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Challenging Islamic law in Egypt, Christian woman fights for inheritance equality

AFP | File photo of a Coptic church in Egypt.

Egypt declared 2017 the "Year of the Woman", but nearly three years later women have yet to be granted equal inheritance rights. One woman has made it her personal mission to rectify that.

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When Huda Nasrallah’s father died last year, she went to court to demand a share of the estate equal to that of her two brothers. Two courts have ruled against her, basing their decisions on Islamic (Sharia) law, which holds that a female can only inherit half of what her corresponding male relatives do. Nasrallah, a human rights lawyer, appealed those rulings to the Supreme Court, which is expected to rule later this month.

Nasrallah is making the legal argument that, as a Coptic Christian, she should not be subject to Islamic law. Christian doctrine calls for equal inheritance rights between men and women, but while the Coptic Church has full authority over most of the issues pertaining to the personal status of Christians, such as marriage and divorce, its jurisdiction does not extend to inheritance rights.

While Egyptian criminal codes are based largely on European legal traditions – namely, French, Italian and Belgian – Shariah law is the guiding principle for family and personal status issues.

Nasrallah says that she’s fighting for principle rather than money. “It is not really about inheritance. My father did not leave us millions of Egyptian pounds,” she told the Associated Press. “I have the right to ask to be treated equally as my brothers.”

Nasrallah’s father died last December. His estate consisted of a four-storey apartment building in a low-income neighbourhood in Cairo and a bank account. When Nasrallah, with the support of her brothers, invoked a Coptic bylaw calling for equal inheritance distribution, her claim was rejected.

Christian women first, Muslim women next?

The issue of equal inheritance is a thorny one in the Muslim world. In late 2018 the late Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi proposed a measure that would allow for gender equality in inheritance. It faced no small amount of controversy, as well as opposition from Cairo’s Al-Azhar, considered the highest authority of Sunni Islamic thought. The proposal has yet to be approved by the Tunisian parliament.

“The issue of inheritance goes beyond religious rules. It has to do with the nature of the society we are living in and Egypt’s misogynistic judicial system,” Hind Ahmed Zaki, a political science assistant professor with Connecticut University, told the Associated Press. The government’s worry, she said, is that if equal property rights are granted to Christian women, it won’t be long before Muslim women are demanding them as well.

As it is, women in Egypt often have difficulty getting even the small slices of inheritance they are entitled to. Particularly when land or cash is involved, “too often, men do their best to avoid giving women their share of the inheritance,” said Rafic Khouri, co-author of a 2017 UN report on women and land in the Muslim world.

“The effect is that women are generally marginalised in the economic life of the Arabic-speaking countries,” Khouri said. Being excluded from inheritance is even more dire for women in the Arab world, given that the rates of female employment in those countries are ranked the lowest globally. With no independent sources of income, women are entirely dependent on their male relatives, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.

Given that Nasrallah’s brothers are in favour of equally sharing their inheritance they could, as many other families do, simply distribute the estate among themselves. For Nasrallah, her case is about something bigger. She wanted to set a legal precedent that would allow other women to inherit their fair share as well.

“If I didn’t take it to court, who would?” she said.

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