9 March 2018

Tunisia: Will Weekend's March for Equal Inheritance Propel Historic First in Tunisia?

Photo: Anne Allmeling/Deutsche Welle
(File photo).

Beirut — Thousands of women in Tunisia are expected to take to the streets on Saturday demanding equal inheritance rights with men - a subject so taboo that it is rarely even debated in the Arab world, activists said.

Women and men will march in the capital Tunis to press their demands, organiser Nabila Hamza told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Under Islamic law, she said, men usually receive double the inheritance of women.

"We cannot accept in the 21st century and in our constitution this discrimination in the law," said Hamza who is also co-founder of women's rights group the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women.

"The inheritance law is a significant barrier for women. It reduces their economic autonomy. Only 12 percent (of Tunisian women) own a house and only 14 percent own land. This impacts the access to women for property and credit," she said.

Across the Middle East and North Africa just 4 percent of women are believed to have land titles, according to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, a think tank.

Tunisia is regarded as a leader for women's rights in the region, with 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.

In August, the government established a committee to draft recommendations to the president to advance women's rights, including the possibility that women could pass their family name on to their children and enjoy equal inheritance rights.

Suad Abu-Dayyeh, a Middle East expert with the global advocacy group Equality Now, said few countries in the Arab world dared to touch the issue of inheritance.

"If Tunisia succeeds in granting equal inheritance, it will be the first in the Arab world," she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation by phone.

Mehrezia Labidi, a member of parliament for Tunisia's Islamist party Ennahda, which is in the governing coalition, said she respected the debate.

She would not be drawn on the subject of equal inheritance when asked, but said her party's reformist and conservative approach meant it wanted "to keep and respect the values" that families are based on.

"There are women who want equal inheritance and some women who believe in the Islamic law, who cherish religious values. So this is why I say as a female politician we need to discuss this issue further and deeper," Labidi said.

The recommendations were meant to be submitted in February, but were then delayed until after May's municipal elections.

Hamza said she hoped they would help to build a democracy with "total equality" and "full citizenship" for women. Most of all, she said, she wanted the march to start "a real debate" about the taboo subject.

- Reporting by Heba Kanso @hebakanso, Editing by Robert Carmichael

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