Tunisian president ‘boldly’ takes on Islam to advance women’s rights

Tunisia’s post-independence personal status law gave women access to higher education, job opportunities and the right to divorce.

Muslim woman (illustrative) (photo credit: REUTERS)
Muslim woman (illustrative)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In what was expected to be a routine speech marking National Women’s Day in Tunisia on August 13, President Beji Caid Essebsi sent shock waves through the country and beyond by directly challenging Islamic law and norms in his promotion of equal rights for women.
Essebsi, the 90-year-old head of the secular Nidaa Tounis party, called for revamping inheritance law so that brothers and sisters will inherit equally rather than the Koranic-derived practice that prevails in Tunisian law that gives males twice as much as females.
“It is necessary to develop personal status laws in such a way to promote equality and to keep pace with modern legislation and changing modern times,” the Al-Monitor website quoted him as saying. According to the Italian news agency ANSA, elsewhere in his speech Essebsi said that “the inheritance issue is an issue for humans. God and his Prophet left humans to manage these issues.”
Essebsi also called for changing a 1973 Tunisian law that prohibits Muslim women from marrying non-Muslim men.
Due to strong secular origins of the Tunisian state, which gained independence under the leadership of founding father Habib Bourguiba in 1956, the situation of women in Tunisia has historically been better than elsewhere in the Arab world.
In Saudi Arabia, women cannot travel or conduct official business without a male guardian, and in Egypt, a man can end a marriage without documentation simply by saying “I hereby divorce you.”
Tunisia’s post-independence personal status law gave women access to higher education, job opportunities and the right to divorce.
Abortion was legalized in 1965, eight years before the US Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade ruling disallowed many state and federal restrictions on abortion in the United States.
When the 2011 revolution came, Tunisian women were in a strong position to defend their hard-won gains and demand further equality, and society was more receptive to this, including moderate Islamists, according to Tunis-based journalist Khaled Diab, author of Islam for the Politically Incorrect.
Essebsi’s initiative, coupled with the passage last month of a law on eliminating violence against women, “will pave the way to full legal equality between Tunisian men and women,” Diab predicts.
Other observers think the path to full legal equality is not assured, with the constitution ratified two years after the 2011 revolution that toppled president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali guaranteeing freedom of religion but also giving the state the role of defending Islam.
And traditionalist sentiment is considerable. In the first election after the Arab Spring the moderate Islamist Ennahda party garnered 37% of the vote, the most of any party, and in the 2014 elections it received 28%.
“Essebsi’s measures, especially inheritance reform, are bold,” says Daniel Zisenwine, a researcher at the Hebrew University’s Truman Institute. “His inheritance reform collides directly with religion and religious injunction. We are talking about religious law, not just a custom or tradition. An Islamic cleric can point to verses in the Koran and say, ‘Look, this is what it says.’ In fact, that is already happening. Noureddine Fahmi, former Tunisian religious affairs minister, said last week according to AFP that “inheritance in Islam is clearly explained in the Holy Koran. It can be neither modified nor interpreted.”
Ennahda’s position is less clear, with some women activists voicing objections to the proposed change while the party has yet to take an official position and its leader Rached Ghannouchi has refrained from addressing the issue. Essebsi is betting that Ennahda won’t want to break up its alliance with him over the matter, Zisenwine says. Ennahda has in the past voiced commitment to maintaining the status of women in Tunisia.
“Much depends on how the issue is framed,” Zisenwine says. “Will it be seen as an affront to religious tradition that could backfire or as a step to promoting women’s equality and social justice? “If this backfires and weakens Essebsi’s position, he may not push it,” Zisenwine says.
As for why he opted to go out on such a limb to begin with, Zisenwine says that he may have felt under pressure from within the party, especially from women activists who feel they have not seen enough advancement of a secularist agenda.
Whatever the reasons for it, Essebsi’s proposals have rippled internationally.
Ahmed al-Tayeb, grand imam of Al-Azhar, the Cairo- based leading institution of jurisprudence in the Sunni Muslim world, issued a statement on Sunday blasting any tampering with the laws of inheritance.
“Al-Azhar rejects categorically the intervention of any policy or regulations that affect the beliefs of Muslims or rulings of their Shari’a or tampers with them,” Al-Ahram’s website quoted him as saying. Tayeb added that such ideas “provoke the Muslim masses who adhere to their religion and endanger the stability of Muslim societies.”