Will Egypt catch up with Tunisia?

16-12-2018 09:30 AM

Youssef Sidhom


Youssef Sidhom

Problems on hold

On 23 November 2018, the Tunisian government approved a bill on gender equality in inheritance. The bill should now be put up for a vote in parliament, after which it would go into effect. President Beji Caid Essebsi proposed the law in August 2017, basing upon recommendation by the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee which he had formed and assigned with proposing reforms for the Tunisian legislative system. Since it was proposed, the bill aroused huge controversy in Tunisia and the entire Islamic World since it infringes on core Islamic jurisprudence which gives a man double the inheritance of a woman.

Tunisia appears on its way to achieve full equality between men and women in inheritance. The move comes within a series of societal reforms that empower women and allow them full, indiscriminate rights and duties equal to men. Tunisia had the will to tread the path of modernity and secularism, with no qualms about any apparent conflict with religious jurisprudence.

Today marks some two-and-a-half years on Tunisia opening this substantial, progressive issue. On 3 July 2016, I wrote under the title “Kudos for Tunisia”, commending the initiative and expressing my concerns lest backward streams should manage to abort it. I felt distressed that the progressive lead in gender equality had come from Tunisia alone and not from Egypt too. The Tunisian initiative evoked a long, depressive file I had opened two years earlier, writing on 6 July 2014 under the title “Women’s inheritance: Another affront to the nation and its men”. I condemned the dominant clannishness and macho mentalilty that bred a legislative and societal legacy which allows men double the inheritance of women. The result: women stand helpless, unable to demand what is their legitimate right.

My frustration, however, gave way to hope that equality between men and women in inheritance would be instated in the much-awaited Family Law for Christians. This Christian equality is historically established. Egyptian Christians had throughout the ages been left to resort to their Christian doctrines in matters of inheritance. In 1941 a law was passed legalising the practice; it gave non-Muslims the provision of equal inheritance for men and women provided all parties involved mutually agreed. This did not last long, however, it was retracted a few years later when Islamic sharia was applied to non-Muslims. To date this remains unchanged.

Salvation might have come at the hands of the 2014 Constitution which stipulates in its third article: “The principles of Christian and Jewish doctrines are the main sources of legislation governing the respective personal status issues [family affairs], religious affairs, and selection of spiritual leaders of Christians and Jews.” It appeared that the aspired-for Family Law for Christians—officially known as the Personal Status Law for Christians—could include provisions for equal inheritance for men and women. I thought it was inevitable that those in charge of drafting the law would be as keen to include inheritance provisions as they are to include provisions for engagement, marriage, divorce and marriage annulment. Yet I was shocked to discover the absence of inheritance provisions from the draft law. I wrote four consecutive articles in 2016, dated 20 March, 27 March, 3 April and 10 April, asking: “Why have inheritance provisions gone missing from the Family Bylaws for Christians?” No response that promises the possibility of including inheritance provisions in the bylaws came from the Church. On 17 September 2017, following the Tunisian initiative in this regard, I wrote an article under the title: “Towards gender equality in inheritance: Tunisia leads, Coptic Church stands still”. I referred to the Coptic tradition of gender equality in inheritance, and to the constitutional right of the Church to draft a law according to its own doctrine, calling for inclusion of equal inheritance rights in the draft family law for Christians.

I must admit that in throwing the ball in the Church’s court I was following the Arabic principle: “what cannot be fully attained should not be fully relinquished”.  I was hoping that giving Coptic women their right to equal inheritance with men would just be a first step that would lead to the same right being some day granted to all Egyptian women. In my 17 September 2017 Editorial, I wrote: “My call for gender equality in inheritance is founded on Christian-based legislation and on a Coptic tradition of equality between men and women in inheritance. I even dared hope that one day, once equality is applied to Christians, it would eventually serve as a role model for Egypt in her entirety.”

Will the day come when the right and dignity of Christian women would be restored? And how about all Egyptian women? Can Egypt catch up with Tunisia on the road to modernity and a full civic State?

Watani International

16 December 2018

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