Inheritance remains stubbornly unequal for women in the Maghreb


In Tunisia, Morocco and Algeria, civil society – women, in particular – has fought for decades to attain more equality and freedom. And if there is one subject that epitomises the legacy of injustices they seek to abolish, it is the inequality between men and women when it comes to inheritance.

Check out the report here (in French).

In none of these countries are women equal to their brothers, sons, cousins or husbands in terms of inheritance. FIDH and its partner organisations are fighting for the eradication of this persistent patriarchal injustice, which prevents women from fully enjoying their independence. Inheritance inequality – part of all the codes governing family life in these countries and in the many sexist laws – contributes to the impoverishment of many women or to keeping them in poverty.

An obstacle to development

Based on ancestral customs and social conservatism, and enforced in the name of a questionable interpretation of Islamic law, this practice has dramatic consequences. In rural areas, in particular, widows can lose their land overnight to family members they have never met. This is despite the fact that women’s labour force in these regions is often indispensable for the maintenance of farms.
In addition, women in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco are increasingly employed in skilled jobs and are often the driving force in the family’s livelihood. They are often heads of households, yet have to deal with old-fashioned rules that make them vulnerable. Studies carried out by our member organisations also show that the use of women’s share of inheritance benefits the real economy much more than that of men. Inequality in inheritance is therefore also a brake on the development of entire societies.
In all three countries, gender equality is enshrined in the constitutions and all have ratified the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). Yet, they have made reservations that prevent the crucial issue of inheritance from being addressed. FIDH and its partner organisations in the Maghreb continue to denounce this anomaly, while women’s rights have finally been achieved in so many other domains – thanks to decades of intense struggle.

Tunisian pioneers

In Tunisia, the women’s rights movement, which played a major role in the decolonisation process, achieved a degree of emancipation very early on that is rarely equalled in the Arab-Muslim world. In 1956, President Habib Bourguiba promulgated the Personal Status Code – a deliberately reformist and avant-garde text – which amounted to a real revolution for the status of women.

Thanks to the mobilisation of Tunisian women, this code has undergone many positive amendments over the years. However, it was not until the Tunisian revolution of 2011 that the resulting 2014 Constitution incorporated "equal opportunities between men and women".

As for inheritance, it is clear that the status quo remains. Launched in 2018, a bill to establish equality of inheritance was postponed to 2019 by the deputies – frightened by a probable electoral defeat – and the bill was definitively abandoned by President Kaïs Saïed in his speech on 13 August 2020. Tunisian women still do not enjoy equal inheritance rights. FIDH and its Tunisian organisations deplore that this is a violation of the 2014 Constitution.

Moroccan Moudawana

Well before the Arab revolutions, Moroccan women had also obtained two reforms of the Moudawana – the country’s Family Code. This legal text is considered sacred and was legally codified in 1958 under the impetus of King Mohamed V. Amended for the first time in 1993 by King Hassan II, it was still largely discriminatory in favour of men.

In 2004, after an intense struggle with Islamist organisations, Moroccan women won a new victory with a much more ambitious modification of this text, promulgated by the young sovereign Mohamed VI. Moroccan women had theoretically entered a new era of emancipation and modernity.

But these changes came up against cultural traditions and pressure from highly conservative forces, which contributed to slowing down its application. Inheritance, again, remains the most controversial issue. In 2015, Moroccan feminists obtained a report from the National Council for Human Rights officially requesting that the government ensure equal inheritance. So far, these efforts have not bore fruit. But thanks to the Council’s report, the subject regularly comes to the floor of the Moroccan Assembly.

Algerian anachronism

Although Algerian women also actively participated in accession to independence, they did not obtain emancipation. Far from it.

Although the 1976 Constitution guaranteed equality between the sexes, the adoption of a Family Code in 1984, strongly inspired by conservative movements, plunged Algerian women back into a demeaning situation of total dependence on the men around them.

It was not until the end of the bloody decade of the 1990s that the subject of gender equality was debated once more. Following virulent discussions, this anachronistic code was modified in 2005, but with only marginal improvements.

Feminist organisations – actively involved in the Hirak movement that started in 2019 – still hold that the text goes against the Constitution, and demand its outright removal. Discrimination in inheritance is of course the main point put forward.

Coordinated action

In order to confront this status quo throughout the region, the initiative of joint action by the women’s movements of these three countries emerged. The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) and FIDH joined forces in coordinated action to make their campaigns more effective.

Together, we organised a regional seminar on equality in inheritance in the Maghreb in 2018, which gave rise to a programme designed to clearly identify the obstacles that were blocking this essential reform, country by country. All of the observations resulted in a report, a real toolbox for women in the Maghreb, to argue in favour of equality in inheritance.

Campaign materials (videos, visuals, etc.) were then elaborated and distributed to our member organisations in the region to support our demands, particularly on social networks. A long-term objective is to propose a model bill on equal inheritance, which can be put forward by courageous elected officials who are concerned with their country’s modernisation.

Arab revolutions and Hirak: opportunities to be seized

In Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, the social movements of the last 10 years have considerably strengthened the mobilisation capacities of women’s organisations, which do not intend to ease up on their demands.

In Tunisia, they continue to closely follow the political upheavals of the 2011 revolution, which saw Kaïs Saïed assume full powers, and are determined to see their rights enshrined in the 2014 Constitution finally respected. In Morocco and Algeria, they have brought new and powerful ideas of equality into the Hirak movements, which many men are now declaring themselves ready to embrace.

In all three countries, the fierce resistance of conservative circles against equal inheritance and more generally against universal women’s rights has reinforced our conviction that this struggle is essential to advance the status of women. FIDH will always stand with women to attain the equality to which they are entitled thanks to true reforms of the law and of society, for the benefit of all!

Read the report below (in English).

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