Tunisian gender equality reforms condemned by Egypt’s Al Azhar

Hany Ghoraba

Women in Tunisia will have rights to the same inheritance as men and will enjoy other sweeping new rights under a new gender equality law approved last month by Tunisia’s cabinet.

Tunisia, which has a 99 percent Muslim population, has blazed the trail for full gender equality sparking demands for similar laws in countries such as Egypt. The calls for equal-share inheritance in Egypt can be traced back to the 1920s by Egyptian journalist and activist Salama Moussa. The calls have recently been reinvigorated by Egyptian thinkers, politicians and women’s rights activists emboldened by the Tunisian revolutionary laws.

“There must be full equality between women and men in our Arab and Islamic countries,” said novelist and feminist Nawal al-Saadwi. “Equality exists in the whole world, but in our Arab countries there is a severe underdevelopment. Equality should not be limited to inheritance, but to everything. There should be no distinction between people, because these are matters that I think are obvious and cannot be debated.” Other Egyptian figures echoed the demands for equality to the Egyptian parliament, including Egyptian-American geologist Farouk el-Baz, veteran woman rights activist Azza Kamel, and former Minister of Culture Gaber Asfour.

Thus far, however, no one in Egypt has introduced a measure similar to Tunisia’s gender equality law.

The Tunisian cabinet approval sealed a long chapter of domestic disputes after Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi proposed a complete gender equality for both sexes in an August 2017 speech. The declaration was applauded by secularists, liberals and human rights activists while condemned by conservatives and Islamists.

The reforms were contradictory to Islamic teachings and an assault on the Quran, said the Tunisian Society for National Coordination to Defend the Quran, Constitution and Fair Development. “It also runs counter to the constitution of Tunisia, based on which Islam is the official religion of the country,” said society spokesman Salih Radid.

Moreover, the move triggered a wave of condemnations by Tunisian Islamists, including an August protest that drew thousands of Islamists in front of Tunisian capital. While the cabinet approved the law, it still requires approval from Tunisia’s parliament. The Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated Ennahda vowed to vote against it, but observers do not think it has enough votes to stop it. A provision guaranteeing “equality in inheritance contradict[s] 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,” an Ennahda statement said.

Egypt’s Al Azhar, regarded as the oldest and most prominent Sunni institution, also described the law as contradictory to Islamic law because it contradicts a clear Quranic verse: “Allah instructs you concerning your children: for the male, what is equal to the share of two females.”

“I tell the president of Tunisia to read the words of Allah and the Prophet, and remember a day when your presidency, money or relatives would not help you,” said Mahmoud Mehanna, a member of Al-Azhar’s Higher Committee of Scholars.

Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Shawki Allam, categorically rejected the Tunisian law, saying people cannot re-interpret definitive Shariah rulings. The statements provoked anger from Tunisians who believed that Al Azhar should stick to its Egyptian affairs. “It appears that Al-Azhar decided to fight Tunisian people, and that it recruited an army of its daughters and sons to spread the poison of backwardness in our society and stop the growing trends of modernity and the cultural revolution that are beginning to surface,” wrote Naila al-Silini, an Islamic Studies professor who led Tunisia’s campaign for gender equality.

Tunisian Grand Mufti Sheikh Osman Battikh supported the new law. People can have different opinions, he said, but “[h]uman interests change by time and thus should … our understanding of Sharia laws which should change in social and daily life matters depending on the place and time.”

A prominent Al Azhar professor, Saad Al Hilaly, apologized to Tunisia and expressed his support for the gender-equality law. “What Tunisia did here is a proper form of religious jurisprudence” he said. “The Quranic verse provides the option for men to give women half her share or her full share of the inheritance … and that is what Tunisian men have done.”

Inheritance is a human right for women, he said, and it cannot be treated with parameters governing compulsory Islamic duties such as prayers or fasting. Religious interpretations or fatwas should change over time and not to be stuck in abiding by ancient interpretations.

Shocked by Hilaly’s position supporting the provision, Al Azhar waged a media campaign against him. Hilaly does not speak for the school, a university spokesman said in a statement, and “what he said is contrary to the scripture of the Quran and the curriculum of Al-Azhar.”

Egypt’s Constitution recognizes Al Azhar as “the primary source in religious sciences and Islamic affairs.”

Al Azhar launched this attack on the gender equality law on Tunisia as a pre-emptive strike against similar future calls in Egypt and other predominantly Islamic countries that may follow.

The battle between Al Azhar’s clergymen and reformers in the country is likely to escalate as more Egyptian intellectuals and reformers side with their Tunisian counterparts. At the moment, Al Azhar is in an open confrontation with those who oppose its tight grip on religious affairs. Its grand imam even challenged Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s repeated calls for religious reforms. Alas, Al Azhar will impede any tangible reform as long as it still wields such power within Egyptian society.

Hany Ghoraba is an Egyptian writer, political and counter-terrorism analyst at Al Ahram Weekly, author of Egypt’s Arab Spring: The Long and Winding Road to Democracy and a regular contributor to the BBC.

Originally published in: Investigative Project

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