Tunisia: Cabinet Approves Bill Requiring Equal Inheritance Shares for Men and Women

(Dec. 4, 2018) On November 25, 2018, the cabinet of Tunisia approved a bill that, for the first time in the nation’s history, would require that male and female heirs receive equal inheritance shares. Tunisia is the first among Arab countries to adopt such a bill. The bill will now be referred to the Tunisian Parliament for debate and voting. (Tunisia Becomes the First Arab Nation to Approve Gender Equality in Inheritance Law, DHAKA TRIBUNE (Nov. 25, 2018).)

Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi announced that his cabinet’s approval of the bill was based on article 2 of the Tunisian Constitution, which states that Tunisia is a civil country based on three elements: citizenship, the will of the people, and the supremacy of the law. He added that Tunisian men and women have equal rights and duties and the Tunisian government has an obligation to defend the rights of women. (THE CONSTITUTION OF THE TUNISIAN REPUBLIC, 2014, ConstitutionNet website.)

Reaction to the Bill Inside Tunisia

A 2017 survey by the International Republican Institute showed that 63% of Tunisians, including 52% of women, oppose equal inheritance shares. (Tunisia Cabinet Approves Equal Inheritance Law, MIDDLE EAST MONITOR (Nov. 12, 2018).)

Likewise, Muslim clerics in Tunisia voiced their opposition to the concept of gender-equality inheritance, arguing that the concept violates the Qur’an’s assertion that a woman’s share of an inheritance is half that of men: “God instructs you concerning your children: for the male, what is equal to the share of two females.” (Qur’an 4:11 (translation by author).) Tunisia’s former chief mufti (legal expert) criticized the concept of equal inheritance shares, saying that the Qur’an had clearly regulated inheritance and the proposal to change the concept would end 1400 years of consensus among Islamic scholars on the subject of inheritance. A former Tunisian religious affairs minister, Noureddine Khadmi, likewise declared that the proposal to change the concept of inheritance is “a flagrant violation of the precepts of Islam.” (Tunisia Clerics Oppose Equal Inheritance Rights for Women, NEWS24 (Aug. 17, 2017).)

Finally, the Islamist-oriented Ennahda Party, one of the main political parties in Tunisia, rejected the President’s initiative to propose a modification of the inheritance rule. Ennahda has 68 members in the Tunisian Parliament out of 217 seats. The party claims that the modification of the inheritance shares contradicts the religious teachings, Personal Status Code, and the customs of Tunisian society. (Tunisia: Ennahda Rejects Inheritance Equality, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Sept. 6, 2018).)

Reaction to the Bill Outside Tunisia

In a press release issued by Egypt’s grand mufti, Dr. Shawki Allam, the Egyptian Dar Al-Ifta (Egypt’s main religious organization) expressed its objection to the inheritance bill adopted by the Tunisian cabinet. Dr. Allam stated that definitive (qat‘i) Shari‘ah rulings, such as the rulings on inheritance, are not subject to personal reasoning (ijtihad). (Egypt Mufti Condemns ‘Equal Inheritance’ as Tunisia Forwards Controversial Law, AL-ARABY (Nov. 26, 2018).) He continued by saying that the call for equality in inheritance between genders contradicts the Qur’an and the Sunnah, and this is not a matter subject to personal reasoning or change due to cultural contexts. He similarly added God’s will regarding the shares of each heir in the case of male and female children is expressed in Qur’an 4:11. Finally, he declared that under Islamic Law (Shari’ah), males are entitled to inherit double the females’ shares only in four cases, while both genders inherit equally in more than 30 cases. (The Call for Gender Equality in Inheritance Contradicts Shari’ah Definitive Rulings and Consensus of Scholars, Egypt’s Mufti States, DAR AL-IFTA (Nov. 26, 2018).)

Islamic scholars representing the Egyptian Islamic Institution of Al-Azhar (the oldest Islamic religious institution in the Arab countries), such as Mahmoud Mehanna, also oppose the Tunisian president’s initiative of modifying the inheritance rule. Mehanna stated, “Neither Tunisia, its president nor the whole world can legislate a law or innovate the religion of Allah.” (Al-Azhar Scholar Warns Tunisian President of Enacting Inheritance Law, MIDDLE EAST MONITOR (Aug. 15, 2018).)

Reaction of International Nongovernmental Organizations and Secular Feminist Groups 

Feminist activists in Tunisia supported the concept of equal inheritance shares for women and men. The Tunisian Feminist Association activist, Najet Gharbi, endorsed the concept by saying that “[i]t’s time to have full equality in inheritance and full liberties[.] We want our country to be free and we want people to live freely.” (Thousands Rally in Tunisia to Support Equal Inheritance for Women, THE AFRICA REPORT (Aug. 15, 2018).)

Secular activists supported President Essebsi’s bill in a popular march, known as “a march for inheritance rights.” Nabila Hamza, cofounder of the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women, stated that current inheritance law is a significant barrier for women in that it reduces their economic independence. (Brennan Cusack, Tunisia’s Equal Inheritance Law Could Boost Female Entrepreneurship, FORBES (Aug. 22, 2018).)

International nongovernmental organizations have expressed support for the inheritance equality bill. Human Rights Watch, for example, stated that the Tunisian authorities must enact such a bill because it guards individual freedoms and eradicates discrimination against women. (Tunisia: Landmark Proposals on Gender Bias, Privacy, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (July 28, 2018).)

 

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