Problems on hold
Last week I wrote questioning the absence of inheritance regulations from the new draft family bylaws for Christians. Watani was at the same time interviewing the prominent judge and member of the Coptic Orthodox Melli (Community) Council, Monsef Soliman, on the history and articles of the family bylaws. Judge Soliman said that all the draft laws the Church had proposed ever since 1979 never considered inheritance issues, and that the new draft family bylaws is no different. Judge Soliman explained that the matter is mired in legal controversy. It is self evident, he said, that inheritance is a major family concern. The Egyptian Constitution’s Article 3 stipulates that: “The canons of Egyptian Christians and Jews are the main source of legislation for their respective personal status [family] laws, religious affairs, and the selection of their spiritual leaders”. This, he said, implies that a family law for Christians ought to include provisions for inheritance rules. However, Judge Soliman explained, many legal exerts claim that since the Bible does not cite specific rules that apply to inheritance, Christian ‘canons’ in this regard are non-existent and cannot be invoked according to Article 3. He concluded by calling on law experts, Muslims and Copts, to volunteer their opinion on the matter. He also proposed that the issue of inheritance be offered for societal debate.
Now we are certain that the new draft family bylaws for Christians includes no inheritance-related clauses. This implies that those who drafted the bylaws do not consider inheritance a major family concern, an approach which requires reconsideration and revision.
The claim that the new draft family bylaws has followed in the footsteps of all the former drafts prepared by the Church since 1979 is no justification; it projectsinadequacy more than simply admitting the truth. It overlooks the legislative history of the Egyptian Church since the first AD centuries and until modern times. Throughout these long centuries, men and women were equal regarding their inheritance shares. Even Egyptian legislation that followed Islamic sharia vis-à-vis inheritance, granting men thus twice the share of women, left the door ajar for Christians to resort to their own legislation provided the inheritors agree to do so.
It pains me that a Christian man would have no qualms about adopting rules that grant him twice as much as a woman’s share of inheritance, and would adamantly resist any correction to this erroneous practice because it would not suit his personal whim. Worse, he justifies this by claiming that the Holy Bible includes no text that regulates inheritance. He conveniently overlooks that the Bible firmly upholds equality between man and woman whom God created as “a help meet for him” (Gen 18:2). If no specific rules on inheritance figure in the Bible, on what basis then should we prefer to grant men twice as much women? Why not treat them as equals?
If Christians are not bound by any biblical text or any canon that stipulates unequal shares of inheritance for men and women, they today have a historic opportunity to tip the scales in favour of absolute equality in this regard, in their family bylaws. This would by all means be an unprecedented gain in women’s rights. It would also set a model that could be emulated in legislation for all Egyptians, Muslim and Christian, and would push Egypt forward towards a veritable modern State.
The suggestion to place the issue of inheritance on the table for societal dialogue is an initiative that looks good on the surface but is in fact catastrophic. Societal dialogue on such a matter would turn into religious conflict—with potentially dire consequences—on account of differences between Islamic and Christian principles. We Christians seek to resort to our principles to entrench equality between men and women, and aim to project a model of civilisational finesse to our community, but we are not looking to force our fellow Muslims to comply with what they believe opposes their sharia. We are not after focusing on our differencs or engaging in conflict at a time when we least need conflict. Let us then draft legislation that conforms with our principles; our fellow Muslims are welcome to follow suite if they wish without any pressure on our part.
Let us candidly and bravely admit that it is not commitment to religious legislation alone that is responsible for allowing inheritance rules to discriminate between men and women. The wisdom behind religious legislation is to seek the wellbeing and happiness of humans. We are struggling to uphold women’s rights and establish equal inheritance shares between men and women. We aspire not only to end an era where a woman’s share was half that of a man, but we are also looking to put an end to the ill practice of a woman’s inheritance being frequently usurped by her men relatives. In such cases, neither religious principles nor legal rights stop the men from doing so.
27 March 2016