Demonstrators on National Women’s Day, Tunis, August 13, 2018

Chedly Ben Ibrahim/NurPhoto/Getty Images

Demonstrators on National Women’s Day, Tunis, August 13, 2018. Earlier that day President Beji Caid Essebsi had announced that an inheritance equality bill would be submitted to parliament.

On January 14, the eighth anniversary of the Tunisian revolution, I joined the crowds passing through metal detectors to gather in Tunis’s Avenue Habib Bourguiba. A few people carried pictures of protesters killed in 2011. Children waved little Tunisian flags. At one end of the avenue, a concert was taking place. Most political parties had set up stands, and there were speeches about how much the revolution had accomplished so far (from parties in the government) and how little (from the opposition). Strangers in the street engaged in polite but animated political arguments, and small groups leaned in to listen. Eight years after the Arab Spring began in Tunisia, this is the only country in the region where such scenes of spontaneous public debate can still be witnessed.

And yet to many Tunisians that accomplishment feels scant. Since 2011, Tunisia has held several free elections. It has weathered terrorist attacks, deep polarization between Islamists and secularists, and the evident desire of elements of the old regime to turn back the clock. But its leaders have been unable or unwilling to enact economic reforms that would deliver the greater growth and equality that were among the people’s fundamental demands. “In the last four years, we achieved stability, we protected the state,” Abdelhamid Jelassi, a senior member of the Islamist Ennahda party, which is part of the governing coalition, told me. “But we didn’t turn stability into wealth. People don’t eat stability.”

Three days after the anniversary celebrations, there was a national strike. As many as 700,000 public sector workers stayed home, closing schools, ministries, train stations, and the national airport. The UGTT, the national labor union, is calling for higher wages and an end to austerity measures imposed as a condition of an IMF loan. Partly because of those measures, the Tunisian dinar has been losing value, and inflation is at nearly 8 percent. People complain that corruption is worse than ever, and the country has witnessed a wave of protests demanding access to jobs, water, and schools; there were more than 11,000 of them in 2017.

“There haven’t been any reforms,” a former senior member of a secular party that is also part of the government told me. “The only thing we’ve done is gotten into debt. The country is adrift. We’re playing it day by day.”

The political unrest and economic crisis I found in Tunisia seemed to overshadow the subject I had come to report on: a proposal to make Tunisia the first Arab country in which inheritances would be divided equally among male and female relatives. The law caused a furor when it was proposed last summer: it was both hailed as a great emancipatory step for women in the region and condemned as an unacceptable breach of Islamic principles. If such a law were not only passed but actually applied, it would be a truly revolutionary reform, reshaping economic and gender relations.

But that is a big “if.” Tunisia’s dire circumstances seemed to justify the many reservations I heard, even from those who are in favor of equality. I was told that the law is political window-dressing, a distraction, and unrealistic. Yet even those who told me that it was beside the point had much to say about it. The proposal is part of a growing, if very contested, debate about inheritance and gender equality that seems destined to continue, here and in other Arab countries.

The change in inheritance law was proposed, alongside other reforms, by the Commission on Individual Liberties and Equality (COLIBE), created by President Beji Caid Essebsi. Until now Tunisia, like all other Arab Muslim countries, has followed sharia law in matters of inheritance. Sharia divides property according to varying and complex rules, depending on the number of relations and their degree of kinship, but in most cases it gives male relatives twice as much as female relatives. Distant male relations can inherit ahead of closer female ones.

Inheritance inequality is the “bedrock” of discrimination against women, Bochra Bel Haj Hmida, the head of COLIBE, told me: “It’s at the center of all discrimination: cultural, economic, social—it’s about power.” Hmida is a lawyer, the cofounder of a major feminist association, and a parliamentarian. When the law was proposed, most of Tunisia’s imams preached against it in their Friday sermons. Bel Haj Hmida was targeted personally—the law was often referred to as “Bochra’s law,” and she received insults and death threats on social media. The debate spread beyond the borders of Tunisia. Scholars at the Islamic institute of Al Azhar in Egypt—one of the Arab world’s oldest universities—denounced the idea.


The COLIBE report made a number of other far-reaching recommendations intended to harmonize the country’s laws with the principles of its constitution. It suggested ending capital punishment, decriminalizing homosexuality, and ensuring greater protections for detainees during the garde à vue, the initial period they are held by police before being charged. But President Essebsi has focused almost exclusively on inheritance. On August 13, National Women’s Day in Tunisia, he announced he would be proposing a law to make inheritance equal. The law has now been approved by the cabinet and submitted to the country’s fractious parliament, where it could be discussed and voted on in the following months. Or it could go nowhere, used as a bargaining chip in a much larger political game or stalled and buried, as so many laws and reforms have been in recent years.

Tunisia has a history of setting precedents when it comes to women’s legal rights in North Africa; its leaders also have a history of using women’s rights for political purposes. The country’s first president, Habib Bourguiba, was educated in Paris in the 1920s, equated modernity with secularism, and introduced the most progressive family code in the region, ending polygamy and a husband’s right to unilaterally divorce his wife. He supported women’s education as well as family planning. But Bourguiba was an authoritarian: he sidelined competitors and repressed all other political parties. He became president for life in 1975, calling himself “a man whose name is identified with Tunisia. My term at the head of this country will leave an indelible mark for centuries.” He saw himself as the father and liberator of Tunisian women. In videos and photos from the time, he greets lines of smiling women, reaching out paternally to touch a cheek or remove a veil.

Under Bourguiba’s successor, Zine El Abindine Ben Ali, the government grew more repressive and corrupt. While it promoted itself internationally as a defender of women’s rights and a bulwark against fundamentalism, women who opposed the regime were harassed and brutalized. In the early 1990s, when Ben Ali began a violent crackdown on Ennahda, women associated with the Islamist movement faced shocking abuse, including rape, torture in detention, and forced divorce. Most of the country’s secular feminist associations remained silent about these abuses, driving a bitter wedge between secular and religious women. “The dictatorship broke relations between women,” Ibtihel Abdellatif, a member of Tunisia’s Truth and Dignity Commission—the transitional body created after the 2011 uprising to document the human rights abuses of the previous sixty years—once told me.

The Tunisian parliament was in session on the afternoon of January 15. It is housed in a white-and-blue palace just around the corner from the Bardo museum, where terrorists killed twenty-two people in 2015 in one of the worst attacks in the country’s history. Under a stucco cupola decorated with Islamic geometric motifs, deputies were scheduled to vote on a loan from the African Bank to finance a new bridge in the town of Bizerte. Because of the holiday the day before, they were trickling in late from their districts. The opposition took the occasion to berate the governing parties for their lack of seriousness; members of the governing parties questioned the opposition’s motives; and the exchange became startlingly heated, with deputies storming out of the hall and the president repeatedly and helplessly calling the assembly to order.

An hour later, after the bridge funding was passed nearly unanimously, I met with the deputy Meherzia Labidi in the glassed-in portico of the parliament building. Thanks to a post-revolution law requiring parties to give male and female candidates parity on their electoral lists, 31 percent of Tunisia’s parliamentarians are women—a proportion that puts it on a par with European countries and ahead of the United States. Labidi is one of the most senior female politicians in Ennahda, which emerged after 2011 as the most popular and organized political force in the country.

Ennahda has decided to vote against the inheritance reform, Labidi told me. “We represent conservative people,” she said. “And when this project was made public a majority of Tunisians rejected it.” The party is willing to introduce an amendment that would allow people to stipulate that they want to divide their inheritance equally, but it insists that the traditional sharia-based division should be the default. The proposed law does the opposite, making equal separation of property automatic unless someone opts out. Both sides know that the default option will be the prevalent one.

Labidi was the vice-president of Tunisia’s constituent assembly, which wrote the 2014 constitution. This document enshrines both equality between men and women and the purposes of Islam. As a member of parliament, Labidi helped pass a new law in 2017 criminalizing violence against women. “Personally and intellectually, I can argue for equality in inheritance,” said Labidi. “For me it is not a black-and-white issue. But as a member of Ennahda we have to respect the will of those who voted for us.”


It is not realistic to press this reform on Tunisian society today, she argued, because citizens have more urgent concerns, and many, like her, believe that Islam envisions “a whole economic structure.” “There are financial duties and financial rights, and there is a certain balance between them,” said Labidi. “How to change all this? I cannot change one element. This is why we need a wider debate.” She described Bochra Bel Haj Hmida as not just a colleague but a friend. Her fellow parliamentarian, she said, “has chosen equality in inheritance. I may vote for the maintenance of the current law, but this doesn’t mean that I am out of modernity and this doesn’t mean that she is out of Islam.”

Ennahda began as a militant Islamist movement in the 1980s; today it has evolved into a political party that advocates moderation and a commitment to democracy. Its adversaries nonetheless accuse it of secretly sympathizing with extremist groups and of having a long-term plan to take control of the state and “Islamize” society. In 2011 it won the largest share of seats in the country’s new constituent assembly. But by 2013 the tide turned against the Arab Spring and the Islamist parties it had brought to power in the region. With the encouragement of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the military in Egypt deposed the Muslim Brotherhood president, Mohamed Morsi, and then outlawed the party.

In Tunisia, tensions rose; extremist groups had grown emboldened, and two prominent left-wing politicians were assassinated. Anti-Islamists blamed Ennahda for all this and began openly calling for an Egyptian “solution.” But Tunisia’s democracy was saved by a national dialogue in which political parties, the national labor union, the Tunisian bar association, and civil society groups all participated (this “national dialogue quartet” won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015). Ennahda agreed to step down from power; a caretaker government was put in place, and new elections were held in 2014.

President Essebsi, who is ninety-two and served as a minister under Presidents Bourguiba and Ben Ali, created his party, Nidaa Tounes, around an anti-Islamist agenda and a pledge to put an end to the disorder of the revolution. His party also represents much of the country’s traditional economic and political elite. Essebsi won the presidency in 2014, and his party won the largest share of seats in the new parliament, but not enough to govern alone. Ennahda won the second-largest share. To the chagrin of supporters on both sides, the two parties entered into an uneasy coalition.

But Nidaa Tounes has since been torn apart by power struggles. Essebsi has insisted on installing his son, Hafedh Essebsi, as head of the party. In 2017 he fell out with Youssef Chahed, the prime minister he had chosen (and who is also a relative), and pushed for his removal. To the president’s fury, Ennahda sided with Chahed, who has now left Nidaa Tounes and created his own party, Tahya Tounes. The coalition between Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes collapsed, leaving the former the largest party in parliament and the latter holding the presidency.

All the parties are now positioning themselves for the next parliamentary and presidential elections, scheduled for the end of 2019. No party is strong enough to rule alone. Ennahda’s leadership seems aware that attempting to win a majority or govern alone would upset the country’s already strained political balance. “Ennahda is convinced that power-sharing, compromise, consensus is a necessity,” said Abdelhamid Jelassi. “But with whom?”

In fact, according to Michaël Béchir Ayari, the senior Tunisia analyst with the International Crisis Group, an NGO dedicated to conflict prevention, there is a considerable risk that if Ennahda is too successful in the next elections, its opponents will resort, as they have in other Arab countries, to outside backers, the military, or the courts to remove it from power. Recently the president and others in the anti-Islamist camp have accused Ennahda of harboring a secret paramilitary wing, of planning a coup, and of being involved in the assassinations of 2013. All of these accusations, for which little evidence has been presented, could be used to outlaw the party altogether. That would spell the end of democracy in Tunisia. The problem, said Ayari, is that the anti-Islamist camp’s “only strategy is to weaken Ennahda and to revive polarization.”

The deadlocked government has been unable to agree on appointments to the constitutional court or to staff an electoral commission. It has yet to reform the bloated public administration (the number of public employees has nearly doubled since 2011, to about 700,000) or the public subsidies program for food, gas, and transportation, or to open economic opportunities for those without family connections or political clout. The spectacle of politicians making deals, falling out, and delivering nothing has left Tunisians deeply disenchanted. Voter turnout has been dropping, and polls show diminishing levels of confidence in democracy.

Tunisia has a history of grand reforms from above, says Ayari. But to gain support and be effective, these reforms need to go “hand in hand with improvements in living conditions.” “We are in a situation that is profoundly unjust,” he noted. “There is no equality between men and men, between women and women, people are dying in hospitals for lack of medicine…. The social situation is becoming awful—that’s the priority.” This is all the more the case because the lack of economic equality and the lack of political trust tend to reinforce each other.

“Of course we are surrounded by forces that are anti-democracy, in the region and in the country,” said Labidi. “They are pushing Tunisian citizens to give up believing in democracy, to say: ‘A democracy that cannot give me a better condition of life, a salary, what good is that democracy?’”

Instead of responding to citizens’ needs, Tunisia’s elite has been focused on its power struggles and on maintaining a monopoly on the country’s resources. President Essebsi is a canny operator, and everyone I met in Tunisia saw his proposal to reform inheritance law as a political maneuver. This includes Labidi, whose criticisms the president once dismissed with the remark, “She’s just a woman.”

As early as 2017 Essebsi seemed to use women’s rights as a distraction. He ended a ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men just one day after passing a highly controversial law protecting all public servants from investigation for corruption under Ben Ali. Last summer he pushed forward the inheritance reform a month after his final falling out with Ennahda and the prime minister. With the inheritance law, I was told, Essebsi hopes to one-up Bourguiba, cement his own legacy, and impress the international community.

He also wants to make things difficult for Ennahda. If the party votes for the law, it will anger its base. During the writing of the constitution, Ennahda agreed to forgo any direct mention of sharia or the Koran in the document. It now describes itself as a party of “Muslim democrats.” If Ennahda doesn’t support the law, it will open itself up to accusations that it is retrograde. But its leadership has had a hard time selling some of its political compromises to its supporters. As I interviewed figures from Ennahda, I realized that my very presence—a foreign reporter earnestly asking these Islamist politicians about their support for gender equality—must have struck them as evidence that the president’s strategy had worked.

“It’s all part of the political game,” Youssef Cherif, a political analyst, told me. “It’s a card that the old man in Carthage is playing against the old man in Tunis,” referring to Essebsi—the presidential palace is in Carthage, an upscale seaside suburb—and to Rached Ghannouchi, the leader of Ennahda, whose headquarters are in the capital. The aim may be to pressure Ennahda to once again support Essebsi and his party in the upcoming elections, or at least not to back any of his rivals.

Regardless of the president’s motivations, his proposed reform could have far-reaching consequences. In Tunisia, which prides itself on being a regional exception on women’s rights, the inheritance law would dismantle the last and most significant form of religiously based legal discrimination against women.

The tension between the principles of universal human rights and discriminatory practices justified by religion can be found in many of the family codes in the region. Some secularists simply argue that international law and human rights should come before religion. Others try to reconcile the two. In its report, COLIBE partly relies on a small, progressive school of thought that claims that Islam is not irreconcilable with women’s rights, and that its egalitarian spiritual message has been distorted by centuries of misogynist interpretation on the part of male scholars. This school of thought—sometimes referred to as Islamic feminism—includes figures such as Amina Wadud and Leila Ahmed in the United States; Hatoon El Fassi, a Saudi scholar who is currently in prison; Asma Lamrabet in Morocco; and many more. Lamrabet, a medical doctor who has become a feminist scholar of Islam, has written and spoken frequently about the need for inheritance reform and other reinterpretations of the Koran, to free it from “what a patriarchal culture has anchored in the souls of Muslims: the devaluation of women.” For declaring these views too openly, Lamrabet was forced to resign last year from her position in Morocco’s leading institute of religious scholarship, the Mohammedan Leagues of Scholars.

Meherzia Labidi, January 2013

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Meherzia Labidi, a member of the Islamist Ennahda party and the first vice-president of the Tunisian Constituent Assembly, January 2013

In the seventh century, when the Prophet Muhammad introduced the new rules of inheritance, they were a great gain for women, who had previously inherited nothing. Progressive scholars argue that his intention was to be as egalitarian as possible in the social and economic conditions of the time; they point out that women’s smaller shares were accorded within a system in which male relatives were expected to provide for them throughout their entire lives.

That is not the situation today—more and more women in Arab countries are employed and contribute significantly to the expenses of their households. While men still retain the title of “head of household” in most legal systems in the region, a significant percentage of families are supported entirely by a female breadwinner. Women also do a vast amount of domestic and agricultural work, for which they are not compensated at all.

In Tunisia, the issue of women’s rights in Islam was broached almost a century ago by a scholar named Tahar Haddad, who had had a traditional religious education and studied at the Islamic University of El Zeitouna. But he broke with the religious establishment of the day and argued in his book Our Women in Sharia and Society (1930) that “Islam in its essence does not oppose the establishment of equality between the sexes in all matters.” Women were granted half as much inheritance as men because that was the most men were willing to accept at the time, wrote Haddad. But “nothing makes us believe that this situation must endure and not change,” or that women’s dependent position, in the past, is based on anything “inherent in their nature.”

Haddad was harshly criticized in print by religious scholars and social conservatives and died, alone and in exile, at thirty-six.

Today there is a small but persistent discussion of inheritance reform in several countries in the region, and the Tunisian proposal has given it new impetus. Of course the vast majority of religious scholars still believe the question of inheritance is not up for debate—or ijtihad, interpretation. Other injunctions and practices mentioned and codified in the Koran, such as slavery and polygamy, may have been abandoned. But a change that would fundamentally rearrange economic relations remains extremely fraught.

Nor is it just religious conservatives who are opposed. Surveys suggest that a majority of Tunisians are against the reform—63 percent, including 52 percent of women, according to one poll. Even within the president’s own party, I was told, deputies are reluctant to vote in favor of the reform, fearing what their constituents will say.

There are legal loopholes, for enlightened parents with means, to share their property more equally between sons and daughters—for example, by bequeathing property during their lifetimes. Some families avail themselves of these methods. But across the Arab world, women often don’t get even the half share to which sharia entitles them. In a patriarchal society, giving property to daughters is seen as effectively giving it to sons-in-law—letting it pass out of one’s family. As an old Tunisian saying goes, “Our grandchildren are the children of our sons and our girls/their children are the children of strangers.” In rural areas, disinheriting women is an effective strategy for maintaining sizable and contiguous plots of family land.

Women come under intense pressure—“emotional blackmail,” Hmida calls it—not to challenge their own spoliation by male relatives in court, and they can be ostracized if they do so. There have been protests for (and against) inheritance reform in downtown Tunis, but so far there has been no mass mobilization of women around this most personal of issues—perhaps because protesting against the current system amounts to protesting against one’s father, brother, or husband.

Both Labidi and Hmida agree that women in Tunisia are currently discriminated against. But they draw different conclusions from this observation. For Labidi, Tunisian society is not ready for the inheritance reform—to push it through would alienate many people, and possibly provoke a backlash that would hurt women’s rights. She doubts that most women would be able to take advantage of the new law. “We ask first of all to punish those who prevent their sisters or daughters or mothers from inheriting their share,” she said. “What our family needs is renewing values and implementing the already existing laws.”

“I’m trying to live and to progress with my society,” Labidi went on. “I prefer to progress slowly but truly. Not to jump [ahead] and to make a rupture with my society. Inside my party I negotiate to defend and to promote equality because I want this position to advance in my party.”

Hmida, on the other hand, claims that the law’s very proposal has sparked a debate and encouraged women to raise the question of their inheritance. She believes that while it might take some time, women will avail themselves of their new rights. “Because when you live with a sense of insecurity, of injustice, you end up rebelling, claiming your rights. Especially when the law protects you, when it’s on your side—it’s easier then.”

Hmida’s argument is that the circumstances under which the law is passed—the political calculations, the likelihood that it will be widely applied soon—don’t matter as much as the law’s impact in the future. “It’s a chance we need to seize,” she argues. “It’s not clear that we will have another such chance for quite some time.”

—March 7, 2019