Because They “Spend of Their Property” No More? An Economic Perspective on Inheritance Rights

Katarzyna Sidło‘s (CASE – Center for Social and Economic Research) analysis of the Tunisian president Beji Caid Essebsi’s 2017 proposal to amend Tunisian inheritance laws examines the issue with an economic lens. The common argument defending the traditional rules and upholding this type of legal gender discrimination in Tunisia is an interpretation of a Qurʾānic verse stipulating that men spend money to support women (Qurʾān 4:34) and thus require more inheritance money. Sidło disagrees, underscoring the contemporary realities of a large female labor force and wages in the MENA region.

The proposed reforms to Tunisia’s inheritance laws, announced by President Beji Caid Essebsi in August 2017, envision granting Tunisians a choice of how they divide their assets between their beneficiaries, effectively enabling equal allocation between male and female offspring. While the amendment, which still needs to be passed by the country’s parliament, does allow the testator to follow the sharīʿa-prescribed way (i.e., granting a son double the amount allocated to a daughter), numerous scholars have argued that the ruling on inheritance is a definitive one (qaṭʿī)[1] and, as such, a Muslim may not choose to act against it.

To the accusation that the way of dividing inheritance that is currently obligatory (if not always enforced[2]) under the national law is discriminatory to women, the counterargument has usually been that men “spend of their property (for the support of women)” (Qurʾān 4:34)[3] and consequently their financial needs are greater than those of women, who are not obliged to contribute to the household budget.

Indeed, this exact point has been made on a number of occasions (even before the discussion on inheritance laws was re-opened because of the Tunisian proposal) by the Dār al-Iftāʾ al-Missriyyah, whose scholars argued that men are responsible for financially sustaining not only their wives and daughters, but also sisters, mothers, fathers, and sons.[4] A similar point was made by Jasser Ouda from the International Union for Muslim Scholars, who claimed that anything that a woman is choosing to contribute to the household budget is “voluntary and is considered to be a ‘charity,’”[5] as well as by Yusuf al-Qaradawi[6] and Muhammad Iqbal[7] (among others).

However, even a quick search through some of the most popular online fatwā portals, such as Islam Question & Answer shows that the question of women contributing to the family budgets is more complicated. Numerous queries posted both by men and women (e.g., “her husband takes her salary; does she have the right to take from him what she is entitled to without his knowing?”[8]) show that the issue is contentious.

Indeed, even as female labor market participation rates in the Middle East and North Africa remain low[9] (24% in Tunisia, 22% in Egypt, and 21% in the region on average in 2018, compared to 51% in the OECD countries),[10] women in the region increasingly contribute both to their household budgets and their countries’ economies. While estimating the number of female-headed (or better: female-maintained) households is notoriously difficult,[11] the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) reported that in 2006/2008 women headed one in every ten households in the MENA region (ca. 12% both in Tunisia and Egypt).[12] A 2018 report of the Egyptian statistical office puts this figure at 14%, or roughly 3.3 million families.[13]

Those women who do work outside of the house and contribute financially, or indeed maintain their families, are facing discrimination on the labor market and on average earning less than their male counterparts. They are also living in poverty more often than men – the very fact of being a woman in Egypt translates into increased probability of being poor by 2.3 pp in urban and 4.8 pp in rural areas.[14] Women in rural areas are moreover more exposed to the risk of being deprived of the income that they bring and indeed their share of inheritance (oftentimes in the form of land ownership).[15]

In light of this data, the claim that women can and do always rely on men in their families to support them and do not need to contribute to their own maintenance is questionable. As such, so is the argument that they are in a lesser need of financial resources than men and are not discriminated against when they inherit half of what their brothers do. While some scholars suggested that the solution is enforcement of the existing laws and requiring men to shoulder the burden of financially maintaining their families in their entirety[16], this is both impractical and unrealistic. Even should one choose to ignore the economic benefits of higher female labor participation (which, if raised to the level of male rates, would contribute to the global economy an estimated $12 trillion by 2025),[17] it is not possible to ignore the modern reality in which many women are either earning their own living, contributing to the family budgets, or are financially supported by the state, not their fathers, husbands, brothers, or uncles. Making equal inheritance a default option – in behavioral economics known as nudging – could help to ensure that there are not punished for being female twice, both by the laws of their country and practice of their people.

[1] See, e.g., “The Call for Gender Equality in Inheritance Contradicts Shari’ah Definitive Rulings and Consensus of Scholars, Egypt’s Mufti States,” Dār al-Iftāʾ al-Masriyyah, November 26, 2018, [].

[2] Women, especially in rural areas, in Tunisia and other Arab countries have been reported to be deprived of their share of inheritance due to local customs and traditions. See, e.g., Layli Foroudi, “‘Get Land from Your Husbands’: Tunisia Divided over Equal Inheritance for Women,” Reuters, March 8, 2019, [].

[3] Muhammad Pickthall, The Meaning of the Glorious Koran (Quran) (New York: Tahrike Tarsile Qur’an, 2000).

[4] “Gender Equity in Islam: A Reflection on Social Injustice Towards Women,” Dār al-Iftāʾ al-Masriyyah, n.d., [].

[5] Jasser Ouda, “About the New Laws Proposed in Tunisia in Order to Enforce the Equating of the Shares of Males and Females,” December 3, 2018, [].

[6] Who, however, broke consensus on a different issue regarding inheritance laws and issued a fatwā allowing Muslims to inherit from non-Muslims under the premises of maṣlaha. Ron Shaham, Rethinking Islamic Legal Modernism: The Teaching of Yusuf al-Qaradawi (Leiden: Brill: 2018).

[7] Muhammad Iqbal, The Reconstruction of Religious Thought in Islam (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2012).

[8] “Her husband takes her salary; does she have the right to take from him what she is entitled to without his knowing?,” Islam Question & Answer, July 12, 2010, [].

[9] Low labor force participation rates are not universal to all Muslim-majority countries or to Muslim women living in Muslim-minority countries. Indeed, both in Malaysia and Indonesia in 2018 they stood at 51% (World Bank). However, the focus of this brief paper remains on the MENA region, even if the number of Muslim women active on labor markets of other countries is an important argument against them inheriting from their parents only half of what their brothers do under premises that they are financially supported by men.

[10] “ILOSTAT Database,” International Labour Organization, last modified September 2018,

[11] Lobna Abdel Latif, Mohamed Ramadan, and Sarah Elbakry, “How Gender Biased Are Female-Headed Household Transfers in Egypt?,” Economic Research Forum Working Papers 1126 (2017),

[12] Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA) and the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), “A Comparative Analysis of Gender Disparities in Arab Countries. A Study Based on Household Survey Data,” n.d.,

[13] “On the Occasion of the International Women’s Day,” Egypt’s Central Agency for Public Mobilization and Statistics (CAPMAS), March 8, 2018, [].

[14] Heba El-Laithy, “The Gender Dimensions of Poverty in Egypt,” Economic Research Forum Working Paper 127 (2001),

[15] Alessandra Bajec, “Tunisia Moves Further in Gender Equality, Pleas for Women’s Inheritance,” TRT World, February 19, 2018, [].

[16] Ouda, “New Laws in Tunisia.”

[17] “Legal and Social Barriers Holding Back Women’s Empowerment in Middle East and North Africa,” Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), September 9, 2017, [].