by Rosie Alfatlawi
A fierce debate on women’s rights is waging in Tunisia.
By calling for gender equality on inheritance and marriage, President Beji Caed Essibsi has revealed the chasm within Tunisian society between religious conservatives and secularists.
In a speech for the National Women’s Day on Sunday, Essibsi called for a push to ensure comprehensive equal treatment for Tunisian women.
Two issues in particular from his speech have caused tensions, as they appear to contradict orthodox Islamic teaching. They are: allowing women to marry non-Muslim men, and ensuring their equal inheritance.
Tunisian Muslim women are currently prohibited from marrying non-Muslim men, under a 1973 decree from the ministry of justice.
Describing it as an "obstacle to the freedom to choose one's spouse," Essibsi also indicated that the existing prohibition is unconstitutional.
Tunisia’s 2014 constitution states that "all citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination." It also guarantees freedom and belief and conscience in its sixth chapter.
Activists have long campaigned for a change to the 1973 law. In March this year, 60 Tunisian human rights groups signed a statement calling on the authorities to scrap the article. The organizations indicated that the current decree violated "a fundamental human right: which is the right to choose a spouse".
Essibsi’s call, directed at the country’s prime minister and justice minister, was backed up by Tunisia’s authority on Islamic fatwas, Al-Arabiya reported. The Diwan al-Ifta issued a statement on Monday to say that the president’s proposals would respect the equality between men and women stipulated by Islam.
The president himself argued that “God and His Messenger have left the matter for human beings to act”.
However, the Tunisian’s words were met with anger from Egypt’s influential Al-Azhar. The mosque’s deputy Sheikh Abbas Shuman rejected the suggestion on Tuesday saying that “such a marriage would obstruct the stability of marriage,” Asharq Al-Awsat reported.
Shuman also said that Essibsi’s proposal to legislate for equal inheritance is “unjust for women and is not in line with Islamic Sharia.” Under Islamic law, women inherit half of what their brothers receive.
A gulf in opinion: secularists and conservatives
Within Tunisia, the issue sparked an online debate between those who saw Essebsi's words as a historic step towards awarding women full rights and those who considered his proposals to be against the teachings of Islam.
Researcher and writer Raja Ben Slama is the editor-in-chief of rationalist al-Awan magazine which promotes secular thought. In a post on Facebook, she described the issue of inheritance as relating to women’s economic rights.
"There are 800,000 women working in the agricultural sector; the women of this hardworking country feed us. Many of them die in transport trucks, and 62 percent of these women work on land they do not own," she wrote.
"Enough of these fallacies, it is time to turn the page of this darkness. The equality law will pass whether it takes a long or short time."
Meanwhile Marelle El Rawi, also on Facebook, suggested that the existing laws reflected Tunisian society’s outdated patriarchal values, rather than Islam itself.
“Essibsi call for equal inheritance and allowing Tunisian marriage is not injustice and it is not a war against Islam. Rather, it is a call that reflects the appearance of our society. In recent years, the marriage of Tunisians to Europeans has been a widespread phenomenon.”
“For those who reject the notion of equal inheritance, it is linked to antiquated patriarchal thinking that keeps the East hostage to outdated traditions forgotten by time. Do not blame religion for your backward ideas,” El Rawi concluded.
"Contravening what God has prescribed"
Many Tunisians, however, saw Essibsi’s words as a declaration of war on religion.
Abdel Yazidi wrote on Facebook that “Essibsi is evil to be honest. He has played everyone, entering into a battle between conservative and modern society, then leaving the conflict [raging] in the arena and emerging as a hero for those who voted for him in the previous elections.”
“As we know the Tunisian media will make him a revolutionary leader but the Muslim community rejects his authority. The Qur’an is clear on this matter and it is not open for discussion.”
@2li01 tweeted “Essibsi: “We will work to establish equal inheritance between women and men” The Qur'an says "for the male, what is equal to the share of two females" and the secularists want to contravene what God has prescribed.”
@Ahmedal3oni wrote on Twitter: “Tunisia disengages from its identity and allows non-Muslims to marry Muslim women, and the equality of women and men in inheritance. By this act he has gone to the dustbin of history.”
Aside from the conservative-secularist debate, some Tunisians questioned the president’s political motives, with municipal elections coming up in December
Mohammed Jaloli said in a post on Facebook: "Women's inheritance or the inheritance of power?! Is the timing of the president's declaration of his intention to advance equality to the extreme purely coincidental, and for the occasion of Women's Day?
Or is it related to the upcoming political agendas: municipal elections on the doorstep, legislative and presidential [elections] not so far away?"
Tunisia: a divided nation
Tunisia has long led the way for women’s rights in the Middle East and North African (MENA) region.
On July 26, Tunisia’s Parliament approved landmark legislation on violence against women, including domestic violence. The wide-ranging law aims at ending “all violence against women” defined as “any physical, moral, sexual or economic aggression."
Among the changes to Tunisian law is the removal from the penal code of an article allowing rapists to avoid serving their sentences if they marry their victims. Human Rights Watch described it as a "landmark step for women's rights."
Tunisia also has the highest representation of women in parliament of any Arab country, with 75 female MPs.
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"Women represent 60 percent of those working in the medical sector, 35 percent in engineering, 41 percent in the judiciary, 43 percent in law and 60 percent in higher education. Additionally, civil society is primarily based on the participation of women," Essibsi said in his Sunday speech, Stepfeed reported.
Nonetheless, despite Tunisia’s reputation for secularism and women’s rights, religious conservatism does exist in Tunisian society. After decades of forced secularization under Ben Ali, following the 2011 uprising conservative Tunisians had hoped for greater religious freedoms.
However, during recent years, many religious Tunisians have felt mistreated by the authorities under the liberal secular state’s overzealous “war on terror” which has been framed as some as a “war on Islam”. Those efforts have arguably had a counterproductive result, with many young Tunisians joining extremist groups in Syria and Libya.
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