The recently released report by the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee (COLIBE) in Tunisia adopted a comprehensive perspective on questions of rights and freedoms.
Nevertheless, women’s issues occupied a significant portion of the report and constituted the heart of the second section of the report, which focusses on equality, discussing questions related to gender, marriage, conjugal duties and relations with children.
With regards to inheritance, the report urged the exercise of constructive, rational thought based on two sets of factors.
One is socio-economic and includes, for example, increasing rates of female education and female employment that have been instrumental in changing the distribution and nature of gender roles in light of the growing financial responsibilities that women shoulder in the household.
Another factor in this set is the transformation from the extended to the nuclear family which, according to the report, has contributed to reducing familial pressures on women and increasing their prospects for independence.
The second set of factors relates to Islamic jurisprudence. The report states that gender equality is an intrinsic value in Islam.
It observes that the distribution of inheritance is contingent on a number of criteria such as the closeness of the kin relationship between prospective heirs and the deceased and the financial responsibilities borne by male heirs, rather than on just gender.
As a result, there are cases in which female heirs have inherited as much as if not more than male heirs.
Another factor cited in the jurisprudential category is that Companions of the Prophet exercised independent judgement on many questions, even on matters covered by an existing scriptural text.
For example, the Caliph Omar Ibn Al-Khattab determined that a wife was entitled to an extra share of the legacy of her husband if she had contributed to the accumulation of that legacy. It is called Haqq Al-Kidd wal-Sa’aya, (Right of Toil and Endeavour).
Some of the arguments cited in the report require further proof. For example, it has yet to be established that there is a necessary causative link between the shift to the nuclear family and fewer social pressures on women.
It could just as well be argued that the pressures come from the social environment regardless of the form of the family structure.
In all events, the report offers three alternatives on the question of female inheritance. One is equality between men and women under law, irrespective of the relationship of the female heir to the deceased (wife, sister, daughter, etc).
The second is to adopt a dual system whereby full gender equality in inheritance is the rule and male entitlement to twice the female entitlement is the exception.
The third alternative is to give women the choice as to whether or not they would prefer full equality in inheritance. If they choose equality, they would be backed by the law.
But what would happen in the case of women who were afraid to or unable for some reason to declare their choice? In answer to this question, the report merely suggested that lawmakers could make the choice: either to take a woman’s silence as preference for equality, or the reverse.
As we assess how the report handled the inheritance question, we can say that it took pains to consider as many cases as possible, which is good in and of itself, but this raised a number of problems which it failed to address adequately.
A woman’s silence on the question of equality in inheritance is a case in point. How can a woman be assured of fair treatment in inheritance if her silence, out of fear, is interpreted as consent?
Then there is the problem of choosing between the three alternatives mentioned in the report: gender equality in inheritance, applying Islamic law, and the middle course of leaving the question open to the choice of the persons concerned.
The drafters of the report came out in favour of the first alternative, but the Tunisian president has indicated that he prefers the second and turned the question over to parliament.
Now, if parliament sides with the president on this issue, what contribution will the report have made to women’s rights as long as the trustee has the right to bequeath to his female kin however much he pleases?
In a previous article, I held that the inclusion of alternatives in the report was a sign of the drafters’ flexibility and respect for divergent views.
However, the problem is that although the position of those who are inclined to treat their male and female heirs equally in their last wills and testimonies will be supported by the law, if passed, those who are determined to apply Sharia law will ignore the new law and those who are opposed to female inheritance entirely will ignore both the new law and Sharia. So, what’s new?
Tunisian society is contending with a complex range of political, economic and security crises. The rivalry between the proponents and opponents of the report, which is playing out in demonstrations on the street, is fraught with danger, especially as social media — that can so easily mobilise people onto the streets — cannot easily separate them.
Perhaps it was President Essebsi’s sensitivity to the complexities of the domestic situation that led him to opt for the middle of the road position.
That grey area certainly did not please his supporters after he, himself, had raised their expectations a year ago when he proposed gender equality in inheritance, only to backtrack later and plump for leaving the matter open to the choice of those concerned, his supporters forced to back him anyway against his political adversaries.
In practical terms, nothing has changed in the matter of equality in inheritance in Tunisia. However, the COLIBE report has thrown a stone not just into Tunisian but also into Arab waters, begging a debate that is likely to persist for some time.
* The writer is professor of political science at Cairo University.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 6 September 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Gender equality in practice