File photo: Beji Qaid Al Sebsi displays his finger with the indelible ink mark after voting in Soukra, on the outskirts of Tunis, Tunisia, Sunday, Dec, 21, 2014. Image Credit: AP

Tunis: Halima Bin Diafi says her brothers spent their summer enjoying Tunisia’s Mediterranean coast while she was stuck in the capital, trying to scrape together enough cash to feed her children.

That’s because the men got all the family money.

Their father left land and a house worth about $200,000 (Dh734,696) when he died. But under the country’s inheritance laws, a daughter is only entitled to half of what a son receives.

And many women, pressured by their families and communities, end up ceding their share.

Which is what happened to Halima.

“I feel helpless and bitter,” she said in the rundown suburb of Tunis where she looks after her bedridden husband and three children.

“After receiving all our father’s inheritance, my brothers only care about their own families. They’ve forgotten they have sisters.”

In most Arab countries, the laws on such matters claim derivation from Islam’s holy texts.

Changing them, in a climate where religious extremism has thrived, is a high-risk undertaking.

Yet that’s what Tunisia’s 90-year-old President Beji Qaid Al Sebsi is proposing to do — and his call has found echoes across the Muslim world, stoking a wider debate about modernising Islam.

Inheritance issue

Last month, Al Sebsi ordered a review of civil codes that govern inheritance, saying equality “is the foundation of justice and the basis of life in a community.”

If that requires the reinterpretation of religious teachings, the president said, then so much the better: “This new direction should be welcomed and encouraged.”

Tunisia has found itself on the cutting edge of change lately, maintaining a balancing act between democracy and political Islam.

In some corners of the Middle East, Islamists declared theocratic rule; in others they were killed, jailed or driven underground. Only Tunisia seemed to offer a middle way. 

There, an Islamist party won elections, then ceded power peacefully, then re-entered government in a coalition with secular partners.

It hasn’t been easy.

Since the January 2011 revolution, Tunisia has had eight governments.

It’s also suffered four major attacks by Islamist militants, decimating the vital tourism industry.

Critics of Al Sebsi’s initiative say it could provoke further violence.

Tunisia’s history

Tunisia has a history of advancing women’s rights.

Under Habib Bourguiba, who presided over independence from France in 1956, and his successor Zine Al Abideen Bin Ali, polygamy was banned and women were given a say in divorce proceedings.

But those leaders were widely seen as secular dictators—suppressing religion as they sought to create a modern society in imitation of the West.

Women wearing Islamic headscarves were treated as outcasts, harassed by the police and excluded from business life. Bourguiba called the garment an “odious rag.”

Tunisia’s neighbours are watching closely.

In Algeria, newspapers and TV shows discuss the idea; in Morocco, a similar movement has been reinvigorated. 

Soheib Bin Shaikh, an Algerian scholar and former Mufti of Marseilles, distinguishes between a “literalist” approach to Quranic prescriptions, and one that’s interested in “the objective or the purpose desired by the commandment.” 

He called Al Sebsi’s initiative “completely laudable, legitimate and part of his role as a politician who guides his people.” On his part, Moroccan cleric Abdul Wahab Rafiki argues that social roles have evolved, so Quranic verses devoted to inheritance must be reinterpreted.