Tunisia is famous for granting women more rights than any other country in the Arab and Muslin regions. On 13 August 2022, the North African country celebrates its National Women’s Day. However, until now, Tunisian women and men have not had equal inheritance rights. A focus on the most important aspects of the gender politics scene in post-revolutionary Tunisia helps us understand this ongoing problem.
Article 1 of Tunisia’s 2014 Constitution says that ‘Islam is the religion of State’, while Article 2 states that ‘Tunisia is a civil State’. Article 1 of the 2014 Constitution also states that ‘All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination. The state guarantees freedoms and individual and collective rights to all citizens, and provides all citizens the conditions for a dignified life’. However, although the 2014 Constitution guarantees equality between the sexes, Tunisian inheritance laws, which are based on Islamic jurisprudence, entitle a woman to inherit only half of a man’s share.
On the occasion of Tunisia’s 2017 National Women’s Day, President Beji Kaied Essebsi proposed reforming inheritance law. Hence, he created an Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee comprised of human rights advocates, legislators and academics. This Presidential Commission tried to bring the legal code in line with the 2014 Constitution. The Commission unveiled its report and a series of proposed reforms in June 2018. Opponents of the proposed changes argued that the proposals were part of a coercive secular strategy to change society’s lifestyle. Imams stressed that the proposed law contradicted God’s decree and that applying it would amount to disobeying God and his Prophet. They argued that the holy texts must be preserved without any changes, and that human beings cannot interfere with divine law. Conservative and religious people considered the project to be a way to question the country’s religious foundations. Religious leaders and a federation of religious associations slammed the proposals as ‘intellectual terrorism’. Imam Sabri Abdelghani railed that the changes ‘would eradicate Tunisian identity, by leaving the people without religion’.
The National Coordination for the Defense of the Quran, the Constitution and Equitable Development organised a demonstration against the proposals included in the Presidential Commission’s report. Thousands of religious and extremist people accused the committee of acting against traditional values and protested in front of the parliament to decry the proposed reform. The protesters insisted that a handful of secularists could not cut the Tunisian people from their roots. Participants in the demonstrations underlined their opposition to the destruction of their moral values. They expressed their rejection of what they saw as the report’s hatred of Islam. Some protesters even held copies of the Quran and shouted, ‘We will defend Islam with our blood!’
Although the report addressed multiple issues, inheritance law was the main problem on which conservative Tunisians fixated. Opponents of the Bill said that men should inherit more than women because they have maintenance duty. Other observers questioned whether the report was a priority given the tense political and economic context. Proponents reiterated that the current inheritance law was no longer suitable for today’s society and called for renewing religious discourse. They underlined the role women play nowadays in covering household expenses, especially as many Tunisian women work. The office of the official Mufti of Tunisia backed Essebsi’s proposal for reform.
Feminists and women’s and human rights associations highlighted the proposal’s compatibility with the principles of the Constitution. Tunisian Muslim feminists insisted that the report was prepared in accordance with international human rights standards. They reiterated that the proposal did not violate the essence of Islam and that traditionalists could not monopolise interpretation of the Quranic text. The authors of the report argued that the proposals conformed with both the nation’s 2014 Constitution and international human rights obligations.
Despite the turmoil, in August 2018 Essebsi expressed his intention to submit a Bill to parliament through which women and men could be given equal inheritance rights. In November 2018, he expressed his insistence on forwarding the Bill to parliament and said that Tunisia would be a secular democratic state, not a theocratic one, noting that Tunisia was a civil state. Essebsi’s announcement unleashed a wave of outrage from conservative Tunisians. Both proponents and opponents of the reform referred to the 2014 Constitution. On Friday 23 November 2018, after so much tension in the streets and media, the Tunisian cabinet approved the controversial draft Bill. Tunisia became the first Arab Muslim-majority country to approve an inheritance draft Bill and submit it for consideration by parliament. The plan was that the Bill would head to the Assembly of the Representatives of the People, where it would be debated in committee and plenary sessions.
Many Islamists reiterated their rejection of the proposed Bill and condemned the cabinet’s decision. They saw the passing of the Bill as a violation of Islamic law. Islamists argued that changing the inheritance law contradicted both the divine rulings and the successfully transmitted consensus of Islamic scholars. In this respect, the Imams’ Association for Moderation and Rejection of Extremism organised their First National Congress. This congress condemned what its participants described as a selective interpretation of the Constitution that aimed at eroding its Islamic reference. Participants insisted that the proposed law represented an assault on fixed aspects of religion and that it threatened the stability of the family. The participant Imams issued a call for MPs to not approve the Bill and asked Tunisians to not vote for the MPs who supported it. They also highlighted the contact they’d had with some members of the Assembly in order to assert the hazards and violations of this proposal, and to invite them to reject it, revealing that they had found some positive reactions among parliamentarians.
In July 2019, President Essebsi died. Essebsi’s death meant that the proposed inheritance law reform lost presidential support, especially as his successor Kais Saeid holds conservative views on inheritance. The parliament’s Health and Social Affairs Committee suspended discussions on Essebsi’s initiative without providing any explanations for this. The election of Saied, together with the parliamentary scene, which was dominated by the conservative Islamist party Ennahdha, represented a setback for inheritance equality. The result is that the draft Bill did not pass into law.
In March 2022, Saied dissolved the parliament, which he had suspended in July 2021 due to the corruption, criminality and inefficacy of many parliamentarians, including the Speaker. In December 2021, he announced that a constitutional referendum would be held on 25 July 25 2022. On 25 July 2022, the Independent High Authority for Elections organised a constitutional referendum, and Tunisians voted on a new Constitution that weakened the parliament, which had been empowered by the 2014 Constitution. The new Constitution has been approved by referendum. It says that the state guarantees equality between women and men and that it will take measures to combat violence against women and to guarantee women’s representation in elected bodies. However, Article 5 of the new Constitution states that Tunisia is part of the Islamic nation and that the state alone must work to achieve ‘the goals of pure Islam in preserving life, honour, money, religion and freedom’. Feminists fear the misuse of the reference to religion in the Constitution. As we wait to see what will happen regarding inheritance reform in the future, let’s hope that Tunisians do not find themselves in the same impasse regarding the ambiguous role of religion in the Constitution again.