Tunisia: Injustice lingers in Tunisia for women

Associated Press
As Tunisia celebrates the 50th anniversary of a law that gave women some of the same rights as men, many women's rights advocates warn that the 1956 text needs urgent updating, especially on inheritance law.
In a country praised as a standard-bearer of women's rights in the Muslim world, Basma Hammami says the women in her family have been victims of lingering injustice.
Her maternal grandfather, a wealthy landowner, left his entire estate to his only son at the expense of six daughters. He did not want the land going to heirs who would not carry on the family name, the 33-year-old Hammami said.

"Enormous things have been achieved, but it would be unrealistic to consider the work completed," said Sana Ben Achour, a law professor at the University of Tunis and president of the Tunisian Association of Women Democrats, which organized a seminar to mark the anniversary.

By abolishing polygamy, giving women the right to divorce their husbands and prohibiting brides to marry before age 17, the Code of Personal Status is widely credited with making Tunisian women among the most liberated in the Muslim world.

The law was among the first measures adopted by Tunisia's first president, Habib Bourguiba, following independence from France in 1956, and it set Tunisia on a progressive path.

In 1965, Tunisia became the first largely Muslim country to liberalize its policies on abortion, according to the U.N., and by 1973, Tunisian women were granted the right to abort in the first three months of pregnancy. By contrast, abortion was not authorized in France until 1975.

Today, 99 percent of girls in the North African nation attend school, up from 33 percent in 1956, and women are strongly represented in national and local politics, the judiciary, academia, law, medicine, the media and big business.

Although Tunisia is often criticized for clamping down on human rights such a free press and political dissent, it won some of the highest marks in an October survey of women's rights in the Arab world by the Washington-based Freedom House, an advocacy group for spreading democracy.

It has also inspired activists and lawmakers in countries such as Egypt and Morocco to call for similar empowerment of women. In 2004, Morocco passed a new family code that, like Tunisia's, significantly expands women's rights.

However, women's groups say Tunisia must still revamp its inheritance law, which favors male heirs by stipulating they receive twice as much as females, in accordance with Islamic Shariah law, unless a will specifies exactly how a parent's estate is to be divided among children.

The 1956 code "is not written in stone, and the legislature is still trying to make it evolve through small steps," said Tunisian jurist Ridha Khamekham.

One such stop-gap measure was the passing several years ago of a law allowing married couples to hold property jointly, giving women more control over a family's assets -- and potentially who would inherit them. Traditionally, husbands have tended to enjoy a monopoly of ownership over common goods like a couple's house and savings.

The government, which has not responded specifically to calls this month for inheritance reform, argues that any radical, quick changes could bring instability and reform should take place over time. But for some families, small steps are not enough.

Khadija Cherif, president of the Tunisian Association for Women's Rights, said her group is working on some 60 cases of couples trying to bypass the inheritance law by writing their own wills. Hammami's parents, for example, have drafted a will that ensures they will share their wealth equally among their five children when they die.

For Hammami, the stakes are high. She is jobless despite a university degree, and she wonders if inheritance money from her grandfather might have given her a brighter future, perhaps by giving her the chance to further her education even more.

She said it was "a great injustice, because my mother and her sisters were deprived even of the small parts that would rightfully come to them according to Shariah."

By Bouazza Ben Bouazza, Associated Press Writer, August 23, 2006
© Copyright 2006 Associated Press