After marriage laws, Tunisia now tackles women's inheritance rights

But traditionalists and clerics don't like it and worry about changes stirring up extremist anger

FILE - In this Jan. 17, 2011 file photo, a woman leaves a bakery after buying bread in the center of Tunis. Some call it dangerous, others embrace it as revolutionary: an initiative by Tunisia's president to make inheritance and marriage rules fairer to women has divided his country and reverberated across the Muslim world.  (AP Photo/Christophe Ena, File)
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Some denounce it as a violation of Islamic law, others embrace it as revolutionary: an initiative by Tunisia's president to make inheritance and marriage rules fairer to women is reverberating around the Muslim world, and risks dividing his country.

The 90-year-old president, Beji Caid Essebsi, argues that Tunisia needs to fight discrimination and modernise. On Thursday, his office announced the abolition of a 44-year-old ban on Muslim women marrying non-Muslim men and posted a congratulatory message to women on Facebook.

He now wants to reform inheritance law to allow women the same rights of men, instead of the current system based on Sharia law, which in general grants daughters only half the inheritance given to sons, and has announced a commission - headed by a woman lawyer - to draft revisions to the law.

After pushing through the evised marriage law, the president believes he can shepherd the changes through because his secular party is in a coalition with an Islamist party. Tunisia also has a history of relatively progressive views toward women.

But changing the law on inheritance may prove a step too far for the country's clerics, some of whom say that tampering with rules enshrined in the Quran. could stir up anger and extremism in a country that has already suffered deadly attacks.

Tunisia's leading  imams and theologians issued a statement denouncing the president's proposals as a "flagrant violation of the precepts" of Islam.The country's Islamist party Ennahdha has not taken an official line yet, but former prime minister Hamadi Jebali warned against anything that would "threaten social peace" and said the president's ideas  do not take into  consideration the feelings of all Tunisians, just a liberal segment of the population.

President Essebsi argues that existing practice violates Tunisia's constitution, adopted in 2014 after the Arab Spring revolution, and that he wants Tunisia to reach "total, actual equality between men and women citizens in a progressive way," as called for in the charter. He said he wants to fight discrimination in a country where half the engineers and a majority of medical, agricultural and textile workers and best-educated are women.

The first president of independent Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba, championed a landmark social code in 1956 that set a standard for the region by banning polygamy and granting new rights to women that were unheard of in the Arab world at the time. But even he did not dare to push for equal inheritance.

The chief editor of daily Le Maghreb, Zied Krichene, expressed hope that Mr Essebsi's initiative would bring a "second revolution."

But in Egypt, Al Azhar, the world's foremost seat of religious learning for Sunni Muslims, swiftly rejected the proposals.

"Calls for the equality of men and women in inheritance do an injustice to women, don't do women any good and clash with Sharia," said Abbas Shoman, Al Azhar's second most senior cleric. As for the revised marriage law,  Mr Shoman  argued that while Muslim men were likely to respect the beliefs and the freedom to worship of their non-Muslim spouses, non-Muslim men were unlikely to do the same for their Muslim wives.

Muslim parents who regard the inheritance laws as unjust often resort to putting assets in their daughters' names during their lifetimes.

Several analysts suggest the president is trying to win back support from women who supported him widely in he 2014 elections for his modernizing program, but then grew disillusioned after he allied with the Islamist party.

Moroccan academic Nouzha Guessous welcomed the Tunisian proposal as "a beautiful bright spot in the grim political and social skies in Morocco and elsewhere in the Muslim world." Writing in the Moroccan magazine L'Economiste, she said the Tunisian president could "go down in history … as an enlightened Muslim leader characterised by a political conscience and attuned to the changes in society. As a proud, full-fledged Moroccan woman, I must admit that today, yes, I would have liked to be Tunisian."