A report by the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee (COLIBE) released in June sought to address a number of issues related to individual freedoms and gender equality, but drew the ire of the country’s conservative forces.
In a televised address marking Women’s Day in Tunisia on Monday, Essebsi, 91, described the inheritance equality measure as long overdue.
“I propose that equality in matters pertaining to inheritance be signed into law by modifying the code of personal status,” he said, referring to a series of laws initiated post-independence in the mid-1950s that revolutionised women’s rights, most markedly through abolishing polygamy and legalising abortion.
“This should have been done in 1956 but the constitution did not provide for it then,” Essebsi, of Tunisia’s secular Nidaa Tounes party, said.
The president’s proposal, however, stopped short of demanding an equal share for all women, with the president insisting that families wishing to continue observing the existing laws surrounding inheritance may continue doing so.
Currently, the inheritance law – which derives from Islam’s sacred text, the Quran – restricts women to half of what men are entitled to.
Demonstration right now in downtown Tunisa celebrates national women's day, a commemoration of the passage of the Code of Personal Status of 1956 guaranteeing key women's rights. Fight over personal liberties vs Islamic principles/identity is heating up after #COLIBE report pic.twitter.com/qbNDPfYQxk
— Fadil Aliriza (@FadilAliriza) August 13, 2018
COLIBE, set up by the president in August 2017, was mandated with the task of harmonising the country’s laws with a constitution that was passed four years ago.
The 2014 constitution places a strong emphasis on the rights and dignity of individuals, elements long neglected during the rule of former President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, who was toppled in the aftermath of mass protests in 2011 that quickly spread to other countries throughout the region.
The committee’s inheritance equality proposal has stirred heated debate in the Muslim-majority country, along with a separate recommendation for the decriminalisation of homosexuality.
The COLIBE report also called for the freedom of conscience, the abolition of capital punishment, the right to take the mother’s last name as well as the right of Tunisian women to pass on citizenship to their foreign husbands.
On Saturday, thousands of protesters gathered outside parliament in the capital, Tunis, to denounce the committee’s proposals, which they said – if passed – would amount to anti-Muslim legislation.
The demonstration was organised by the National Coordination for the Defence of the Quran, the Constitution and Equitable Development, a conservative group whose director, Noureddine Khadmi, was a former religious affairs minister.
Protesters carried signs saying that COLIBE’s recommendations constituted an affront to God’s word and described them as a threat to the country’s Islamic identity.
But Bochra Belhaj Hmida, the committee’s head, complained last week that a number of preachers had manipulated and distorted some of her body’s recommendations.
Hmida, a member of parliament and lifelong human rights advocate, emphasised that COLIBE was not looking to legalise gay marriage, nor did it seek to ban the call to prayer or circumcision.
She also stated her committee’s immediate goal was to start a debate about the state of individual freedoms in the country.
The Muslim Democrat Ennahda party – one of the country’s foremost political forces – expressed its support for some of the committee’s recommendations, such as the revocation of the death penalty, while steering clear of the more controversial issues.
Experts said that while Essebsi may be genuine in his pursuit of reforms, there might also other factors in play.
“By elevating ‘culture war’ issues and reactivating the secular-Islamist cleavage, Essebsi is able to distract attention away from the poor economic situation and help re-unify the ‘secular’ or ‘modernist’ forces ahead [of] the 2019 elections,” Sharan Grewal, a PhD candidate in politics at Princeton University, told Al Jazeera.
“Ennahda has worked hard to present itself internationally as a moderate, even progressive, Muslim Democratic party open to gender equality. Publicly opposing the COLIBE report, especially equal inheritance, would undermine this international reputation.”
The other issue, related to my point about the President using COLIBE against Ennahda, is that this is reawakening the polarization between secularism and Islamism in the country, in preparation for 2019. Ignorant and poor masses will be the cannon fodder for this battle.
— Youssef Cherif (@Faiyla) August 13, 2018
Observers also note Essebsi’s ideological proximity to Tunisia’s founding father, Habib Bourguiba, who spoke vociferously in favour of women’s emancipation.
Having served as one of Bourguiba’s close advisers, the president would be looking to emulate Tunisia’s first post-independence leader by creating a legacy for himself and coincidentally also championing women’s rights, argued Grewal.
“Given his age, that desire for a legacy is I think his primary motivation,” he added.
Reporting by Ramy Allahoum. Follow him on Twitter @