Egyptian campaign combats women's inheritance denial

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8 min read
18 November, 2021
Enas Kamal discusses Ridwa, a recent campaign highlighting how women's inheritance rights in Egypt are being withheld by patriarchal and repressive societal norms that refuse to acknowledge women's huge economic role in the country today.

"My father died 40 years ago, leaving behind several sons and three daughters. At first, everything was handed to my eldest brother because that was what my mother wanted, all the papers and property were passed to him. After our mother died, we asked for our inheritance but there were always delays. Now, our brother has died, and the situation is the same. We don't know what we own, and where. All assets have been transferred to our brothers. We don't know how to get hold of our inheritance".

This was one from 106 testimonies recorded during a recent campaign called Ridwa that was launched by two initiatives: Superwoman and Barah Aamen which have been publishing testimonies about women's lost inheritance rights due to Egyptian societal norms. The two feminist initiatives have been active since 2016 and seek to provide safe spaces for women, work towards equality and combat gender-based violence in Egypt.

"Many women work and are actually the family breadwinners. Therefore, Ridwa is demanding changes to ensure just treatment for women who are being deprived of an inheritance which they themselves contribute a huge part of"

#Where's_Women's_Inheritance?

On 14 October 2021, the campaign was launched on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and a series of women's testimonies were published with the hashtag #Mirath_as-Sittat_Fain? (#Where's_Women's_Inheritance?).

The date coincided with the International Day of Rural Women, and the campaign is still ongoing, as it aims to find legal and social mechanisms to provide justice for women regarding their inheritance rights.

"There was a reason we chose this date," says Shaimaa Tantawi, one of the Barah Aamen's founders, in a conversation with Al-Araby Al-Jadeed, The New Arab's Arabic-language sister publication.

"Many studies show that the percentage of women who own land is minuscule compared to men – according to the agricultural census in 2000, only 7.5 percent of women own any land, and the total area owned by women collectively was 432,000 acres, which is 5.1 percent of the total agricultural land in the country. The area owned by men is around 8.4 million acres."

Ridwa Campaign #Where's_women's_inheritance?
The Ridwa campaign is highlighting the plundering of women's inheritance rights under the cover of the "ridwa" - a small compensation paid to women in lieu of their rights [Ridwa Campaign/The New Arab]

Tantawi references research published last year by Qana University revealing that 95.5 percent of women in Sohag and Qana provinces alone are deprived of their inheritance completely and mentioned another study: The Inheritance of Women in Upper Egypt: Between Reality and Hope, which indicated that women in Upper Egyptian society suffer from unjust customs amounting to economic violence against them, a big part of which is the denial of their inheritance rights.

Women deprived of the wealth they create

This is despite the fact that many women work and are actually the family breadwinners. Therefore, Ridwa is demanding changes to ensure just treatment for women who are being deprived of an inheritance which they themselves contribute a huge part of.

"The father owns possessions, land and property, which he leaves to his sons, ignoring his daughters. When his daughters find out, the parents deny it… after some time they will propose to give their daughters a small fraction of what they’re rightfully owed. Most of them refuse, but some agree as it's better than nothing," reads another testimony from the Ridwa campaign.

"We focused on women's inheritance rights because men always prefer offering a radwa (a small amount of money) to assuage women in lieu of their real rights so they won't end up owning land and property"

Tantawi says: "We focused on women's inheritance rights because men always prefer offering a ridwa (a small amount of money) to assuage women in lieu of their real rights so they won't end up owning land and property." The term is more familiar in rural areas and Upper Egypt than in urban areas, and in a dictionary, it means an acceptance of fate.

Tantawi says all the testimonies display clear oppression against women but one of the most harrowing stories was about the mother of a girl who was denied her inheritance. Her mother became ill and suffered a stroke.

However, the family members who had seized her rightful share of the inheritance never considered returning it to her so she could afford medical treatment, and she died. Her daughter insisted that if she had been given her share she could have had surgery and maybe survived. She holds the members of her family who stole her inheritance responsible for her mother's death.

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Women denied their inheritance in religion and law

Today, most Egyptian citizens are Muslims. Islam makes it clear in a verse from Surah An-Nisa (Chapter on Women) in the Quran that: "Those who unjustly seize the property of orphans will be consumed by fire, and they will burn to a blaze".

However, we see that most women are denied what is rightfully theirs. Likewise, the Fatwa Committee of the Islamic Research Academy has stated in the past that depriving women of their inheritance was a custom in Jahiliyyah times (the 'age of ignorance') and Islam fought against this.

In Islam, women have the right to half the inheritance their brothers receive. This is an idea which some feminist groups are quietly trying to challenge, promoting equality in inheritance rights between brothers and sisters.

"According to one study, 4 million Egyptian families are being financially supported by women"

In late 2017, President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi approved a law that would, for the first time, see those who deprived someone of their inheritance punished. This was nearly 75 years after the Inheritance Law (Law 77 of 1943) was passed, and the new punishment was a jail sentence of six months and a fine of 20-100,000 Egyptian pounds (EGP).

Tantawi says Ridwa is demanding these laws be activated and applied, and that the state deal with the issue seriously. It is not logical, she insists, that women are working and contributing financially to build a life with their husbands, but have no right to share in the wealth created.

Similarly, women are told they will inherit less because men have more financial responsibilities. However, while this may have been the case in the past it is not true today, which makes it an obsolete idea. According to one study, four million Egyptian families are being financially supported by women.

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Economic violence and intimidation

For many women, economic violence (the deprivation of economic rights) is backed up by intimidation and even sexual and physical violence. Aya Moneer, the founder of the Superwoman initiative as well as one of Ridwa's founders, says that threats against women over inheritance rights often come from male heirs who see women as marginal and as not having rights.

If they do agree to give her something, they will decide the amount and the terms. Moreover, when women pursue their rights it can cost them family relationships, or even lead to legal threats against them – women find themselves being seen as the transgressors, instead of people with the right to what they are owed.

She added that Egypt's patriarchal society does not allow women to own property. If she has received her inheritance from her father, she will be forced to hand it over to her husband. The justification is that he will be providing for the family, and she and everything she has is his property and she has no right to object.

"When women pursue their rights it can cost them family relationships, or even lead to legal threats against them  women find themselves being seen as the transgressors"

Furthermore, many girls' inheritances are controlled by the father's family who claims that they are covering the girls' expenses so should control their shares. Then, after hoarding the females' shares, they don't cover any of their expenses.

When it comes to land, an old expression is used when justifying women's barring from their inheritance: "The word soil should be said in the local dialect". The saying infers that land should not leave the family. Instead, women will get a paltry amount of compensation (the ridwa).

Social media success

An element of the Ridwa campaign was the tweeting of sarcastic memes about men usurping the inheritance rights of women. Using memes as a medium to highlight these issues were widely accepted and circulated on social media, says Moneer. Unlike the mass criticism they received when using traditional media like articles, the tweets were positively accepted and shared by social media audiences.

Ridwa Campaign image 2
The Ridwa campaign used memes to highlight the deprivation women face around inheritance rights. This meme refers to Islamic inheritance laws which prioritise the right of a brother of a deceased male over daughters, in the absence of sons [Ridwa Campaign/The New Arab]

The organisers received many comments. One was from a man justifying why men inherit agricultural land in Upper Egypt and women don't. He claimed that men in Upper Egypt work for free on their father's land, increasing the land's value, so they have more right to it.

In response, Moneer said that rural women in Upper Egypt make up 49 percent of the population and work many unpaid jobs, spending an average of 16 hours daily working for free, whether on the land or looking after the household. This means for two-thirds of their lives they are working unpaid.

This campaign was launched at a time of social media uproar in Egypt due to the murder of a girl who was burned to death by her brother over an inheritance dispute. This was not the first incident of its kind this year: last January a man murdered his sister with the help of his son over inheritance, and in March a similar tragedy occurred.

"Using memes as a medium to highlight these issues was widely accepted and circulated on social media, says Mounir. Unlike the mass criticism they received when using traditional media like articles, the tweets were positively accepted"

Moneer says that when they began the campaign, she believed the issue was mainly down to the exploitation of the religious pretext. However, she realised the matter was much more complex, involving emotional blackmail, control and violence. Women's inheritance rights are stolen under the protective wings of the law, by a society clinging on to the repression of women, linked to the societal view of women as inferior.

There was a clear desire that women's economic status remain subjugated so that they remain unable to compete with men in the family, who not only usurp their inheritances but claim ownership of their opinions and decisions as well.

According to Moneer, the hashtag #Where's_Girls'_Inheritance? had around a quarter of a million views on Twitter on day one of its launch, which Tantawi says surprised them: "We were surprised to see the Twitter audience interact with a serious matter like women's inheritance rights so enthusiastically."

Enas Kamal is a freelance journalist in Egypt who has written about women's issues for Raseef22.

Article translated from Arabic by Rose Chacko