Tackling gender discrimination: Lessons from Tunisian inheritance law

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Gender discrimination in inheritance is commonplace in many countries around the world. One example is Tunisia where, in accordance with Islamic inheritance law, women receive a smaller share of a parent’s bequest than men. Reforming inheritance law is notoriously difficult and probably even more so when it is of religious origin. But there may be alternatives. This column presents survey evidence from an experiment which tested how learning about gifting can affect people’s attitudes towards women’s inheritance rights. The study shows that gifting is very common in Tunisia and constitutes an alternative way of tackling gender discriminatory inheritance law. However, it also shows that this second-best solution is only available to a wealthy sub-sample of the population.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region scores lowest worldwide on most measures of gender equality (World Economic Forum, 2023). While social norms play an important role, some forms of gender discrimination are still written into law. For example, most MENA countries continue to apply Islamic inheritance law, which systematically favours sons over daughters.

The Qur’an and the Sunna lay out precise rules for the allocation of a deceased individual’s wealth among their designated heirs: a son will always receive double the share of a daughter. The survival of other family members may decrease the size of the bequest, which is allocated to the deceased’s children, but it does not affect the gender-discriminatory split among them. Daughters’ smaller inheritance share is justified by the fact that Islamic law obliges a husband to provide shelter, clothing, food, and medical care to his wife (Sait and Lim, 2008).

But the changing social reality in the MENA region challenges the validity of this argument. In fact, property ownership can function as an insurance against misfortunes and increase women’s bargaining power in the household (Allendorf, 2007). Further, the persistence of Islamic inheritance law has been criticized for increasing women’s vulnerability and hindering them from participating in the economy (IFC, 2017). Legal reform, however, is difficult, and probably even more so when the law is of religious origin.


Inheritance law in Tunisia

Tunisia is known as the regional frontrunner in terms of women’s rights. The country abolished repudiation and polygamy back in 1956 and legalised abortion in 1973 – earlier than many European countries. Since 2018, a large social movement has demanded the introduction of a gender equal inheritance law – a proposal backed by the then-President Beji Caid Essebsi. Essebsi died while still in office. And perhaps partly because of this, the proposed reform never reached a parliamentary vote.

In recent years the issue has fallen to by wayside. Given the continuing institutional and economic crisis in the country, gender equality in inheritance has disappeared from the Tunisian political agenda. But granting women equal rights to inheritance may not be the only way of alleviating gender discrimination in inheritance. In fact, the Tunisian civil code allows parents to make gifts. This means they can favour their daughter(s) by transferring a property title, land, or other assets to them while still alive. Upon their death, the remaining wealth will then be split according to Islamic inheritance law. The Tunisian law 69 (of October 28, 2006) even creates a fiscal benefit for gifting one’s children. If done pre-mortem, making a gift to a daughter could attenuate the gender discrimination prescribed by the current law.


Incentivising general-equal behaviour

Can parents be incentivised to use gifting to create a more gender equal bequest allocation privately? My recent research leverages gifting – an existing alternative to reforming national law – as part of a survey experiment. I hypothesized that informing people about the possibility to make a gift to one’s daughter would raise the salience of gender issues and thus increase a person’s support for women’s right to inheritance. At the same time, it could also decrease their support for inheritance law reform if gifting is seen as an easy substitute for legal reform.

The perceived opinion of others can have a powerful effect on a person’s own views on a given issue. Given the absence of public opinion data on the issue, it is plausible that respondents misperceive others’ support for gender equal inheritance law. The belief that others disapprove of gender equality in inheritance may decrease individual support for the policy. This would be in line with findings by Bursztyn et al. (2020), who show that the belief that others disapprove of women working outside the home decreases female labour market participation in Saudi Arabia. Social pressure to conform to the consensus view – whether real or imagined – can be a significant barrier hindering change.


What does the research tell us?

To address these questions, I use data from a survey experiment conducted in Tunisia in spring 2023. The phone survey reached a sample of 1,505 adults from across the country. Respondents were randomly allocated to two treatment arms and the control group in equal shares. The first treatment provided information on gifting one’s daughter as an alternative way of attaining a more gender-equal inheritance split, and the fiscal benefits associated to it. The second treatment also corrected respondents’ beliefs about public support for legal reform before providing the same information on gifting. I measured the impact of these treatments on respondents’ gender attitudes: the bequest split they would choose among their children in a hypothetical scenario, support for legal reform, and willingness to use gifting to achieve a more gender-equal inheritance split. Moreover,I collected extensive data on the current use of gifting in Tunisia.

The data reveals that only about one in three Tunisian adults supports the introduction of a gender-equal inheritance law. By contrast, approval of gifting one’s daughter is high. Two in three respondents said they would be willing to make a gift to their daughter to achieve a more equal split. The data confirm that gifting is not only socially accepted but also widespread: 27% of Tunisian adults have received a gift themselves, are married to someone who has received a gift, or have made a gift to their daughter. Older, more educated, and wealthy individuals are significantly more likely to favour gifting over legal reform. By contrast, women are significantly more likely to endorse changing the law. This seems intuitive. In practice, women rarely make gifts and so far, they are also less likely to receive them than men.

Informing respondents about gifting appears to have a small positive impact on their gender attitudes. Respondents in the first treatment arm are significantly more likely to favour a gender-equal bequest. Further, 60% of respondents underestimate public support for inheritance law reform. Respondents who underestimate reform support are also less likely to support reform themselves. Yet, in contrast to research by Burszytn et al. (2020), correcting these misperceptions does not significantly change respondents’ gender attitudes. Instead, those respondents who held accurate beliefs are the ones who display large treatment effects – and significantly reduce their support for legal reform. This finding is likely to be driven by respondents’ underlying characteristics. People who underestimate public support for reform tend to endorse more conservative attitudes overall. Similarly, in the United States several studies have found that conservative individuals are less susceptible to informational treatments (Alesina et al., 2018; Settele, 2022). An analogous mechanism may be at play here: conservative respondents are less likely to respond to treatment as they hold strong political convictions at baseline. This rigidity of political beliefs is an important factor to consider.



This study shows that making gifts to one’s daughter represents a private alternative to the introduction of a gender equal inheritance law in the Tunisian context – but mostly for a wealthy sub-sample of the population. Tunisians clearly underestimate their peers’ support for reforming the national law, but this misperception is unlikely to be the binding constraint for national reform. Policy interventions aiming to decrease gender discrimination in the transmission of wealth should target the political moderates whose gender attitudes are malleable.

There is, however, still a long way to go. The final decision regarding family wealth transmission is likely to remain in the hands of the (traditionally) male head of the household. Men tend to hold more conservative gender norms than women and my data shows that gifts to sons and male relatives are also common. This suggests that gifting is unlikely to be a sustainable solution to gender discrimination in inheritance at a larger scale. As younger generations reach voting age, the question of gender discrimination in inheritance will become even more urgent in Tunisia and the wider MENA region. Future research should therefore investigate alternative ways of raising awareness about women’s rights and strengthening women’s access to property.


Author: Christina Hauser

Author’s note: This piece is an adaptation from a blog post on “Economics That Really Matters”, first published on 8 November 2023.


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