Problems on hold
The issue of equality between men and women has been one that always preoccupied me and which I tackled several times in editorials I wrote over the years.
Egypt’s 2014 Constitution stipulates full equality among Egyptians and bans all discrimination including that based on gender. That same Constitution also specifies the right of Christians to a family law that conforms to the Christian doctrine. It thus pained me that the recent draft family bylaws for Christians included no provisions on inheritance. This implied that the current Egyptian law for inheritance, which is based on the Islamic sharia principle that a man inherits double the share of a woman, would continue to apply to all—Christians as well as Muslims. The principle of unequal inheritance shares for men and women does not exist in the teachings of the Bible, and I had thought that those who drafted the family bylaws for Christians would have seized the opportunity to right the current legal inequality. But this was not to be.
Last March I wrote a series of four articles on the issue of the lack of inheritance provisions in the draft family bylaws for Christians; the draft is currently getting its final touches before being placed before parliament.
I wrote of the precept that went as far back as when Egyptians endorsed Christianity in the early AD centuries and that honoured the right of Christians to apply their own doctrines to their family affairs including inheritance. Even when this time-honoured rule was changed in the 1940s and a new law stipulated that Islamic sharia would be generally applied to govern matters of inheritance, it left the door ajar for non-Muslims to apply their own doctrines provided the inheritors agree to do so. In the 1970s, the Constitution was amended to include an article that stipulated sharia as the main source of legislation, and inheritance laws in Egypt changed to include all Egyptians—Muslim, Christian, or otherwise—under the full provisions of Islamic sharia. This meant that a man inherited double the share of a woman.
Now that Christians are entitled to their own family law, their bylaws ought to have included provisions for equal inheritance shares between men and women, in order to relieve Christian women from the injustice unduly inflicted upon them on the inheritance front. By doing so, the Church would also have offered an exemplary model of real gender equality to the nation in its entirety; one that could in time be copied by Muslim men and women. As though in confirmation that women did deserve better than their current lot, the Grand Imam of al-Azhar, Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayyib recently remarked: “I am certain that the legitimate rights of oriental women have been confiscated in the name of customs and traditions.”
I was lately pleasantly surprised by a recent legislative initiative launched in the Tunisian parliament to change the current inheritance law in Tunisia so that it stipulates equal inheritance shares for men and women, honouring thus the Tunisian Constitution which declares full gender equality. But I was left with a lump in my throat that the civilizational lead in gender equality had come from Tunisia alone and not from Egypt too. Yet this should have been no surprise; as far back as 1956 Tunisia put in place a family law that granted women rights such as banning multiple wives and restraining men’s absolute, unilateral right to divorce; recently, women were allotted half the seats in parliament. Tunisia’s pioneering position on gender equality in the Arab World was again confirmed.
The recent Tunisian legislative initiative stipulates equal inheritance shares between men and women unless there is a clear written agreement between the inheritors stating otherwise. Kindly note that equality is the rule, inequality the exception. Egypt has yet to reach this. Even during her liberal phase, Egypt in 1944 legislated inequality first when it allowed a man to inherit double a woman’s share, and equality second by granting non-Muslims the right to special agreements that went against that principle. Yet even this was in later years retracted when Islamic sharia was applied to non-Muslims; men indulged in grabbing double a woman’s inheritance share, in some deplorable instances even grabbing all the shares of the women in the family.
A historic opportunity presented itself in the 2014 Constitution, when Article 3 gave non-Muslims the right to apply their own doctrines to their family matters. But those in charge of drafting the new family bylaws for Christians rushed to write articles concerned with the details of engagement, marriage and divorce, but overlooked the issue of inheritance. They saw inheritance as a non-urgent issue governed by no specific rules in the Christian doctrine.
Amid this failure and frustration, the Tunisian legislative initiative comes as a candle in the dark. Let us follow up on it in hope that—like all Tunisian initiatives in modernisation—it leads out of the deep tunnel of gender inequality.
3 July 2016