Saturday,17 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)
Saturday,17 November, 2018
Issue 1357, (17 - 23 August 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Controversy greets Essebsi speech

A speech this week by Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi calling for greater rights for women has produced mixed reactions, writes Kamel Abdallah


Controversy greets Essebsi speech
Controversy greets Essebsi speech

اقرأ باللغة العربية

In a speech on Sunday drawing international attention to Tunisia, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi called for greater equality between men and women in all domains, including in matters of inheritance.

Constitutional provisions for gender equality must be applied on the ground, he said, calling on Tunisian women to play a more active role in strengthening national unity and helping the country make further progress in democratisation and meeting economic and social challenges.

Essebsi’s call for gender equality in inheritance rights is expected to stir opposition in Tunisian political circles, all the more so since the split in Essebsi’s own political party, Nidaa Tounes, that culminated in the resignation of dozens of MPs.

The split catapulted the party’s main rival, the Islamist Ennahda Party, to the fore as the largest parliamentary bloc, positioning it to become a formidable obstacle should the question of equality between women and men in inheritance matters be taken up by legislators. 

Speaking from the Carthage Presidential Palace on the occasion of Women’s Day, celebrated on 13 August in Tunisia, Essebsi said that “if we are thinking about equality today, this is because the constitution calls for it, and therefore we must move in that direction… However, I do not want some people to think that in moving towards equality we are violating the faith, as that would be incorrect.”

He stressed the need to undertake reforms that would not come as a shock to the Tunisian people, which meant observing both the nation’s secular constitution and the Islamic faith of the people. “It must be said that there is a trend towards equality between men and women in every field,” he said.

Essebsi said that inheritance “is not a religious question alone, but one that concerns the affairs of mankind. God and his Prophet left this matter to human beings to dispose of.”  He noted that though Tunisian women have excelled in many fields, demonstrating their ability in every profession with the highest degree of competence, they continued to face discrimination.

It was for this reason that the government’s moves to promote greater gender equality were so important, he said, “as equality is the basis of justice and prosperity.”

Essebsi also cited statistics to underscore the role played by Tunisian women in the country, saying that they accounted for 60 per cent of higher-education degree holders, 60.52 per cent of Tunisia’s doctors, 75.93 per cent of pharmacists and dentists, 50 per cent of the country’s engineers and 65 per cent of agricultural technicians and textile workers.

He announced the formation of a committee to review the country’s personal status laws with an eye to promoting gender equality in every area, including inheritance. He said he was confident that the Tunisian people would handle these matters “wisely.”

Essebsi’s call for greater gender equality in personal status matters also extended beyond inheritance, with the president saying that it should also apply to marital rights and specifically to the right of a Muslim woman to marry a non-Muslim foreign man.

The reforms called for by the president on the occasion of Tunisia’s Women Day will likely take longer than many Tunisians expect in the light of the controversy and potential resistance that some fear may affect stability in the country against the backdrop of continuing economic straits.

Many have praised Essebsi for what they have hailed as a courageous step towards the full empowerment of women, among them women’s rights organisations. However, others, primarily from the country’s Islamist trends, have lashed out against what they called a “war against Islamic Sharia Law.”

In the middle are observers who suggested that Essebsi was launching his presidential election campaign early and that his speech was a bid to secure the women’s vote. Representing more than half the population and highly influential in many fields, women voters will be crucially important in the coming campaigns.

The Tunisian Fatwa Authority which decides on matters of Islamic Law came out strongly in favour of Essebsi’s proposals, which it said “work to strengthen the status of women and to guarantee and promote the implementation of the principle of equality between men and women in rights and duties as the Islamic faith advocates.”

The Authority described Essebsi’s speech as “splendid in its solid style” and lauded the president as “a true teacher of all Tunisians and non-Tunisians. He is the father of the nation by dint of his vast political experience, his intelligence and his foresightedness. He commands attention on every national occasion and in every speech because he addresses the people from both the heart and the mind, which explains why his words penetrate our hearts and minds.”

Quoted on the Tunisian Hakaek Online news website, the statement concluded with expressions of gratitude to Essebsi for his proposals “pertaining to equality between women and men in rights and duties.”

While the Ennahda Party congratulated Tunisian women on the occasion of Women’s Day, it has thus far not issued a response to Essebsi’s speech. Hakaek Online quoted Yamina Al-Zaghlami, a member of the women and family affairs committee in the Tunisian parliament, as saying that Ennahda “believes that the text of the Quran is just towards women and the family, but that the application of it in Tunisia has been vitiated by bad customs and traditions that deprive women of their rights.”

She called on Essebsi to include in the committee he has announced specialists in sociology, history and Islamic jurisprudence in order to help it perform its task of revising the country’s laws and regulations.

The fiercest response to the speech came from Mohamed Hechmi Hamdi, chairman of the Current of Love Party, which called for a petition on Facebook to demand that parliament withdraw its confidence in Essebsi on the grounds of a “flagrant violation” of the first chapter of the Tunisian Constitution.

Hamdi called on Tunisians to collect at least a million signatures on this petition, with the party saying it “strongly condemned” what it described as Essebsi’s “violation of Islamic Law” and his attempt “to stir up strife and plant the seeds of chaos in the country.”

Essebsi’s speech had been motivated by his “thirst for votes for his party in the municipal elections and for himself personally and his son in the forthcoming presidential elections,” a party statement said.

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