Tunisia prompts debate on equal inheritance rights for women

Tunisia prompts debate on equal inheritance rights for women

In a very bold move, Tunisia’s president last month promised to submit a bill to parliament that aims to give women equal inheritance rights with men. The new law will include articles that stipulate equality of the sexes in terms of their rights and duties. The announcement came after months of protests by women and some men, who took to the streets in the Tunisian capital to demand equal inheritance rights. Tunisia’s decision to move toward equal inheritance also comes after President Beji Caid Essebsi had, in 2017, set up a committee to draft proposals with the aim of advancing women’s rights.

In a secular state, which is predominantly Muslim, the announcement was certainly controversial. Clerics in Tunisia and across North Africa voiced their opposition to the president’s plan to introduce this legislation, calling it “a flagrant violation of the precepts of Islam.”

According to the website Al-Islam: “Allah charges you in regard with your children: A son’s share is equal to the share of two daughters; if the (children) are (only) daughters and two or more, their share is two-thirds of the legacy, and if there is only one daughter, her share is half (of the legacy).” To elaborate further, sons inherit twice that of daughters, brothers twice that of sisters, and husbands twice that of wives. But it is also important to note that there are cases where men and women take an equal sum of inheritance, like for instance the father and the mother of the deceased, who would receive an equal share of the inheritance. 

The subject of inheritance is certainly complex and has faced contemporary criticism. It is often regarded as Islam’s Achilles’ heel with regards to women’s rights. The jurisprudence of the inheritance system is based on many factors, one of them being that the male has been financially responsible for the upkeep and wellbeing of the women and children. Men are responsible for providing accommodation, child support and other expenses with no reciprocation from the female’s side. A woman is not required to spend her wealth on her family. Thus, all the income she acquires, whether she works or not, is solely hers. 

Divorce rates are alarmingly high in most Arab countries. Jordan, for example, has the 14th-highest divorce rate in the world

Asma I. Abdulmalik

On the other hand, many, including some Muslim women, consider the current system no longer reflective of modern day life. While it is true that in the past very few women worked and earned an income, today the percentage of women entering the workforce is increasing steadily. Take Saudi Arabia for example: According to figures provided by the Ministry of Labor and Social Development, the number of Saudi women working in the private sector increased by 130 percent between 2012 and 2016. To many in the Arab world, the financial responsibility argument thus no longer holds true for many families, whose fundamental understanding of marriage is also beginning to morph from that of sole dependency to co-sharing and equal duties. 

Furthermore, it is also worth noting that the idea of a family nucleus is beginning to change. Divorce rates are alarmingly high in most Arab countries. Jordan, for example, has the 14th-highest divorce rate in the world, according to a report developed by The Daily Telegraph last year. In Kuwait, almost 60 percent of marriages have ended in divorce, according to figures published by the Ministry of Justice. This trend demonstrates a change in the family unit, one where mothers are essentially the sole caretakers of their children (albeit with the financial support of their divorced partners). While it is true that, in Islam and legally, men are still obliged to financially support their children (and their ex-partners), we’ve all heard of countless cases where women get entangled in endless court proceedings regarding alimony, or cases where the alimony is not sufficient. How many stories have we heard of women who, despite court orders, did not receive their alimony for many years? 

Finally, there are women who may be single, divorced or widowed who would like to be independent of a male’s financial guardianship and wish not to depend on their ex-husbands or brothers for financial support, while not undermining those who believe the current system is supportive of them and families. 

Drastic measures to change the inheritance jurisprudence will most likely be faced with fierce resistance and will probably cause problems in Arab societies. There is also the likelihood that it may be perceived as a direct threat to the patriarchal nature of families, which has long regarded financial spending as the sole responsibility of the male. Nevertheless, it may be worthwhile to reflect on some exceptions, or allow for the law to be flexible to accommodate these exceptions. Surely the Tunisian approach cannot be seen as a blanket model for all countries. However, each can look at its own context, including divorce rates, government housing subsidies and allowances, and study the possible benefits of women acquiring additional income and assets against the other costs and toward the betterment of their families and society in general. 

  • Asma I. Abdulmalik is an Emirati civil servant and a writer interested in gender and development issues. Twitter: @AsmaIMalik


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