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After Tunisia’s parliament passed historic legislation on July 26, targeting violence against women, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi followed the landmark decision with another important announcement. During a speech commemorating National Women’s Day on August 13, the president announced the formation of a committee to review laws perpetuating gender inequality across society, in the hope of generating more progressive legal reforms. While Tunisia’s continued pursuit of gender equality has mainly been well received at home, the new project has received backlash from religious figures, both domestically and abroad.

In his statement, President Essebsi placed considerable importance on the issue of inheritance, pushing for women to have equal inheritance rights. Under current law, most women can inherit only half as much as their male counterparts, which is in accordance with Islamic law. The president also called on the Minister of Justice to reexamine and change Publication No. 73, which prohibits Tunisian women from marrying non-Muslim men.

Seeking to modernize Tunisia’s laws to align with the country’s constitution, the president has stressed these matters are human rights concerns, notwithstanding their religious underpinnings.

His proposals have sparked strong opposition from Egypt’s al-Azhar University, a leading authority on Islamic theology. A statement recently released by Dr. Abbas Shuman, deputy of al-Azhar, claimed that “equal inheritance is not ‘fair and just’ to women and goes against the Islamic teachings,” according to an article published in Egyptian Streets. Dr. Shuman also disparaged calls to end the prohibition against Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men, claiming that a marriage between a Muslim woman and a non-Muslim man would result in an unstable marriage.

Responding to al-Azhar, Tunisia’s ruling Nidaa Tounis party stated that the Egyptian institution has no business interfering in Tunisia’s domestic matters. Online, many Tunisian citizens and even some Egyptians also derided al-Azhar’s claims, praising Essebsi’s stance as a necessary step for achieving gender equality.

Even the office of the official Mufti in Tunisia and scholars from Diwan al-Ifta, Tunisia’s highest religious establishment, have supported the president’s proposals. Contradicting al-Azhar’s statement, the official Mufti’s office claimed that the proposed reforms regarding marriage and inheritance would be in line with Islamic teachings.

Despite this support at home, however, Essebsi’s proposed measures have generated criticism from some Tunisian clerics and conservatives who feel the initiative is an attack against their faith.

Even among some who support the idea behind the initiative, skepticism remains. As Oxford Ph.D candidate and Tunisia expert, Monica Marks, claimed, just the process of forming a committee to consider changing the laws could take years.

Nevertheless, as Selma Mabrouk, a former politician for the center-left Ettakatol party, indicated in a conversation with NPR, fear of change “must not hold Tunisia back.” As she noted, the current laws up for discussion are quite outdated, and though Tunisia is already considered a leader in the region when it comes to women’s rights, they prevent the country from achieving gender parity.

Should Tunisia go on to develop and implement new laws promoting gender equality in inheritance and marriage, it would become the first Muslim majority country to do so, making it a model for the region. To reach that point, though, the country must first wade through these polarizing debates.

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