Absolute Equality Between Women and Men: Between Modernity and Political Point-scoring

08 March 2018 1315 Views

On the 13th of August 2017, on the occasion of National Women's Day, Tunisia’s President Béji Caïd Essebsi called for seriously considering a legislative reform that would guarantee absolute equality between men and women. The decision drew a great deal of attention within Tunisia and caused a polemic for two reasons.The first on religious grounds, since Islamic law does not recognize absolute equality between the sexes, which means that we are facing a contradiction between a constitution that recognizes Islam as the religion of the state and laws that do not comply with Islamic principles. The second reason is political, since many view Essebsi’s statement as having a number of political objectives, such as rallying support for the upcoming elections and the desire to put his political opponents in a difficult position.

The reactions by various political forces to the President’s statement were driven by political competition and conflicts between parties, with hardly any rational debate taking place. Instead, the debate quickly descended into accusations as parties questioned the integrity of other parties’positions. Some analysts argued that the President's call was made at the behest of Tunisia’s intellectual elite, which is intolerant of all opposing views, and isthe product of a secular culture that is hostile to religion. Therefore, the issue was not debated in terms of what benefits or risks it could have for society but rather in terms of how it could be exploited by some political actors to undermine and attack their opponents, either as intolerant secularists or religious and backward traditionalists.

In fact, the views of those who advocate modernity overlap on many points with those who advocate Islam and itscapacity to reform and evolve in order to be compatible with contemporary society and responds to its material and spiritual needs. Many leftists, liberals and Islamists agree on the need to protect women’s rights and gender equality, including the right of a woman to choose her spouse,on the basisthat it is an individual right that is both part of Islamic Sharia and international human rights conventions. They do not see this as contradictory with Islamic principles or harmful to women or alien to Tunisian society, as some claim.

What opponents of Essebsi ’s statement say:

To attribute theinferior status of women in Arab society to Islamic laws and principles is an idea that many politicians and thinkers have argued against.

In fact, this fallacy has been believed by many, particularly when it comes to inheritance. The share of inheritance in the Qur'an for both men and women is not based on a normative view of the status of men and women. Surat al-Nisaa in the Qur’an sets out six scenarios for inheritance.

Sharia scholars have explained in detail the distribution of inheritance to the beneficiaries as shown in the table below.

  • The heir’s share and relationship to the deceased

The heir’s share

Relationship to the deceased

One half


One quarter

Husband / wife


Wife when there is anotherheir from her husband’s family

One third

Mother / two or more brothers / sisters of the mother

Two thirds

Two or more daughters/ daughter or daughters of the son / two sisters and more / two sisters or more/ two half-sisters or more

One sixth

Father/ grandfather / mother / grandmother / grandson / sister /maternal uncle


Based on this table, we can say, as many scholars have pointed out, that the distribution of inheritance in Islam does not take into account sex but rather the degree of kinship between the heir and the deceased. The closer the kinship, the greater the inheritance received by the heir and vice versa. On this basis, we can observethat,contrary to claims by opponents of these rules,a woman’s share can be as much as a man's or more. We can count more than 30 cases in which awoman inherits the same amount as a man, 10 cases in which she inherits more than the man, and only four cases in which awoman inherits half the amount inherited by a man. There are also cases in which the woman inherits and the man does not.

 The purpose of this brief presentation of the issue of inheritance in Islam is to provide empirical proof that the distribution of inheritance in Islam is not based on discrimination against women. The claim that Islam is unjust towomen on this issuehas no validity. This claim is based on ignorance or misunderstanding of Islamic rules and principles. The emancipation of women is not presumed in inheritance equality to the man and she has no direct interest in it.

Indeed, the issue of absolute equality between men and women, specifically in inheritance, has little to do with the issue of rights and freedoms or the modernization of society and much more to do with political battles that exploit social and cultural issues to undermine adversaries in upcoming electoral battles.

The President’s statement calling for absolute equality between men and women seeks to achieve a number of goals or kill many birds with one stone. Essebsi is seeking to ward off any challenges from the right wing (conservatives) or the left wing (liberals) by presenting himself as the father of modernity and civilization in Tunisia. Essebsi is also seeking to win female votes in the upcoming elections by sending a message that he is the leader capable of achieving women's hopes of improving their deteriorating situation.

In addition, Essebsi is seeking to promote the perception that he has managed to make Ennahdha Party more open and secular and to suggest that he is alone is capable of challenging its domination of the political landscape. This is no secret and Essebsi has already made a number of such statements including a warning in an interview in 2017 that "he was keen to bring Ennahdha into the civil field, but it seems that we erred in our assessment" (Al-Sahafa, 6 September 2017). This sends two very important political messages. The first is to break the partnership with the Ennahdha Party in government, which is unlikely for political and parliamentary considerations. The second is to exert more pressure on Ennahdha and send it a message that it relies on his good favor, while also reassuring Ennahdha’s traditional opponents and reminding them that he is still a serious rival to Ennahdha who can be relied on by those who oppose the party.





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