A bill that enables Tunisian women to pass their family name to children and have equal inheritance with men will be introduced to President Essebsi on February 20, even though religious conservatives warn the amendment will stir up public anger.
TUNIS — Dorra Mahfoudh-Draoui recalls the time of Zine el Abidine Ben Ali's authoritarian reign when she and her fellow activists held "secret meetings" to promote gender equality in Tunisia.
As the 2011 uprising ended Ben Ali's two-decade long rule, activists like Draoui began to express themselves in public, seeking legal amendments that allow Tunisian women to have equal rights in both public and private life.
They succeeded in bringing crucial reforms in 2017 such as scrapping a ban on Muslim women marrying outside their faith, and an end to a law that let rapists escape punishment by marrying their victims. The moves in the north African country paved the way for Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco and Egypt to repeal similar laws.
Now another major legal amendment is underway: Tunisia is drafting a new bill that could soon unlock a long-awaited reform to allow inheritance to be split equally between male and female heirs, and enable both husband and wife to pass their names down to their children.
The draft is to be introduced to President Beji Caid Essebsi on February 20, before being tabled at parliament. The newly-formed Committee for Individual Freedoms and Equality will present two proposals on inheritance, one providing for full equality between men and women and a second one simply allowing women to request parity.
“Women work as much as men do and more," Draoui told TRT World. "On top of it, they have to look after their parents today, with no pension or state aid. If they cannot even inherit in equal parts, that becomes slavery.”
A longstanding feminist and trade unionist, she has worked tirelessly on a range of key questions including the elimination of violence against women and equal inheritance. Despite people were aware that husband and wife are joint heads of the household, most were initially not ready to endorse equality inheritance, she recalled.
Draoui is the head and founder of the Association of Tunisian Women for Research and Development (AFTURD), a non-profit which is devoted to women's empowerment.
She said she has witnessed some of her family members and several women in the society slipping into poverty, after they were deprived of their share in inheritance by their brothers or uncles.
The proposed amendments to grant women equal inheritance rights have been met with jubilation but also strong resistance from inside the predominantly Muslim country. Muslim traditionalists and clerics consider the inheritance rules set in the Quran are clear and unquestionable, denouncing the proposals to amend them as a violation of Islamic law.
While the current system generally grants daughters only half the inheritance given to sons, head of Zitouna party Sadok Chourou argued that there are instances in the Islamic religious text where equal or larger inheritance portions are conceded to women, making them more favoured financially than their male counterparts.
“There is only one percent in favour of Essebsi-backed equal inheritance bill, essentially a political initiative. The rest of the society is against it”, claimed Chourou, warning of a rupture in relations between the religious and civil spheres should the draft pass.
Some Muslim theologians, however, claimed that the one-half inheritance for women is open for reinterpretation to fit the Quran’s requirements for justice and equality, and shape ancient principles of Islamic law in line with changing societies.
Diwan al Ifta, Tunisia’s highest religious establishment, welcomed Essebsi’s call for gender equality in inheritance. Likewise, religiously inspired Ennahda, which is part of the country's coalition government, praised the presidential initiative.
Activists in support of the amendment provide deeper insight into the issue. They argue that the inheritance laws can no longer favour men, as women are major contributors to the country's economy, and in some cases, a woman is even the breadwinner either because she is divorced, her husband is deceased or abroad, or for other reasons, in addition, she supports aged parents in the family.
“There’s much pressure on women. They have to work, feed their children, take care of the house. They put a lot more effort than men do,” said Ahlem Jedidi, a young Tunisian activist from Sfax city.
Jedidi has lived in different parts of Tunisia like Kasserine, Kairouan, Gabes and MatMata, and noticed clear differences between the relatively privileged life in Tunis and the impoverished interior of the country where women largely lack opportunities.
“We’re ahead of other countries in the region in terms of women’s rights, but we cannot claim this privilege in the rural interior regions," Jedidi said. "Rural women don’t know they have rights, or even think about equal inheritance since our society convinced them that they should be okay with what they inherit.”
Although Tunisia is widely seen as a pioneer for women’s rights in the Middle East and North African region, Jedidi said tangible gender-based injustices can be observed across the country, particularly in rural communities.
“It’s not that women in the capital are smarter or prettier, but those living in the internal areas have no access to opportunities. They have this strict life path based on which they should get married and do the hard work,” said Jedidi. “Women in the centre and south systematically get underpaid, earn much less even though they do the same work as men’s, and of course they don’t see any promotion or work benefits.”
In most cases, she said, many female farmers are left with nothing whereas their male relatives inherit the whole of the estate.
While Tunisia’s religion-based personal status laws are comparatively among the most progressive in the region, men are still designated as head of the household and Tunisian girls do not receive an equal share of inheritance.
Mainstream Muslims maintain that the shares of a man are double than that of a woman because the male has the duty to support his family thus exempting the female from any kind of financial responsibility.
Nevertheless, such view runs counter to today’s Tunisian society where women and men share the same responsibilities.
"More and more women are educated, they sustain their families, contribute to the economy, and play a vital part in the society”, noted Mounira Hammami, AFTURD’s general secretary and gender consultant.
Daughter of nearly illiterate parents, Hammami values the freedom and independence she enjoyed as a girl despite her socially disadvantaged and uneducated family. Growing up, she found a gender-unbalanced society then later she engaged in education and women’s equality issues.
"In rural zones, it is estimated that only one-fifth of women manage their own income although they work and run the household”, she said, “there is barely 14 percent of women farmers who are land owners even though they make up for at least a quarter of the family budget.”
“The inheritance question now needs to be set out from an economic perspective,” Hammami said.
Fellow feminist activist Draoui stressed the importance of shifting from using an exclusively social justice-based argument to making an economic case when approaching the equal inheritance issue.
“It’s not just about equality and human rights, but notably economic development and poverty reduction,” she said, “we need to move in this direction because women make an equally important economic contribution, they inject money into the family and the country’s economy.”
A study published in 2014 by the Collective 95 – For Equality in the Maghreb and AFTURD in collaboration with UNIFEM, showed that Tunisian women today contribute to the country’s economic development and financial support of the family. It indicated that denying women access to equal assets would limit their economic autonomy and the country’s growth potential. Notably, the research demonstrated that possible economic gains would be generated for women, the family, society and country’s development, if the equality principle was applied in inheritance.
Besides its economic implications, Hammami argued that passing a law granting equal inheritance to both sexes would comply with the constitution adopted in 2014, in the aftermath of the Jasmine Revolution, considered one of the most progressive in the region, which guarantees full equality between men and women citizens.
Despite Tunisia is taking critical steps towards women’s rights and gender equality, greater efforts are needed to make societal reforms socially accepted amidst widespread gender inequality. There is a gap between legal achievements and social awareness of women’s equal rights.
“In my city, it’s women who work the land, clean the streets, or collect the rubbish”, said Kairouan-bred Taha Barkaoui, who’s actively dedicated to youth and women’s empowerment.
Barkaoui said he grew up in a community where the husband was out drinking, smoking or making easy money whilst the wife did the hard labour all day, and got underpaid.
"Still, she was only entitled to half inheritance. How come?” he said.
“We do have fair laws, but we need to work on social change so that laws can be fully embraced by Tunisians.”