In rural Tunisia, inheritance reform offers women rare boost


Tunisian divorcee Latifa counts herself lucky – she has a modest home that boasts a neat vegetable garden, a fig tree and a pomegranate tree, along with a panoramic view of neighbouring farmland.

"Without this land that my father gave me, I would be nothing," she told journalists, happy to have escaped a violent marriage with her two teenage children in Jendouba, north-eastern Tunisia. "I guess it's part of my inheritance", Latifa smiled hopefully, surveying a homestead that she built by careful use of the 10 dinars (three euros) per day she earns as a labourer on nearby farms. "But here it is rare for a woman to inherit land."

A bill that would equalise inheritance rights between men and women has created debate here in Tunisia's countryside, where gender discrimination is the strongest and its consequences the most disastrous. In common with other Muslim nations, Tunisian inheritance law currently provides that a son receive twice as much as a daughter from a father's estate.

 When her father dies, Latifa is counting on her three brothers to let her stay on the small parcel of land she occupies.

They "owe me that – I am the oldest, (and) I didn't go to school because I had to take care of them", said the 48-year-old, who also has four sisters.

Even applying the current law's 2:1 formula should safeguard Latifa's future, since the land already granted to her by her father is less than the roughly 3,500 square metres she is entitled to out of a total estate of 40,000 square metres. But in rural areas, the current law is rarely applied, so male heirs often end up taking considerably more than double their female counterparts.

Latifa's neighbour Skhyara Bouslemi is less fortunate. Skhyara has five brothers, including several who have built homes and paddocks on family land. The land is too small for everyone to have a share.

"There is nothing left for my sisters and me to take – what could we do with our share? It's just 13 square metres," she sighed. Skhyara works all day to feed her children and her husband, a sick carpenter.

Latifa has sympathy with Skhyara and others whose brothers leave them with little or nothing.

"Often, the brothers tell their father it would be better if you give us the inheritance to ensure that it remains in the family," she said. "A woman who makes her claim is silenced by a small sum of money... (or) a basket of produce from time to time," Latifa lamented.

She hopes –  without daring to believe – that the situation will change, thanks to legislation pushed by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi. The bill proposes that the inheritances of men and women be made equal, unless the person making the will goes through clear legal channels to state otherwise.

The proposed law change will soon be discussed in committee, before being submitted to a plenary session in parliament.

The legislation has unleashed passionate debate in families, on television shows and among political parties. It has also re-opened a fissure on the place of religion in Tunisian society, as tensions rise ahead of elections later this year.

In the hamlets of fertile Jendouba, many men are anxious to safeguard their privilege.

"I work this land – it's normal that I have more than my sister", said Mehrez Sakhri, who owns one of the farms Latifa works on. "It is what our grandfathers said" should happen. "This is the way the land has been passed on. Perhaps in 2040, things could change – but not now", Sakhri added, as his workers harvested peas.

Mehrez's father Mohammed is less resistant to change. Mohammed said he would like to share the family's 30 hectares equally between his sons and his only daughter, whom he "loves very much." And making inheritance law equal is not trespassing on religious matters, he added.

"Many people are greedy. They cite the Koran to demand a two-thirds inheritance, but when it comes to paying the 10 percent" nobody bothers, Mohammed said, referring to an obligation in the Muslim holy text to pay a tenth of one's income as alms to the poor.

For activist and lawyer Sana Ben Achour, the unequal inheritance law is rooted in a "patriarchal tradition", which is sometimes dressed up in religious terms, leaving women vulnerable.

"In large parts of Tunisia, women don't even get the small share of inheritance that they're entitled to – especially when it comes to land and homes," she said. Without receiving their share "they can only work, so when a woman retires or is sick and has no income, she falls into a precarious situation."    (AFP)

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