Tunisia’s cabinet codifies equal inheritance rights in historic first for Muslim world

Ennahda, which has portrayed itself as a democratic party committed to human rights, faces a dilemma.
Sunday 02/12/2018
Major strides. Tunisian women demonstrate for equal rights in Tunis, last August.   (AP)
Major strides. Tunisian women demonstrate for equal rights in Tunis, last August. (AP)

TUNIS - Tunisia’s cabinet approved a draft law establishing equal inheritance rights between men and women, making Tunisia the first Muslim country to move forward with such a legislation. The move drew praise from secularists and rights activists but stinging attacks from conservatives and Islamists, who argue it contradicts Quranic texts.

The bill next moves to parliament, where it is unclear whether it will be supported by the powerful Islamist Ennahda Movement.

Ennahda, which has portrayed itself as a democratic party committed to human rights and personal freedoms, faces a dilemma. If its deputies follow their leaders in rejecting the proposal, the party is likely to lose international legitimacy. If they back the draft law, however, they could alienate their conservative base ahead of next year’s parliamentary and presidential elections.

Tunisian law generally provides women with half the inheritance rights of men, in accordance with sharia. The proposed legislation would establish equality of inheritance as the rule but allow exceptions for families who want to observe sharia-aligned provisions.

The legislation is the brainchild of Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi, who said August 13 — Tunisia’s National Women’s Day — that he sought 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,” Caid Essebsi said.

Those supporting equal inheritance say the legislation would help Tunisia live up to the ideals enshrined in its 2014 constitution, which states that all citizens — male and female — “are equal before the law without any discrimination.” Islamists say it contradicts the Islamic character of the state stipulated by the constitution.

Former Tunisian Presidents Habib Bourguiba and Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali pushed for advances in women’s rights but stopped short of endorsing equality in inheritance due to religious sensitivities. Among the reforms introduced under the two leaders’ rules were a ban on polygamy, women’s right to vote, equalising divorce procedures and ensuring abortion rights.

Analysts said Caid Essebsi’s introduction of equal inheritance rights is aimed at consolidating secularist forces ahead of elections, isolating Islamists politically and embarrassing them internationally.

Tunisian Prime Minister Youssef Chahed and government ministers endorsed the draft law November 23, during a meeting led by Beji Caid Essebsi in the Presidential Palace. Chahed’s secularist backers in parliament pledged to approve the measure, as did the leftist opposition Popular Front and the Democratic Current, a secularist group opposed to Caid Essebsi and Chahed.

Ennahda, the largest faction in parliament with 68 deputies, voiced opposition to the legislation. Noureddine Bhiri, Ennahda’s leader in parliament, slammed the proposal as “un-Islamic, immoral and aimed at sowing division and strife in the country.”

Other Islamist members of parliament have been sending conflicting signals about the draft law, with many supporting the intent to veto it while some are keeping quiet and others saying they will seek to amend it.

Tunisia’s leading secularist Nidaa Tounes party, while largely united on the inheritance issues, is mired in an internal party dispute that has pitted some of its leading figures against each other. Chahed, who is officially a member of the party, is at odds with Nidaa Tounes’s leader Hafedh Caid Essebsi, who is the president’s son.

In June, Hafedh Caid Essebsi and his allies in Nidaa sought to remove Chahed as head of government. They were blocked from doing so by Ennahda, which is seen as more closely aligned with Chahed — at least for now.

Recently, Nidaa Tounes filed a lawsuit against Chahed for “plotting a coup” with other powerful figures against the president, a charge Chahed dismissed as a “joke.”

With such deep divisions, it will be difficult for Beji Caid Essebsi to push the legislation through. His backers are confident, however, they can muster a majority of votes. If he does so, it will be a political masterstroke, helping cement his legacy as a trailblazer for women’s rights.

The draft law is being closely monitored abroad. Former Egyptian Mufti Ali Gomaa, a scholar at al-Azhar, one of the highest Islamic teaching centres in the Muslim world, spoke out against the Tunisian initiative.

“May God protect us from such a law,” he said.

Anti-Islamist Moroccan writer Said Lakhal praised the measure for setting an important precedent in the region on separating religious diktats from law.

“The Tunisian president has based his proposed law upon the constitution voted by all the ideological hues of the Tunisian people to enshrine that the Tunisian state is a civic one with its laws and legislations with no role to religious legislations within the framework of such a state,” Lakhal said.

“If the Islamic states do not decide to choose between religious and civil state, the religious Islamic current will continue to hinder the progress of the Arab and Islamic societies and the possibilities for them to enjoy the benefits of the human civilisation,” he added.