Tunisia’s president backed a call for women to be granted equal inheritance rights, going against the norm in many Muslim nations that strongly favor male heirs, a topic that has been at the center of a wider debate about modernizing Islam.
The proposal, laid out by Beji Caid Essebsi in a televised address marking National Women’s Day, was first suggested by a committee which had deliberated the issue for about a year.
The recommendation angered Islamist groups, though, and in a nod to their influence that could undermine any eventual legislation, the president said those who wanted to abide by established Islamic inheritance doctrine should also be allowed to do so.
He stressed that changes must be made, and he referred the measure to lawmakers for discussion.
Previously last year on the same occasion, the Tunisian president announced the formation of a committee to study the issue of individuals' rights and to consider equality between men and women in all fields.
Despite the respect for women's rights in Tunisia compared to other Muslim countries, arbitration in inheritance is still based on the Sharia or Islamic law, where the man’s share equals to that of two women.
President Essibsi stressed that equality between men and women, which was approved by the Tunisian constitution, should cover all areas, including equality in inheritance.
“If we think about harmony, because the constitution dictates this, we must go in this direction,” he said.
He added that inheritance is not a religious matter, but rather a matter for human beings. “God and His Messenger have left the matter for human beings to act,” he said.
The Committee on Individual Freedoms and Equality, set up in August 2017, presented its recommendations on Feb. 20 to the president.
“Tunisia is once again pioneering and irreversibly moving towards advancement,” the committee’s chairwoman Bochra Bel Haj Hmida told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in emailed comments.
“The issue of the right of children to add the title of their mother has been discussed ... All discriminatory laws in the family space and public space are included in the commission’s tasks.”
Women in the north African country are eagerly anticipating the proposals, following gains in 2017 that lifted a ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men and an end to a law that let rapists escape punishment by marrying their victims.
This led the way for Jordan and Lebanon to scrap similar laws, following lengthy campaigns by activists.
A 2017 law criminalizing domestic violence, harassment in public spaces and pay discrimination also requires Tunisia’s government to provide services to assist survivors.
Tunisia’s religion-based personal status laws - which governs marriage, child custody, divorce and inheritance - are among the most progressive in the region, according to activists.
The push comes at a time when Tunisia is trying to revive its economy -- an effort that has been repeatedly stymied by political bickering between extremists and secularists, as well as labor strikes.
- With ReutersSHOW MORE