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Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi, Islamist Ennahdha Party leader Rached Ghannouchi, and Ennahdha Party vice-president Abdelfattah Mourou wave to the crowd on May 20, 2016 at the opening of Ennahdha's three-day congress in Tunis.  © 2016 Fethi Belaid/AFP/Getty Images

(Tunis) - The official rejection on August 26, 2018 by Ennahda, one of Tunisia’s main political parties, of a presidential initiative to establish full equality between men and women in inheritance is a blow to women’s rights in the country, Human Rights Watch said today.

President Beji Caid Essebsi pledged on August 13 to introduce a bill to ensure gender equality in inheritance. The proposal was to amend the Personal Status Code, which treats men and women unequally, inspired by Sharia rules. Under the current code, in some cases, a man receives double a woman’s share of an inheritance.

“Ennahda’s announcement betrays Tunisia’s women and is a missed opportunity to reestablish itself as an Islamist party that respects women’s rights,” said Amna Guellali, Tunisia director at Human Rights Watch. “Ennahda’s refusal to abolish one of the country’s last vestiges of inequality stands in the way of Tunisia’s leadership in the Arab and Muslim world.”

Ennahda, which identifies itself as “Muslim democratic,” has 68 members in the country’s 217-member legislative assembly, and is a member of the coalition government. It announced on August 26 that it would reject the presidential proposal, contending that it contradicts Islamic law.

The president’s proposal seeks to ensure full legal equality between men and women in inheritance. Mindful of the controversial nature of this proposal, the president’s proposal allowed people to opt out of the equality rule by formally expressing such a wish in their will before a notary.

The president’s initiative backs a similar proposal by the Commission on Individual Freedoms and Equality, which he established in August 2017. The commission’s June 12 report also included recommendations to decriminalize sodomy, eliminate “morality” laws, and abolish the death penalty. The report caused outrage among some groups. Thousands of people took to the streets to denounce the recommendations, saying that they threatened Islamic values.

Following the report’s release, Ennahda issued ambiguous statements. It said in a June 14 statement that the report was a “starting point for societal dialogue, in line with the [Ennahda] Movement's steadfast positions in defending public and private freedoms, defending women's rights, and ensuring equality of rights and duties between women and men.”

However, the August 26 statement from Ennahda’s Shura Council, the party’s main governing institution, clearly rejected the commission’s recommendations and the president’s proposal. “The council reaffirms its position that not only does the initiative calling for equality in inheritance contradict the religious teachings and the texts of the constitution and the personal status code, but also invokes fear related to the stability of the Tunisian family and the customs of society,” the statement said.

The chairman of Ennahda's Shura Council, Abdel Karim al-Harouni, said his party would “oppose any law that goes against the Quran and the Constitution."

As a leading party in the Constituent Assembly, Ennahda participated actively in drafting the constitution and voted in favor of article 21, which provides that “All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination.” It also backed article 46, which requires the state to “commit to protect women’s established rights and works to strengthen and develop those rights.” Ennahda has also backed other positive initiatives on women’s rights, among them a law to end violence against women and girls, which passed in July 2017.

As a state party to the Convention of the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), Tunisia has an obligation to eliminate gender-based discrimination.

“It’s time for the progressives of Ennahda to speak up and demand an end to their leadership’s outdated insistence on discrimination against women,” Guellali said. “Those who believe that they can comply by Sharia only by discriminating against the women in their family can choose to do that, but Ennahda should not impose discriminatory inheritance rules on all Tunisians.”

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