The current law is derived from the Quran, specifically the Surah an-Nisa (Surah of women), which articulates that male descendants should receive twice the inheritance share of female offspring. The new law would provide that men and women inherit equal shares unless specified differently by the testator. The proposal has already sparked public controversy in both traditional and reformist elements of society.

Essebsi stated during a televised speech in honor of Women’s Day, “I propose to make equal inheritance a law.” He remarked that the change “should have been made in 1956, but the constitution did not provide for it then.”

Essebsi’s promised bill is based upon a proposal advocated in a June report by the Individual Freedoms and Equality Committee (COLIBE), a committee established by Essebsi in August, 2017, to harmonize Tunisia’s laws in accordance with its 2014 constitution. COLIBE presented a series of reforms to the president in February to advance civil liberties and human rights. Proposed reforms addressed issues including whether Muslim women should be allowed to marry non-Muslims and other “discriminatory laws in the family space and public space.”

The release of the COLIBE report has mobilized conservative and secular elements of society alike. Thousands of religious conservatives turned out to protest the recommendations for equal inheritance proposed in the report on August 11. They carried signs reading, “The Quranic text is above all other texts.”

Some who oppose the bill argue that the reform contravenes Islam’s holy book, the Quran. A member of the Higher Committee of Scholars of Al-Azhar, Mahmoud Mehanna, stated, “there are 33 cases in which women inherit more than men, equal them, or inherit and the men do not. The winner in the end is the woman because the man is responsible for establishing the house and the costs of marriage, but she has her own financial wealth.” He added, “I say to the President of Tunisia read the word of God and the words of the Prophet, and remember today does not benefit your presidency, money, or children.”

Two days later, the same day as Essebsi’s announcement, thousands of civil rights groups, women’s rights organizations, and ordinary Tunisians demonstrated in downtown Tunis on August 13 in support of the reform. Nabila Hamza, co-founder of women’s rights group, the Tunisian Association for Democratic Women, said, “[T]he inheritance law is a significant barrier for women. It reduces their economic autonomy. Only 12 percent [of Tunisian women] own a house and only 14 percent own land. This impacts access of women to property and credit.”

Research fellow and Middle East expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, D.C., Sarah Yerkes, said that Essebsi’s proposal for equal inheritance “is a controversial decision, particularly because (according to public opinion surveys) the majority of Tunisian men and women are against the change in policy.”  

At 91, Essebsi is approaching the end of his career and may be more inclined to take more risks than other politicians.  However, there may also be a different strategy behind the president’s proposal. He may be attempting to strengthen the identity of his party, Nidaa Tunes, and his family name (even if Essebsi does not run again, his son is also a politician) in the lead up to next year’s presidential and parliamentary elections. Although the moderate Islamic Ennahda party has yet to confirm its position on the proposed bill, Essebsi’s move could serve to distinguish Nidaa Tounes from the other primary party in the ruling coalition. Just as importantly, it would highlight a substantive achievement of a government that has suffered a number of political and economic failures. The proposal might also bolster the image of Nidaa Tounes in the eyes of western states and institutions.

Tunisia has led the way for women’s rights in the Arab world. In July of last year, Tunisia passed its first law criminalizing gender-based violence, which rights activists hailed as a landmark achievement in the ongoing fight against violence towards women. In 2014, the North African nation adopted a new constitution that ensures gender equality. Article 21 declares, “All citizens, male and female, have equal rights and duties, and are equal before the law without any discrimination.” Tunisian women currently have the right to divorce and gain custody of their children.  Polygamy, however, was banned under the Personal Status Code adopted in 1956, the same year the country gained its independence from France.