Will Tunisian Women Finally Inherit What They Deserve?

Tunisian women are often described as the most liberated women in the Arab World (which, I suppose, essentially puts them in the position of "the best of the worst"). Despite their relatively privileged status, they still have a long way to go before they can really be regarded as equal citizens in the deeply patriarchal society that is Tunisia.

It's not just that Tunisian women face frequent gender discrimination due to the conservative nature of society; there are many cases, indeed, where gender inequality is justified by the law.

Inheritance laws are one example of how the Tunisian legal system fails to consider women as equal to men. Tunisian inheritance laws, which are based on Islamic jurisprudence, entitle female heirs to only half of the share of property of their male peers. It's true that there are some exceptions to this rule: some parents even take care to cede assets to their daughters while they're still alive, as a way of ensuring that their female progeny receive a rightful share of inheritance. The general rule, though -- especially in the case of the absence of a prior will -- is that women get only half of share due to men.

Are things about to change? Tunisia has just ratified its new constitution, which has been hailed by international observers for enshrining gender equality.

One test for the newly passed charter will be whether it manages to provide a basis for real change by ending discriminatory laws like the inheritance regulations. The new constitution includes articles that clearly stipulate equality of the sexes in terms of their rights and duties before the law. It explicitly rules out any discrimination along gender lines.

One female Islamist member of parliament, Fattoum Lassoued of the Ennahdha Party, said that any eventual changes in Tunisian law will not include the inheritance issue:

"The constitution should be interpreted as a complete document," she told me. "You cannot take one article out of context and interpret it by itself. The first article of the constitution says that Islam is the religion of the state. Therefore, we cannot play with inheritance laws. There is a clear text in the Quran about it."

Even though the Tunisian constitution guarantees the equality of rights and of participation in different aspects of public life, Lassoued said, that doesn't necessarily mean full equality across the board -- especially when it comes to inheritance laws.

"I don't think the Tunisian people want that kind of change," she said. "It would be very difficult because it touches upon the very nature of the Tunisian society. Inheritance laws are a red line."

Changing inheritance laws is thus seen by some people as a threat to the patriarchal nature of the Tunisian society that many, mostly conservatives, are keen to preserve.

Monia, a 45-year-old teacher, begged to differ. She told me that the current inheritance laws in Tunisia are absurd and unfair because Tunisian women are more and more expected to be financially autonomous and participate in supporting the family.

"I bring my money to the family and I spend as much as my husband spends," she said. "Are we equal in duties but not in rights?"

Article 21 of the newly passed constitution states explicitly that "all citizens, male and female alike, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination."

Former judge Mokhtar Yahyaoui said the language of the article is clear, and that it should lead to inheritance laws that apply equally to both genders.

He noted that changing such laws is difficult for a government. If, however, the necessary institutions are put in place (above all a Constitutional Court), there is no way that the current inheritance laws would be deemed constitutional.

Yahyaoui added that, while the first article of the constitution establishes Islam as the religion of the state, Article 2 of the same document defines Tunisia as a civil state based on citizenship and the supremacy of law.

Therefore, the civil character of the Tunisian state should lead to civil and not religious interpretation of the gender equality provision.

While women's rights activists have been pushing for changing inheritance laws over the past few decades, their efforts have always been met with resistance from the more conservative segments of society.

The constitutional provisions granting gender equality still have to be translated into laws before they can be considered gains for Tunisian women.

Unfortunately, the political turmoil caused by the 2011 uprising has been accompanied by a surge of religious extremism that has prompted Tunisian women to focus on preserving the status quo rather than advancing their rights.

And while some see a potential change for the good in the near future, others think that the very debate on issues like the discriminatory inheritance laws is premature. They say that changing laws should be preceded by a transformation of the national mentality that will happen over years, if not generations.



February Is a Make-or-Break Month for Libya

Three years ago, Libya's hopeful leaders decided that tomorrow, Feb. 7, would mark the day Libya retired its transitional government to make way for a stable, permanent one. But after months of political infighting and stagnation, the country's interim legislature voted on Dec. 23 to extend its own mandate. Now, on the eve of Feb. 7, the country is on tenterhooks, bracing itself for politically-motivated violence as government-allied militias ready their guns to defend the General National Congress.

According to the timeline established by the Temporary Constitutional Declaration, the transitional roadmap, the General National Congress (GNC) is supposed to step down on Feb. 7, 2104. The GNC, however, has its own ideas on that score. Its members have proposed a plan that would keep them in office another year, until Dec. 24, 2014. Supporters of the extension point out that, because the country has yet to draft a new constitution, there is no legislative body in place to replace it.

But what's become clear is that different groups have taken to interpreting the text of the roadmap to suit their own political agendas. Those who favor the extension argue that the GNC's mandate is linked to the drafting of the constitution, and that it ends only once a constitution has been drafted and ratified. Those who oppose the mandate extension argue that the roadmap sets clear deadlines and milestones that the GNC has completely failed to meet -- and that the legislature is, correspondingly, unjustifiably clinging to power. They argue that the GNC has failed to lead the country through its transition, and has instead languished in political infighting, causing nationwide polarization. (In the photo above, Libyans protest the GNC's mandate extension in Tripoli's Martyr Square.)

In fact, this confusion can be blamed on the poorly designed roadmap itself. The roadmap was first produced by the then-ruling National Transitional Council in August 2011, but was then hastily amended just two days before the first GNC election in early July 2012. In response to the federalists in eastern Libya, who threatened to prevent the GNC election, the Council fundamentally changed the way the Constituent Assembly (the body in charge of drafting the constitution) would be selected. Instead of being appointed by the GNC as the roadmap initially proposed, the amendment states that the Constituent Assembly must be directly elected. However, it failed to adjust the timeline to reflect such a fundamental change. Instead of being appointed by GNC in November 2012, the Constituent Assembly's elections have yet to take place, and are currently scheduled for Feb. 20 of this year.

This confusion is only deepening polarization as political groups battle it out in the GNC hall. On Feb.3, the GNC voted to adopt a new roadmap that offers two scenarios, both of which would see an end to the GNC's mandate by August 2014 instead of December 2014. In the first, the Constituent Assembly would successfully finalize a draft constitution four months after its first session. The country would then ratify its new constitution in July 2014, and hold general elections in August 2014. This would mean Libya's transitional phase would end in September 2014 at the latest. This is an extremely ambitious scenario that is unlikely to materialize. In the second, the GNC would amend the current Constitutional Declaration to include a third transitional phase. In this case, Libya would hold another interim presidential and parliamentary election in August to replace the GNC, and this new government would preside over the transition process until the Constituent Assembly passes a constitution. This seems more likely. The new roadmap presents a reasonable way forward for the deeply-polarized country.

Unfortunately, after the GNC approved the new roadmap, the deal between the National Forces Alliance (NFA) and Islamists fell apart -- and now the militias are readying their guns for a possible standoff.

The NFA rejected the new roadmap, accused the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamists of hijacking the country, and urged Libyans to take to the streets on Feb. 7 and see GNC gone. The NFA claims that Islamists are clinging to power and delaying any peaceful transfer of power because they realize they will not be successful in any upcoming elections. This position prompted a quick response from the country's Grand Mufti, Sadeq al-Gheriani, who accused the NFA of being secular and prohibited citizens from taking to the streets against the GNC, saying that the protests would violate Islamic teachings. Now, pro-GNC Islamist militias (such as the Misrata militia) are preparing for a standoff with pro-NFA militias (such as the Zintan militia), who have promised to enforce and protect the will of the people on the streets. Meanwhile, in eastern Libya, the federalists and their militias are also demanding an end to the GNC's mandate.

The city of Benghazi has already started to feel the heat as the day approaches. On the night of Feb. 5, Libya Ahrar TV's offices were attacked by unknown assailants who are likely linked to the pro-GNC camp, and the director of al-Assema TV's office was kidnapped by another group that has not been identified. Both channels are seen to be against the new roadmap and GNC's decision to extend its mandate. Also, last night, an armed mob burned down tents set up by anti-GNC campaigners in Benghazi's freedom square. The mob then went on to attack an army special forces station nearby -- even though the special forces have also insisted that they would support and defend the people of Libya, no matter what they decide. Militias associated with Islamists are reportedly taking up positions throughout the city in anticipation of what might unfold on the day. And, indeed, Benghazi already witnessed heavy clashes between army units and Islamists militias on Wednesday night, and a leading activist in the anti-GNC campaign, Abdullah al-Senussi, was assassinated when his car exploded this morning.

It remains to be seen if huge crowds will take to the streets on Feb. 7. Nevertheless, what is clear is that tensions are high and armed groups are ready to battle in Libya's streets, as politicians fail to reach an agreement and end the standoff. The politicians must act with a sense of urgency -- Libya is falling apart, and at this point, every moment counts. The country is in urgent need for compromise, teamwork, and national unity as it battles its way through these extremely turbulent times.

Mohamed Eljarh is the Libya blogger for Transitions. Read the rest of his blog posts here.