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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.

FETHI BELAID/AFP/Getty Images

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