of the debate,” Nidaa Tounes said in a statement.
Raja Ben Slama, a professor of psychoanalysis at the University of Manouba, said she considered the issue of equality in inheritance related to development and economy.
“There are 800,000 women working in the agricultural sector” in Tunisia, Ben Slama said, noting that “these women are working on a land that they do not own.”
Parties with religious or conservative leanings, however, condemned Caid Essebsi’s speech, pledging to resist any attempt to change current law.
Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi, leader of Tayar el-Mahaba, presented a petition calling for the withdrawal of confidence from the president. The Forces of January 14 party called for an end to “haphazard decisions that do not take into consideration the feelings, willpower and interests of the Tunisian people.”
Former Interim President Moncef Marzouki labelled Caid Essebsi’s initiative “a political manoeuvre par excellence.” Other political figures agreed with Marzouki, saying that the president’s speech put Ennahda, an Islamist political party, in an awkward situation.
“Caid Essebsi wants to draw the Islamist party Ennahda into revealing [its] conservative face when dealing with this delicate issue,” said lawmaker Mustapha Ben Ahmed, head of the National Bloc. “The aim is to distance the female electorate from the Islamist party, two years before the presidential election in 2019.”
Ennahda leader Rached Ghannouchi issued no statement on the issue. His office only confirmed that the Islamist party would “participate in the debate” but Ennahda lawmaker Abdellatif Mekki described Caid Essebsi’s speech as “dangerous.”
“This speech could drag the country into political squabbles as Tunisia continues its struggle to develop and revive its battered economy,” Mekki said.
Abdelfattah Mourou, deputy speaker of Tunisian parliament and co-founder of Ennahda, said a broader debate could take place.
Caid Essebsi’s speech stirred controversy outside the country, with al-Azhar, the Cairo-based university that is the world’s most prominent authority on Sunni Islam, ruling against gender equality in inheritance. Without mentioning Tunisia, a statement by al-Azhar said the concept of equal inheritance was “against Islamic teachings.”
The concern of al-Azhar was aggravated by the fact that, in Egypt and other Arab countries, women are clamouring for rights.
Saida Guarrach, a Tunisian lawyer, feminist activist and adviser to the President of the Republic, said: “The matter is not that of religion or timing. It is rather a matter of economic independence and whoever has the money has control over the family and society.
“You can either stand with independence, emancipation, equality and dignity or persist in the defence of subordination, injustice and discrimination.”