Women Inherit Less Under Islam. One Country’s Changing the Rules
Tunisian leader opens Mideast debate on equal inheritance laws. Some clerics fume; others say there’s room to reinterpret

Halima Ben Diafi says her brothers spent their summer enjoying Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast while she was stuck in the capital, trying to scrape together enough cash to feed her children.

That’s because the men got all the family money. Their father was fairly prosperous by local standards, and left land and a house worth about $200,000 when he died. But under the country’s inheritance laws, a daughter is only entitled to half of what a son receives. And many women, pressured by their families and communities, end up ceding their share entirely.

Which is what happened to Halima. “I feel helpless and bitter,” she said in the rundown suburb of Tunisia where she looks after her bedridden husband and three children. “After receiving all our father’s inheritance, my brothers only care about their own families. They travel. And they’ve forgotten they have sisters.”

In most Arab countries the laws on such matters claim derivation from Islam’s holy texts. Changing them, in a climate where religious extremism has thrived, is a high-risk undertaking. Yet that’s what Tunisia’s 90-year-old President Beji Caid Essebsi is proposing to do — and his call has found echoes across the Muslim world, stoking a wider debate about modernizing Islam.

Islamic Innovator

Last month, Essebsi ordered a review of civil codes that govern inheritance, saying equality “is the foundation of justice and the basis of life in a community.” If that requires the reinterpretation of religious teachings, the President said, then so much the better: “This new direction should be welcomed and encouraged.”

A backwater for most of Islamic history, this decade Tunisia has found itself on the cutting edge of change, maintaining a balancing act between democracy and political Islam that’s proved impossible in other Arab Spring countries. In some corners of the Middle East, Islamists declared the ocratic rule; in others they were killed, jailed or driven underground. Only Tunisia seemed to offer a middle way. There, an Islamist party won elections, then ceded power peacefully, then re-entered government in a coalition with secular partners.

It hasn’t been easy. Since the January 2011 revolution, Tunisia has had eight governments. It’s also suffered four major attacks by Islamist militants, decimating the vital tourism industry. Critics of Essebsi’s initiative say it could provoke further violence.

Tunisia has a history of advancing women’s rights. Under Habib Bourguiba, who presided over independence from France in 1956, and his successor Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, polygamy was banned and women were given a say in divorce proceedings.

Secular Dictators

But those leaders were widely seen, by admirers as well as critics, as secular dictators — suppressing religion as they sought to create a modern society in imitation of the West. Women wearing Islamic headscarves were treated as outcasts, harassed by the police and excluded from business life. Bourguiba called the garment an “odious rag.”

It was Ben Ali who was overthrown in 2011. And now Essebsi’s opponents say he’s following a similar path.

Tunisian cleric Adel Elmi said the president would be committing heresy by tinkering with inheritance laws. If he presses ahead, “Tunisia will move from green to red, that is, strife and division,” Elmi said.

Already some Tunisians, including women, are ready to push back. “We’ll oppose it and go out to the street to protest if necessary,” said 36-year-old Imen Tarfawi. “My family and I will continue to apply the law of God in inheritance and marriage. We won’t defy the provisions of the Koran.”

Tunisia’s neighbors are watching closely. In Algeria, newspapers and TV shows discuss the idea; in Morocco, a similar movement has been reinvigorated. Essebsi’s proposals came under fierce attack by Egypt’s Al-Azhar university, the Sunni Muslim world’s leading religious institution, which said it doesn’t typically meddle in the domestic affairs of other countries but couldn’t remain silent while the doctrines of Islam were tampered with.

Completely Laudable

There are dozens of verses in the Koran devoted to inheritance, and Muslim scholars ruled on what they meant over centuries. In the eyes of conservatives, the process of interpretation — “ijtihad” in Arabic — is over. But that’s the word Essebsi used, suggesting that there’s room for new readings, and some theologians agree.

Soheib Bencheikh, an Algerian scholar and former Mufti of Marseilles, distinguishes between a “literalist” approach to Koranic prescriptions, and one that’s interested in “the objective or the purpose desired by the commandment.” He called Essebsi’s initiative “completely laudable, legitimate and part of his role as a politician who guides his people.”

Moroccan cleric Abdelwahab Rafiki argues that social roles have evolved, so Koranic verses devoted to inheritance must be reinterpreted. Once a hardliner, Rafiki was jailed after the country’s 2003 Casablanca bombings; last year, he was among 100 male writers, journalists and artists who put their names to a book entitled Men Defend Equality in Inheritance.

Behind his appeal to universal principles, Essebsi may be doing some domestic political math. He’s from the secular wing of Tunisia’s coalition; analysts say that the inheritance debate is likely to open rifts among the other branch, the Islamist movement Ennahda. That could benefit the President’s faction when the two sides contest parliamentary elections late this year.

In any case, changing the culture in countries like Tunisia and Morocco will probably be even harder than changing their laws. Even if Essebsi gets his measures through, “the situation of women won’t change overnight,” sociologist Sami Nasr says.

For 46-year-old Halima, it’s probably too late. She says her only wish is that life will be easier for her daughter. But with an income of about $150 a month from her job as a maid, and a husband who’s been bedridden and unable to work since 2015, Halima struggles to make ends meet — let alone save money to bequeath to her children.