Tunisian Women in Favour of an Egalitarian Heritage

A Long-Term Battle · On last September 13, exactly one month after his promises made on Women’s Day, Beji Caid Essebsi abrogated the 1973 decree prohibiting marriages between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man. But his other promise of equal inheritance rights between the sexes, is a thornier question and keeping it will require a hard battle despite the support of a majority of Tunisian women of all classes and political or religious stripes.

13 August 2013, Tunis. Women’s Day.

It was to be expected. The speech given by the Tunisian president on August 13 of this year on the occasion of Woman’s Day, marking the anniversary of the promulgation in 1956 of the Code of Personal Status, reactivated a recurring debate in Tunisia over the equality of the sexes. In his address, the President of the Republic tackled two issues which have periodically been the object of lively controversies since the sev-enties. He announced his determination to repeal the ministerial decree of 1973 which prohibited marriage between a Muslim Tunisian woman and a non-Muslim man and his intention of moving towards equal in-heritance rights between daughters and sons, when the present law, in keeping with the Sharia, grants female heirs only half of that which male heirs receive.

These statements immediately became the object of passionate com-mentaries emanating from associations, the media, political parties, trade unions and the blogosphere. In scarcely a week, the speech regis-tered a record number of 28,000 views and received 1,370 comments, divided between resolute champions of the Sharia, cybernauts doubtful of Beji Caïd Essebi’s actual intentions, enthusiastic women, and men who favor equality.

The Return of State feminism?

The controversy became all the more significant as it occurred within a particular context of domestic politics and quickly spread to the entire Arab-Muslim world. In Tunisia itself, roughly three different stances may be distinguished. The first, which avoided taking sides on the basic issue, saw in this speech an opportunistic presidential maneuver meant to gain the support of the “modernizing democrats” put off by his “property position” and his efforts to bring back into the po-litical arena a number of officials from the old regime. Indeed there is no doubt but what Beji Caid Essebi chose this opportunity to revive the much-discussed “state feminism”—an ambiguous policy at best—which had marked the beginnings of the Bourguiba era. In August 2016, he had steadfastly refused to deal with these issues despite pressing de-mands to do so. Thus his recent turnabout is part of a strategy aimed at winning back a sector of public opinion, one which has enabled him to impose upon his Prime minister, Youssef Chahed, a reshuffling of his cabinet to include many people in his personal entourage and to put through parliament what amounts to an amnesty for all the civil serv-ants compromised in the corruption scandals of the Ben Ali period.

Another trend, though it does not underestimate the ulterior motives behind the President’s declarations, is mainly composed of women and has on the contrary ardently broadcast these proposals which are perceived as possible history-making advances for the rights of women. It is true, of course, that for years now many associations and independent intellectuals have been campaigning in favor of the abrogation of the laws which discriminate against women, and have forged solid argu-ments to counter the rhetoric based on Koranic rules, especially in matters of inheritance. Law books, manifestos, public stands and coalitions of associations have proliferated with an eye to convincing public opinion that it was high time the laws coincided with the evolution of socie-ty. The January 2014 Constitution provided in its preamble an institutional basis for these demands by guaranteeing equality between citi-zens of both sexes in the eyes of the law with no discrimination, and ar-ticle 46 provided for the protection, the consolidation and improvement of the rights of women. It was in fact with reference to this new Basic Law that some thirty associations got together in 2016 to demand the abolition of the marriage decrees.

All five of these—plus one dating from 1973 which was simply an ex-tension of the range of prohibitions—were abolished on September 14, one month after the president’s speech. Henceforth, a Tunisian woman of Muslim faith may marry any man she pleases without his having to convert to Islam if his religion is different. As for already existing mar-riages which have not been recognized, they can now be officially rec-orded with the public registry or in consulates abroad. While this abro-gation was greeted with a gnashing of teeth in conservative circles since it is part of an ongoing secularization of the private rights of citizens, it is a move in keeping with a reality which it has become difficult to conceal. Indeed, there are one and a half million Tunisian immigrants or descendants of immigrants and the number of “mixed” marriages con-tracted by young women of every social background with a dual nation-ality has grown continually, whereas prior to the nineties the phenome-non was fairly rare. Moreover the numbers of young women abroad in higher education has also grown. So that in spite of a few rearguard bat-tles, even within the ministry of justice itself, the abrogation did not re-ally cause much of an outcry.

Rereading the Religious Corpus

The issue of inheritance equality is another matter altogether as evinced by the violence of the disputes touched off by the speech of August 13. And yet the debate goes way back. Already in 1974 Habib Bourguiba had tried to put through this reform but had been obliged to retreat in the face of broad opposition, even among members of his cabinet and his personal entourage. Since that time, and despite the undeniable fact that religious practice has become increasingly ostentatious, the issue has never been abandoned by Tunisian feminists and after 2011 it was placed at the center of the debate by the various associations with the backing of many jurists and Islamic scholars—most of them women, actually—convinced of the need to reinterpret the scriptures in the light of the ijtihad.1

In June 2016, the MP Mehdi Ben Gharbia,—now Minister in Charge of Relations with the Constitutional Bodies, the Civil Society and Human Rights Organizations—tabled in parliament a draft law on inheritance which made equality the rule while leaving open the possibility of an unequal division in exceptional cases. Thus President Caid Essebsi is not venturing onto unexplored ground. Be that as it may, the opposition remains fierce, because a change in the rules of inheritance would completely upset the distribution of property holdings, which until now have been largely in the hands of men. In rural areas, men in fact own practically everything, as women are most often déprived of their rightful share. In fact, out of fear of an egalitarian inheritance law—a fear which is not religious but economic—“certain families have hastened to give female members the share of the family property due to them under the Sharia. This was observed in Fouchana, to the West of Tunis, in the districts of Kasserine, Mahdia, Kairouan and other rural areas,” according to data collected by a female deputy.2

At first, the fact that the president of Ennahda failed to comment on this matter seemed surprising. It is a consequence of Rached Ghannouchi’s subtle balancing act in his efforts to maintain his alliance with the Chief of State and the Nidaa Tounes Party, but it is not tantamount to approval. Moreover, the Islamist party quickly saw to it that some of its most prominent female members spoke out loudly against this announcement, which was accused of violating the Koranic dogma. This hue and cry from Islamist and conservative circles received the support of Al-Azhar University in Cairo and various other religious authorities in the Near East, as well as Salafist lay preachers who once again promised Tunisia the flames of Hell for the wages of its impiety.

But besides the wholehearted support of the modernizing milieus, inheritance equality has also increasingly earned the backing of working-class women who are tired of being deprived, in part or in whole, of their modest share of property holdings by the men of their families. The increased number of girls in full-time schooling, the fact that many women of the younger generation are the sole wage earners in their families while their brothers and husbands are unemployed, the diversification of sources of information since 2011, have caused female thinking to evolve while the men still cling to their privileges. It is true that many women—in interviews or studies carried out by certain media—still express their hostility towards equality in the name of religion. The propaganda spouted by the religious channels, widely watched in Tunisia, is not without influencing these reactions. Yet there is no doubt that over and beyond these positions, a sizable share of Tunisian women would be in favor of any measure tending to increase the financial autonomy of women.

Ambiguous UGTT

Will the Tunisia of 2017 succeed where Bourguiba had to lay down his arms, winning once again the sympathies of many women throughout the Arab world as the debates on the Web have shown? The game is far from over. Indeed, the Islamists are by no means the only opponents of egalitarian inheritance and the convergence between different conservative forces is enough to block the draft law in Parliament. The general secretary of the powerful Tunisian General Labour Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT), with its well-established sexist traditions, has declared that it is a “sensitive” issue which should be dealt with “wisely” and should not distract the country from its priorities. The most cautious opponents say that “the moment is not ripe,” to table this question. For the moment, a nine-member committee has been created by decree with the task of promoting equality. Presided over by a woman, Bochra Bel Haj Hamida, a lawyer who has learned the ropes with The Tunisian Women’s Association for Democracy (Association des femmes tunisiennes pour la démocratie, AFTD), it is meant to submit within six months a report on the feasibility of the presidential announcement. Another woman belonging to the feminist spectrum, Saida Guarach, spokesperson for the presidency of the Republic, has appeared frequently in the media to systematically deconstruct the arguments of the opponents of equality.

Whatever the reasons behind the launching of this movement, it is definitely under way and has solid support in the female population. But women must not fool themselves: the opposition will not give up easily and it will take time, struggle and pedagogical efforts for inheritance equality to become law and actual practice.

1The term ijtihad designates the intellectual efforts of a qualified Muslim jurist to derive a law or a requirement from unclear scriptural sources or to formulate a detailed legal opinion in the absence of any reference texts.

2Interview with the deputy Ons Hattab (Nidaa Tounes) in the newspaper Assabah El-Ousboui, 4 September 2017.