Strengthening Women’s Control Over Land: Inheritance Reform in Tunisia
Feb 20, 2020
With a long record of progressive reforms stretching back to the Personal Status Code, adopted in 1957, one year after independence, Tunisia has a strong claim to be the most progressive Arab and perhaps even Muslim country in terms of women’s rights. Polygamy is illegal. There are strong laws against domestic violence. Tunisian women participate fully in the social, economic, and political life of their country. The 2014 constitution, adopted after the 2011 “Revolution of Dignity” that brought democracy to Tunisia and is seen as a compromise between progressive and Islamist views, holds that women and men have equal rights and that the state is the guarantor of this equality.
But there remains one stark area of discrimination: women’s ownership of, access to, and control over land, especially agricultural land. Various estimates hold that women own only about 6 percent of agricultural land in Tunisia.
And at the center of this problem lies the issue of inheritance.
Inheritance in Tunisia
Inheritance in Tunisia remains based on Islamic Shari’a law, which stipulates that a surviving son is generally entitled to twice the share of a surviving daughter. The Quran states the rule in unequivocal terms, possibly because the notion that women could inherit at all was so radically progressive in 7th century Arabia: “Allah enjoins you concerning your children: the male shall have the equal of the portion of two females; and if they are more than two females, they shall have two-thirds of what the deceased has left, and if there is one, she shall have the half.” Because this divine injunction is so clear, many Muslims in Tunisia and elsewhere find it unacceptable to think of inheritance any other way. This includes women, and especially women in rural areas, which are generally more conservative. These inheritance rules apply to all assets in the deceased’s estate, not just land. But land holds high symbolic value, especially rural land.
(It is also worth pointing out that, in accordance with Shari’a law, any Tunisian can make pre-death arrangements for how his or her possessions are to be allotted after death—though not many people avail themselves of this solution, not least because of the cultural reluctance to plan for death.)
Even modern Tunisia’s founding father, Habib Bourguiba, the charismatic leader who launched the multi-decade effort to bolster the legal and economic rights of Tunisian women, who promoted the Personal Status Code and managed to outlaw polygamy, declined to take on the issue of inheritance, so deeply rooted is it in Tunisian society and Islamic culture. Bourguiba’s authoritarian successor, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who ruled Tunisia with a fiercely anti-Islamist fist from 1987 until he was deposed by the 2011 uprising, also kept a safe distance from the issue of female inheritance.
Inheritance and the 2019 Elections
In 2018, however, the issue made a comeback. In an attempt to galvanize progressive political forces, President Beji Caid Essebsi, an old-time politician who long portrayed himself as the heir to Bourguiba’s progressive mantle, returned inheritance reform to the fore. On the recommendation of the high-level Commission for Individual Liberties and Equality (Colibe), which he had launched the year before, Essebsi proposed a draft law establishing parity between women and men in matters of inheritance.
A first in the Arab-Muslim world, this move garnered much attention, even outside Tunisia. In November 2018, the Tunisian cabinet adopted the draft bill and, in February 2019, presented it to parliament, where it then lingered amid strong opposition from conservative forces, most notably the Islamist Ennahda party. President Essebsi died in summer 2019, depriving the proposed law of its main political standard-bearer in the runup to the fall 2019 elections.
The results of these recent parliamentary and presidential elections all but ensure the draft bill will fail to pass into law anytime soon. Neither of the two non-establishment candidates on the presidential ballot voiced support for reforming inheritance—and the landslide victory of the conservative Kais Saied is a clear setback for inheritance equality. The Islamist Ennahda—which, despite its generally moderate outlook, strenuously opposed inheritance reform as against the Quran—is now the leading party in parliament, albeit with less than a quarter of the seats. In late January 2020, an Ennahda prime minister designate failed for the second time to get a proposed government through parliament.
Ennahda, in fact, seized on the inheritance reform issue to successfully mobilize political support in rural and conservative areas. Many Ennahda opponents, even if they support the notion of inheritance equality, blame the proposed reform for the electoral debacle of progressive forces. “There are so many things to do without further exacerbating divisions within society,” a leading progressive journalist interviewed by DAI said recently. “Especially at a time when there is already so much division.”
Sprawling Tunisian lands. Photo courtesy: dali style/pexels.com.
Land Inheritance Practice Abuses Women
But if inheritance reform is likely to linger on a political backburner for the foreseeable future, the issue remains critical to the social and economic empowerment of Tunisian women. The practice of inheritance discriminates against women—rural women in particular—in ways that go beyond what is in the Quran.
Women often do not even inherit their allotted share under Shari’a law—their brothers, uncles, and husbands often keep more than their share of the inherited land. Or, within the overall division of the inheritance, women receive land of inferior quality—fields that are less well watered, fragmented, on sloped terrain, rocky, or difficult to access or cultivate; orchards and groves that are old, sick, or produce poorly; or lands that are disputed by others. And sometimes, quite simply, female heirs receive nothing.
(Strategies to disposess women can sometimes backfire. Apparently, in Tunisia’s central coastal Sahel region, until the 1950s and 1960s, female heirs were often given lands close to the sea—because they tended to be saline, sandy, and yielded poor crops. Today, this prime terrain for tourism development is worth far more than agricultural property further inland. We heard two separate reports from around Sfax of male heirs, and heirs of heirs, trying to reclaim through the courts coastal lands that had been given to female relatives decades ago, arguing that the original inheritance had been unfairly managed!)
Even when inherited lands are fairly allotted to female heirs, men remain in control of them, because of how society functions in rural Tunisia. There is little transparency in this process. Men manage the land, market the crop, and hand their sisters, wives, aunts, daughters, or nieces whatever they deem appropriate as rent or a share of the harvest—despite the fact that it is often women who work the fields, especially for the more arduous tasks, such as weeding, tree pruning, and harvesting.
Divorced women or women who, for one reason or another, often having to do with discrimination or conservative perceptions of personal moral probity, are at odds with the family are especially vulnerable to being defrauded of land.
A further issue compounds these inequities. When it comes to land, rural women are often unaware of their rights—especially their rights to recourse—and unlikely to challenge the men in their families who manage the land. In the words of a lawyer we interviewed in the conservative town of Kasserine, near the Algerian border, “Women are under the protection of their husbands—and at their mercy.” He went on to add that, “In practice, no woman [in the Kasserine area] has rights when it comes to land—practically, she is given nothing at all.” Such sentiments echo a 2016 UN report on Tunisia: “The predominance of a patriarchal culture in society means that women cannot even claim their [land] rights.”
Inequity in inheritance is in general more egregious when it comes to land, because of how society views land as critical to group identity, sense of self, and honor. These views are held by the great majority of men in rural areas, and also by many rural women. Older women often look on without protest as their daughters or nieces are locked out of their deceased husbands’ or brothers’ inheritance. “I am for equality,” said a middle-aged rural woman outside Le Kef, in northwestern Tunisia, mentioning that she thinks her daughters should get as much as her son. “But my brother is against [it], as are most women around me. It is rare to be like me.”
Many men who are otherwise progressive in their views of women revert to more conservative and sometimes even abusive behavior when it comes to land and their womenfolk. In rural areas, land is everything.
The Debate Over Parity in Inheritance
So what is to be done? There is tremendous debate in the country as to whether pushing for equality in inheritance is the best way to further the rights of rural women. Some progressives claim that inequality in inheritance is a fundamental and symbolic injustice. Their view is that addressing this injustice requires that Tunisian law enshrine male-female equality in inheritance, superseding Shari’a law—just as Bourguiba’s interdiction of polygamy did over six decades ago. “To not move forward is to move backwards,” said a well-known woman social entrepreneur in a recent conversation.
But many progressives, including individuals deeply committed to women’s rights and engaged in that struggle, believe that parity in inheritance is a “faux problème”—a red herring, the wrong battle to fight because society as a whole is not yet ready for such a change. In their view, the late President Essebsi’s draft bill harmed progressive prospects in the recent elections by handing the Islamists of Ennahda a tool to galvanize rural, semi-rural, and even conservative voters—many of whom had otherwise grown disenchanted with Ennahda’s underwhelming performance while previously in power. Not only that, it also set back the very cause of parity in inheritance by promoting the concept at a time when there was so little consensus in society around the issue.
Worse yet, some progressives point out, even if Essebsi’s draft bill had somehow passed into law, current practice shows that women heirs would still be discriminated against—if society is, in so many cases, willing to flaunt Shari’a law and cheat women of their Quranic allotment, how could a secular law that is unpopular and widely seen as culturally illegitimate make a difference?
Other Issues for Rural Women
These same progressives argue that there are more pressing issues for rural women in Tunisia. The issue of rural female labor, for example, comes up in nearly every conversation. Much of this labor is highly informal—by the day, seasonal, for numerous different employers—and specific figures are hard to come by. But there is a consensus that women are responsible for the great majority of agricultural field labor.
There are several issues here. First, wage discrimination: people interviewed in October 2019 across rural northwest and center-west Tunisia (Beja, Le Kef, Siliana, Makthar, Oueslatiya, Kasserine) said that the going daily rate for a woman field laborer was about 10 TND (about $3.50), while men receive 20-30 TND ($7-10.50)—and often refuse to work for less than that. Another issue is that of health and disability coverage, which only a small fraction of women have, owing to the informal nature of their work. (Only women working for larger, commercial agricultural concerns receive social security coverage.) The government is reportedly experimenting with measures to increase social security coverage for rural women workers, through an online application that would help them integrate the official social security system.
A further issue is that of transport, for which women farm workers often pay a substantial portion of their daily wage: a recent spate of deadly road accidents highlighted how they are ferried to and from fields packed in the back of pickup trucks, in unsafe conditions. These are all issues that affect many rural women on a daily basis, along with poor education and health services, whereas the inheritance of land happens once or twice a lifetime, if at all. One young Tunisian academic, a woman, told DAI that Tunisian women should not fight on the battleground of something they receive from someone, most often a man. Rather, they should fight for their rights in terms of what they work for and earn.
Thoughts for Donors
Female inheritance and land is a predominantly social and political issue in Tunisia. It is a social issue in that it is governed by how society, especially rural society, views both land (as the symbol of family honor) and women (as second-tier citizens and economic actors), and because of the resulting discrimination against rural women. And it is a political issue, because it is at the heart of the main political debate in Tunisia today, that between a secular or an Islamic view of society.
Donors seeking to make a positive impact on the lives of rural Tunisian women must of course continue to support activist groups seeking to reform inheritance laws. But given the current political situation and the resistance within rural society in particular to female land ownership, there is little immediate hope of seeing a law guaranteeing parity in inheritance, as important as it would be over the long term, emerge from the cabinet and pass in parliament. And even were this to happen, it would probably not have much effect in the short term.
Other research could explore some of the more practical aspects of female inheritance and land. For instance, what is the impact of current inheritance laws and practices, and potential reforms, on land holding fragmentation, a chronic and growing problem for Tunisian agriculture? Or what further forms of discrimination limit women’s access to land and control over it?
Grain fields and rural road above Le Kef, fertile northwestern Tunisia, October 2019. Photo courtesy Victor Tanner.
There are also more immediate ways for aid projects to improve the lives of rural women and girls. One of the most pressing areas is the issue of women’s wage labor. Donors could, for instance, support efforts to extend social security and other coverage to these women, to better regulate wages (wage discrimination goes against article 46 of the Constitution), to ensure better conditions on the ground (for instance through regulations to improve the transport of farm workers and make it safer), and to curb abuses and violence against women farm workers.
Another track could be to empower women farmers, for instance with home gardens, poultry and small livestock, and other activities that Tunisian women could realistically turn to—through cooperatives; through micro-credit support; through input, production, and marketing support; and through training and awareness raising. Activities could assist in the development of female rural entrepreneurship, where women would be successful agricultural economic actors.
Hewing closer to the issue of inheritance, donors could take a twinned approach to increase awareness among women of current inheritance rights and support legal assistance networks that represent women whose rights have been violated. As mentioned above, many rural women do not even receive the Quranic share of their inheritance, but the few who do go to court often see redress, according to a Kasserine lawyer who works on such cases. Legal assistance could also help with missing or incorrect land titles.
And finally, there is health and especially education. Tunisia is ahead of most countries in the region when it comes to rural women’s education and health, but much needs to be done in the more remote areas. And education will ultimately be the key to tackling discriminatory, anti-woman views in Tunisian society.
Victor Tanner was recently in Tunisia to study the issue of women’s land rights on behalf of DAI.