by Sarah Swick, Minaret of Freedom Institute, www.minaret.org
A recent Associated Press article, which was printed in the Washington Post, celebrated 50 years of Tunisian independence by exploring women’s rights in the North African nation. The article, titled Injustice Lingers in Tunisia for Women, praises Tunisian women as the “most liberated in the Muslim World.” Clearly, Tunisia has made some positive steps towards female empowerment, “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.” But Tunisia should not be held up as an ideal for Muslim nations. It is still plagued by gross human rights abuses and while the nation is largely Muslim, the laws pertaining to women are largely influenced from Western traditions rather than Islamic.
The purpose of the article was to highlight “unjust” inheritance laws based on Islamic law which usually gives women half the inheritance of men. The article begins by telling the story of Basma Hammami, whose “maternal grandfather, a wealthy landowner, left his entire estate to his only son at the expense of six daughters.” It is not until the end of the article that it was briefly pointed out that the injustice done to Ms. Hammami was actually a violation of current law. “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.”
Therefore, the case of Ms. Hammami, which is the backbone of the article, clearly does not fit the thesis of the journalist’s piece. The journalist would like to show that the inheritance laws should be completely reformed. I disagree. The problem with Ms. Hammami’s story is not the law, but the enforcement. Moreover, inheritance laws under Islam are there for the benefit of men and women at the lowest common denominator. Traditionally, in Muslim society the man must take care of the women in his family and therefore, under Islamic Law women have a claim on the property of the man, while the man has no claim on a woman’s property. To offset this imbalance, inheritance laws give men more than women (in most cases–there are exceptions) since he may have to provide for many other people, including some of the other inheritors.
One solution for more “modern” families, where men and women share equal financial burden, is to create wills that offset the differences in inheritance. According to the article, the Association for Women’s Rights “ is working on some 60 cases of couples trying to bypass the inheritance law by writing their own wills.” This is acceptable under Islam.
Overall, I was disappointed with the quality of this article (which appeared in many “reputable” newspapers). Aside from the one-sided representation of the inheritance laws, the side the journalist did present was based on a poor example of a woman who claimed to suffer from the law, but in reality the woman is not a victim of the law. She is the daughter of a woman who suffered from a lack of enforcement of the law. There are many challenges still facing Tunisian women, and at a time when Tunisia is celebrating its “progressive” and “liberal” laws, the real story should be the many Tunisians who suffer today from government oppression and a lack of just enforcement of the laws. In brief, the article simply misses the mark.