By Hanen Jebli
December 7, 2018
Under the advisement of President Beji Caid Essebsi, the Tunisian Cabinet on Nov. 23 approved an amendment of the Personal Status Code in a move geared toward furthering equality between men and women in several areas, including gender equality in inheritance. The amendment now requires approval by the parliament to become law.
In a statement following the Cabinet meeting to approve the measure, Essebsi emphasized Tunisia's secularity and the requirement of gender equality in rights and duties, as per Chapter 21 of the constitution. Progressive parties and rights organizations welcomed the amendment, while Islamic groups and other organizations with religious authorities rejected it.
The Quran mandates that men inherit two-thirds more than women, which is the basis for the law currently in place. For the moment, because the Quran directly addresses the issue of inheritance, it has received more attention than the other provisions in the proposed new law, such as those allowing Tunisian women to marry non-Muslims and permitting them status as head of household (or family).
At a Nov. 29 press conference, Nidaa Tunis, the leading party in the government, announced the formation of a national commission to support the equality measure by rallying progressive political powers for the eventual vote in parliament, which is not yet scheduled. The commission currently consists of 19 members from different political, artistic, cultural, media and civil society sectors. No date has been set for the commission to begin operating.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet issued a statement on Nov. 27 praising the government’s approval of the proposed change in inheritance law, lauding it as a step toward gender equality.
Yousra Fraous, director of the Tunisian Association of the Democratic Women, commenting on state-owned Shems FM on Nov. 23, underlined the importance of the measure's alignment with the Tunisian constitution. Nidaa Tunis leader Ridha Belhaj said during a Nov. 29 seminar that the bill will most likely and easily pass, noting that the Islamist Ennahda, Nidaa Tunis’ coalition partner, does not have the power to block its passage despite objecting to it.
Although Ennahda has the most seats in parliament, 68 out of 217, and rejects the bill, the parliamentary blocs likely to support the bill collectively outnumber the Islamists in the legislature. Among the other parties, Nidaa Tunis has 46 seats; the National Coalition, 44; the Popular Front, 15; Machrouu Tunis, 15; the Democratic Current, 12; al-Walaa (Loyalty), 11; and independent deputies, 6. Also of note, in regard to the 2014 presidential elections, Essebsi attracted the vote of around 1 million women, that is 61% of all votes according to statistics gathered by the Sigma Conseil Company.
Radhia Jerbi, head of the National Union of Tunisian Women, told Al-Monitor that discrimination and inequality in inheritance constitute an injustice that has long gone unmentioned among Tunisians. She remarked that it is time to stop this offense against women and give them full rights, like men.
Tunisia’s grand mufti, Sheikh Othman Battikh, told the Assarih website on Nov. 28 that there should be no equality in inheritance, calling Quranic scriptures determinative on the matter. Battikh warned that religious extremists might exploit a change in the current arrangement to target Tunisia.
Mohammad al-Hamidi, Member of Parliament for Tayar al-Mahaba, told Al-Monitor that his party's initiative to block the amendment, the Public Petition to Defend the Islamic Identity of Tunisia, has so far collected 5,000 signatures. Hamidi's party, like the mufti, believes the measure violates the Quran.
Ennahda is yet to make an official statement about the bill. Ennahda Member of Parliament Osama al-Saghir told Al-Monitor that the party's representatives will wait for the proposal to be referred to parliament before examining it. Only then will they decide on how to vote. He said Ennahda might propose amendments to the bill to bring it in line with the Quran.
One Ennahda leader, Abdul Hamid al-Jalasi, told Shems FM on Nov. 28 that bringing up this topic at this particular time will only stir tensions at all levels. He believes his parliamentary bloc will vote against equality in inheritance.
Ghazi al-Shiwashi, a Democratic Current representative, told Al-Monitor that the bill could spark strife in the country if the parliamentary blocs do not seek some sort of compromise. He, however, supports the inheritance measure and the other provisions related to rights and freedoms.
Salah al-Din al-Jourashi, political analyst and director of the Jahedh Forum, an Islamist cultural and intellectual platform, told Al-Monitor that the equality bill is bound to ignite heated debate and controversy in parliament. He believes Ennahda’s stance will be at the centre of contention. He claimed that Tunisian families will also face problems if women start demanding equality in inheritance.
Essebsi had first suggested drafting a law ensuring equality in inheritance a year ago, during the celebration of Women’s National Day in Tunisia, Aug. 13, 2017. To that end, he also announced the formation of the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee to draft suggestions for laws supporting personal freedoms and equality in line with Tunisia’s commitments to human rights. A few days later, on Aug. 17, several Islamic jurists in Tunisia and scholars from Al-Zaytuna Mosque posted a signed petition online opposing Essebsi's initiative, calling it “dangerous” because it goes against God’s law. The committee presented its report on June 8, 2018, with recommendations that included a series of proposals related to amending the Personal Status Code, among them gender equality in inheritance.
Hanan Jebli is a Tunisian journalist who graduated from the Institute of Press and Information Sciences in 2013 She worked at several Tunisian media outlets, including Al-Shahed and the private Al Karama Radio. She received the 2017 Distinctive Woman Certificate for the Tunisian women’s contribution to the transitional path.