Seven years after Tunisia sparked the first protests in what has become known as the “Arab Spring,” and ousted its long-standing dictator, it is generating inspiration and anger yet again. How? By upending what many consider more difficult to overthrow than dictators-for-life: Islamic laws and taboos on marriage and inheritance.
In February, President Beji Caid Essebsi is expected to make good on a 2017 promise to make Tunisia the first Muslim country to grant equal inheritance to men and women. Islamic inheritance law typically gives men double the inheritance of women. Last year, Essebsi also lifted a ban on Muslim women in Tunisia marrying men outside their faith. In most Muslim-majority countries, Muslim men can marry Jewish or Christian women, but Muslim women can marry only Muslim men.
Essebsi’s upending of the ban on interfaith marriage and his promise of inheritance parity ignited a firestorm of controversy last year. Scholars at Al-Azhar, the Cairo-based highest authority of Sunni Islam, said equitable distribution of inheritance was “undebatable,” “contradicted Islamic edicts” and that regulation of inheritance in Islam was determined by Sharia, with “no space for independent reasoning or uncertainty.” Those same scholars warned that allowing women to marry outside of their faith would “obstruct the stability of marriage.”
Predictably, opponents of women’s equality in marriage and inheritance in Tunisia said there were “more important issues” to contend with, and some even said calls for women’s equality were part of a “foreign political agenda.”
Some have criticized the Tunisian president’s progressive stance as “state-imposed feminism.” Opponents have accused Essebsi of using women’s rights as a “political football” to distract from other issues (namely a controversial law granting amnesty to corrupt former officials under previous regimes). Others say he is just trying to secure women’s votes for upcoming local elections in March. Is that a bad thing — to court women’s votes by removing obstacles to their equality?
The controversy ignited by the prospect of greater women’s equality in Tunisia is a necessary reminder of the extent to which Muslim — and Christian — women in the region are left hostage to religiously sanctioned family laws that are often deeply misogynistic. It also serves as a tragic reminder that, historically, women join revolutions and liberation movements only to find men pushing them aside. It’s true, none of the revolutions in the region have been about gender equality. Although women marched alongside men in the uprisings, in the aftermath, men remain at war with men (literally or politically) as they jockey for power, while few gains are made for women in the conservative societies of the region. When I talk about the importance of women’s equality, I am often told “This isn’t the time.” Women hear that their struggles are a distraction. In other words, women — who make up one half of our societies — are low on the list of our priorities — a list determined by men. It is true that our dictators oppress everyone, men and women. But while the state oppresses men and women, the state, the street and the home together oppress women, creating a trifecta of misogyny.
For critics who say Essebsi’s actions are “state imposed feminism,” they neglect the fact that Tunisia has a history of being progressive on women’s rights. When Essebsi lifted the ban on interreligious marriage and promised equal inheritance for Muslim men and women last year, many remembered President Habib Bourguiba, credited with pushing for the country’s 1957 Code of Personal Status, which guaranteed women in Tunisia more extensive rights than in many other countries in the region have even today. The code gave women the right to initiate a divorce, open a bank account, establish a business without spousal consent and access abortion services. Under Bourguiba, Tunisia also outlawed polygamy.
In the same way that it sparked revolutions against dictators in other countries, Tunisia is leading the way for women’s rights in the region. Post-revolution, it made gender parity on electoral lists mandatory and now has the most progressive constitution among countries in its neighborhood. Whenever opponents of women’s equality use the “state-imposed feminism” or “distraction” card against gains for women’s rights, they fail to see that Tunisia’s parliament, where women make up a third of lawmakers — higher than in the United States, Canada and Britain — passed a sweeping domestic violence law last year that serves to protect women from sexual harassment and economic discrimination. The law also ended a loophole in the penal code that allowed rapists to escape punishment if they agreed to marry their victims. Soon after, Jordan and Lebanon also closed similar loopholes. Morocco ended its “marry your rapist law” in 2014 following the suicide of a 16-year-old girl and the attempted suicide of a 15-year-old, both of whom were forced to marry their rapists. In all three countries, women’s rights activists had long campaigned to abolish “marry your rapist” laws.
Tunisia’s moves to give women equal marriage and inheritance rights are revolutionary not just for women in that country but also for Muslim women everywhere. This is how a revolution that began against the dictator in the presidential palace can evolve into revolutions against the dictators women face in the street and the dictators women face at home. Tunisia’s moves to afford women equality in marriage and inheritance are important steps in dismantling the trifecta of misogyny across our region.
Mona Eltahawy is a feminist author based in Cairo and New York City. She is the author of “Headscarves and Hymens: Why the Middle East Needs a Sexual Revolution” and is at @monaeltahawy