A Tunisian woman holds up a flag during a march to celebrate International Women's Day in Tunis March 8, 2014. 

(Tunis) – Tunisia’s parliament should take the landmark step of granting women equal rights in inheritance, Human Rights Watch said today. President Beji Caid Essebsi formally submitted a draft law to parliament on November 28, 2018, asking for urgent action on the measure.

The draft law, which was approved by the Council of Ministers on November 23, would amend the 1956 Code of Personal Status, which provides that men would normally inherit twice the share that women inherit, under interpretations of Islamic sharia law.

“Parliament should adopt this draft law to remove gender discrimination in inheritance law and reaffirm Tunisia’s place as a regional leader on dismantling legal discrimination based on gender,” said Ahmed Benchemsi, Middle East and North Africa communications director at Human Rights Watch.

The proposed amendment would insert a section on inheritance in the Personal Status Code, “Provisions Relating to Equality in Inheritance.” In essence, it would provide gender equality in inheritance as the default, except when the person whose inheritance is involved formally opts out during their lifetime and chooses instead to have their wealth distributed according to the previous legal framework.

No date has been set yet for parliament to discuss the proposed amendment. The Ennahda party, the largest bloc in parliament with about 30 percent of the seats, is the only party that has publicly announced its opposition to the proposal.

“It is a shame to see Ennahda fighting equality in inheritance laws, when the party has backed other reforms favoring women’s rights,” Benchemsi said.

Tunisia’s 1956 Personal Status Law, enacted only six months after independence from France, was progressive for its time, not only compared with others in the Middle East and North Africa, but compared with the laws in some European countries. It established identical grounds for divorce for men and women and allowed divorce by mutual consent. However, a number of discriminatory provisions remained in Tunisia’s code.

The Commission on Individual Freedoms and Equality, appointed by the president, issued a report on June 12 recommending gender equality in inheritance, among other reforms. Caid Essebsi embraced the recommendation on August 13, leading to the government’s approval of the draft law November 23. The commission also urged removal of the Personal Status Code provision that the husband is the “head of the family,” which gives him legal advantages in disputes over household management. The current draft law amendments are only directed at the inheritance section of the Personal Status Code.

Article 21 of Tunisia’s 2014 constitution provides that “all citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination.” Article 46 requires the state to “commit to protect women’s established rights and works to strengthen and develop those rights.”

If the amendment is approved, Tunisia will be the first Muslim-majority state in the Middle East and North Africa to remove gender discrimination in laws relating to inheritance. Tunisia would then join other countries with Muslim-majority populations that do not discriminate against women in inheritance laws, such as Bosnia and Herzegovina, Kazakhstan, Kosovo, Mali, Tajikistan, and Turkey.

On July 26, 2017, parliament adopted a comprehensive law on fighting violence against women, which strengthened the legal tools to protect domestic violence survivors and prosecute abusers, and eliminated the penal code provision that allowed a rapist to escape punishment if he married his victim.

On September 14, 2017, the Justice Ministry announced that it was rescinding a 1973 directive prohibiting the registration of marriage of a Tunisian woman to a non-Muslim man unless the man provides a certificate of conversion to Islam.

Tunisia is obligated under the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW), to which it is a state party, to remove discrimination against women in law. On May 23, parliament approved the ratification of the Maputo Protocol of the rights of women in Africa, which imposes similar requirements.