Will inheritance equality ever be up for debate in Tunisia?

Inheritance, a sore point in the Muslim-majority country, was left out of earlier reforms that advanced women’s rights.

A woman pours water to cool off during a protest
A woman pours water on herself to cool off during a protest by supporters of Tunisia's Salvation Front opposition coalition against President Kais Saied in Tunis on July 25, 2023, as they marked two years since Saied began amassing government power for himself [Jihed Abidellaoui/Reuters]

Mariem Tangour, 66, a retired civil servant from the Tunisian port city of Sfax, was deprived of her inheritance two months before she was even born.

Her father had signed a document granting the full inheritance he would leave behind to her two brothers, leaving nothing to Tangour, her three sisters and their mother.

The estate in question was a 2-hectare (5-acre) plot of land with their family home on it, surrounded by almond trees – an asset with both sentimental and market value. Her brothers refused to give the women any part of it after their father died.

Where religion and social norms intersect

Under Tunisia’s inheritance rules, inspired by Islamic law, a male heir receives twice as much as a female heir, the assumption being that women are fully supported by the men in their families. But in some cases, the women don’t even get that, especially in rural areas.

“Women often don’t claim their inheritance, even [the smaller portion], out of shame and in order to avoid family disputes,” said Dorra Mahfoudh-Draoui, a Tunisian feminist and sociologist specialising in gender issues.

Tangour said she and her sisters had grown up being told that sons had “vested rights” to be the sole heirs.

“We didn’t even dare discuss the issue. It was taboo,” she said, blaming a patriarchal mentality that considers it “insulting” if a woman claims her legal inheritance.

Abdelbasset Gouader, director of Zitouna University’s Higher Institute of Theology, said the claim that men are entitled to inherit twice as much is “misunderstood” because at times women who are closer to the deceased may inherit more than men who are more distantly related.

For example, he said, a male sibling would inherit twice as much as his sister but daughters with no brothers would inherit more than male cousins.

While admitting that women in Tunisia often do not claim their share at all, he said: “It’s a societal issue, not related to Islamic law.”

Tunisian and Arab women’s rights

Tunisia was long at the vanguard of the Arab world on women’s rights with reforms going back as far as 1956 when President Habib Bourguiba enacted the Personal Status Code, which banned polygamy, made the bride’s consent a requirement for marriage and gave women equal rights to divorce.

But he issue of inheritance, a sore point in the Muslim-majority country, has been left out of these reforms. The Tunisian Constitution of 2014 guaranteed equality between men and women while inheritance laws gave sons twice as much inheritance as daughters.

Picture taken on October 30, 2018 shows Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi during a visit at the presidential Bellevue Palace in Berlin. - Essebsi, the North African country''s first democratically e
Beji Caid Essebsi, Tunisia’s first democratically elected leader, died on July 25, 2019, at the age of 92, before he could pass his legislation on inheritance equality [File: Bernd von Jutrczenka/AFP]

In 2018, the late President Beji Caid Essebsi proposed legislation that established automatic gender parity in inheritance while allowing people to opt for the Islamic law interpretation in their wills if they did not want parity. This was based on recommendations by the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee, which was tasked with aligning Tunisian laws with the 2014 constitution.

Essebsi’s push for the inheritance legislation was celebrated by liberals and vehemently opposed by Islamists, conservatives and some moderates who said it was an infringement on “Islamic precepts”.

The bill went to parliament in 2019, where it was opposed by conservative forces like the Islamist Ennahdha party until it was forgotten with the death of Essebsi and the election of President Kais Saied, who rejected inheritance equality in his campaign.

“Whether by personal conviction or for the sake of political calculus, the president is clearly not in favour,” Mahfoudh-Draoui said.

On National Women’s Day in 2020, Saied said any talk about inheritance equality is a “false debate” because the question is already settled clearly in the Quran.

The new constitution pushed by Saied last year gives religion a bigger role in Tunisia than the 2014 constitution did, and feminists fear that could privilege perceived religious values over universal human rights, cutting back wins by Tunisian women in their decades-long struggle for equality in a society that is still largely conservative.

“We haven’t abandoned the inheritance issue. … If we give up on it, we risk losing all other gains in the area of women’s rights,” said Mahfoudh-Draoui, who is also a member of the Front for Equality and Women’s Rights.

There is, however, less work being done on inheritance equality today as Tunisian women’s rights organisations use their limited resources to battle issues like gender-based violence and femicides, she added.

A woman holds up a banner during a protest against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis
A woman protests against Tunisian President Kais Saied in Tunis on May 15, 2022 [File: Hassene Dridi/AFP]

Seeking justice, finding shame

In 1990, Tangour launched a lawsuit to claim the inheritance she, her sisters and their mother deserved, given that they were deprived even of the smaller shares the law provides for.

During the trial, one judge berated Tangour’s mother, criticising how she had “raised her daughters” who were speaking up against social norms.

Tangour said the judge was so obviously on her eldest brother’s side that she is still sure her brother had used his connections to sway justice and have their case rejected.

There does not seem to be much hope for legal change on the horizon. Tangour and her family are left with only the African human rights tribunals to direct their appeals to.

But there is optimism on the personal level. An increasing number of Tunisians are making arrangements to have their estates divided equally among their daughters and sons, according to Mahfoudh-Draoui.

“In practice, more men are becoming aware of … the point of treating female and male heirs fairly,” she said.

Source: Al Jazeera