Egyptian woman fights unequal Islamic inheritance laws

Source: Al Jazeera

Case involving Coptic Christian woman comes as calls for equal inheritance rights reverberate across the Arab world.

Huda Nasrallah is demanding an equal share of the property left to her two brothers by their father [Maya Alleruzzo/AP]

An Egyptian woman is taking on the country’s inheritance laws that mean female heirs inherit half that of men.

Since her father’s death last year, Huda Nasrallah, a Christian, has stood before three different judges to demand an equal share of the property left to her two brothers by their father. Yet courts have twice issued rulings against her, basing them on Islamic inheritance laws that favor male heirs.

Nasrallah, a 40-year-old Christian human rights lawyer, is now challenging the rulings in a higher court. A final verdict is expected to be handed down later this month. She has formulated her case around Christian doctrine which dictates that heirs, regardless of their sex, receive equal shares.

“It is not really about inheritance, my father did not leave us millions of Egyptian pounds,” she said. “I have the right to ask to be treated equally as my brothers.”

Calls for equal inheritance rights began to reverberate across the Arab world after the Tunisian government had proposed a bill to this effect last year. Muslim feminists hailed the bill.

But there has been a backlash from elsewhere in the Arab world.

Egypt’s Al-Azhar, the highest Sunni religious institution in the Muslim world, vehemently dismissed the proposal as contradictory to Islamic law and destabilising to Muslim societies. But there is hope that Tunisia could have broken the taboo on the topic for the region.

Inheritance rights

Nasrallah belongs to Egypt’s estimated 10 million Coptic Christians, who live in a predominantly Muslim society governed by a constitution in which Islamic Shariah is the main source of legislation. Christians face restrictions in inter-religious marriages and church building, and are banned from proselytising to Muslims.

Egypt’s legal system grants the Coptic church full authority over personal status matters of Copts, namely marriage and divorce. But the church does not have the same powers over its followers’ inheritance rights.

One of the oldest Christian communities in the world, the Egyptian Coptic church is also deeply conservative on social matters, banning divorce except in cases of adultery or conversion to Islam.

Nasrallah says she is making her case on religious grounds because she believes the court is more likely to respect existing structures within the society. She says she is trying to capitalise on a rare Christian doctrine that respects gender equality.

Karima Kamal, a Coptic female columnist at the privately-owned al-Masry al-Youm daily, says that Nasrallah’s case highlights the double discrimination that Coptic women can face in a society where religion is printed on government-issued identification cards.

“You should not implement the rules of one faith on people of another faith,” she says.

In early December 2018, Nasrallah’s father, a former state clerk, died, leaving behind a four-story apartment building in a Cairo low-income neighbourhood and a bank deposit.

When she and her brothers filed their request for inheritance at a local court, Nasrallah invoked a church-sanctioned Coptic bylaw that calls for equal distribution of inheritance.

She says she was encouraged by a 2016 ruling that a Cairo court handed down in favor of a Coptic woman who challenged Islamic inheritance laws.

‘Misogynistic judicial system’

Nasrallah’s brothers also testified that they would like their father’s inheritance to be divided fairly between them, but the court has twice ignored their testimony.

Many Coptic men prefer to benefit from the Islamic laws, Nasrallah said, using the excuse that it’s out of their hands.
“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,” said Hind Ahmed Zaki, a political science assistant professor with Connecticut University.

She says the state fears that if they grant equal property rights to Christian women, Muslim women will soon ask for the same.

Girgis Bebawy, a Coptic lawyer, has represented dozens of Copts in similar cases over the last two years, though he has yet to win a single one. He’s hoping that the latest case, which is currently before Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court, could end differently.

“It’s religious intolerance,” he says.

Many Coptic families decide to settle inheritance matters outside the legal system, but Nasrallah says that as a lawyer, she hopes her case could set a precedent for others.

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


Suggested reading: In Defense of the Secular Narrative of the Holy Quran and Gender Equality in the Holy Qur’an – In the Beginning Man and Woman Were Equal

11 replies

  1. Why is Egypt forcing Islamic inheritance law on non-Muslims?

    The practice of the Prophet had always been that the people of the book of his time were judged according to their own laws. So, why this imposition?

  2. Islamic inheritance laws are in fact favouring the ladies. How? Their ‘half’ can be fully used by them alone. The male half has to be used for the maintenance of the whole family, including wives and children. In my case that would be two wives, five children and (so far only) three grand childrenm or five if I add the step-grand children, Just as an example.

    In the case of the article. No problem. It seems the family gets on well. Therefore the brothers can simply hand over what they got ‘too much’.

    But yes, of course Islamic family law should not be imposed on non-Muslims.

  3. The same laws exist/ed here in the Christian UK, where the first born male inherited titles and property. I believe that there are still some females fighting such cases. I assume that these laws have their origin in The Old Testament.

  4. I strongly believe that most of ancient Islamic laws do not fit in modern society anymore. Old islamic laws have to be reformed, otherwise Muslim still live in primitive way of life.

    • There you go, again Somi! Showing your ignorance to one and all. You refuse to even read the very concise response of Rafiq Sb. He has explained in plain language the rhyme and the reason behind this particular issue at hand, but you refuse to apply your reason.

      He and I have also both said that this law cannot be forced upon non-Muslims. Therefore, it’s the Egyptian authorities at fault NOT Islam and especially the Holy Qur’an which is for all times and climes!

      We would appreciate it if you would please read the other responses before making your invalid and ignorant comments just for the sake of arguments!

      • I disagree with the discriminative law of Islam. I strongly believe that male and female are equal.

        The discriminative laws are in time of slavery, 1450 year ago. We live in modern and plural society Now.
        Be smarter! Do not be ignorant !

      • How is it discriminative? In fact, as mentioned above by Rafiq sb., it’s more in favor of women than men and the reason it is so. I have no problem with my brother getting double my share because he has more financial responsibilities than I.

        So, this is the same answer you’ll get from Muslim women who know their Islam well.

        I am not the one who’s ignorant but you are for you’re not applying your reason with your God-given brains!

      • Do you support the tafsir of extremist- intolerant isis, syaah who implement the slave laws such as Q.33:50, Q.24:4,Q.23:5-6, poligamy Q.3:4, inheritance law Q.4:11, beat wife Q. 4:34, slash women Q.4:15, cut off hand, and leg Q. 5:33, Burqa, Q.33:59, and kill infidel or Khafir or pay JIZYAA Q.9:29, etc.

        I strongly believe that all slave laws have to be reformed. Otherwise we as Muslim still live in era stone ages, primitive way of life. Killing others who do not follow them.

        Do you agree Bro??😂

  5. @rmohamedali
    In old days when women did not work and man was responsible for the upkeep of the family, Islamic law of inheritance could be understood better. In the present day however, women are increasingly working and contributing to their family. Therefore there is a need to revise the laws of inheritance.
    Quran is not a rigid and fixed document. It must be understood that the core theme of Quran is balance, justice and fairness. While interpreting different verses particularly related with “Muamalaat” (everyday affairs as opposed to worship) fairness and justice cannot be ignored.
    An example of this would be in the law of inheritance. The law says that the grandson gets nothing from the grandfather if the father of the child dies before the grandfather. Now this is an unjust situation in many cases. So many Muslims are now making rules that the grand son will get the full share that was supposed to go to his father. Egypt and Tunisia have made laws in this regard.
    Getting upset and defensive, does not contribute to the solutions.

  6. Yes, there are situations that would need a closer ‘look-at’. For instance Switzerland pays the old age pension separately to wife and husband, even when only the men contributed to it. The man now has to pay for all his family out of his half share of the pension, while the Muslim wife, in good Islamic fashion, says ‘this is mine’. Is it?

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