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Tunisia Leads The Muslim World On Women's Rights

19/09/2017 17:39 BST | Updated 19/09/2017 17:39 BST

'They said that we're not Muslim,' said Malek Kadri, a young engineer living in Tunis.

She's talking about the government's proposition to allow women to receive equal inheritance under the law as men. According to Islamic Juriprudence, women should only be able to receive half the inheritance of their brothers.

In a speech on National Women's Day, Tunisian President Beji Caid Essebsi directly challenged Islamic law and norms when he called to change inheritance laws so that women can inherit equally to men.

The move to give women equal rights to inherit as men has drawn criticism from neighboring Muslim countries who claimed that giving women the same right to inheritance as men, would be against Islam.

Tunisia has long been hailed as one of the more free and open minded societies in the Muslim world. I first travelled to Tunisia several years ago to learn more about the impact of the Arab Spring on women. I met with women in cafes, shops and universities and found many strong and wonderful women seeking degrees in engineering and medicine.

However, at the time the country was still struggling with its new found democracy after the 2011 Arab Spring and women were greatly frustrated with daily experiences of sexual harassment and discrimination.

In an effort to combat some of these discriminations, earlier this year the Tunisian government introduced a new Law on Eliminating Violence Against Women.

The new law makes it easier to prosecute domestic abuse and it imposes penalties for sexual harassment in public spaces. It also entitles citizens to notify the police if they witness an act of violence against women and calls for both the police and judges to be trained on how to handle violence against women. The law also targets law enforcement officials who exercise pressure or any other form of coercion against a woman to force her to abandon her complaint or to change it.

Curious to know how women were reacting to the new laws and what impact they were having on Tunisian society, I contacted Malek Kadri and she agreed to share her views.

'Things are good for women in Tunisia,' she explained. 'I have travelled the world and I think that things are better than in other Arabic countries, we have our rights and we are living free. Women have great powerful positions in sports, army and science.'

I asked her how people were responding to the new laws on violence against women.

Whilst she reported being very happy with the new Violence Against Women Act as well as the new proposed laws by Beji Caid Essebsi to give women equal inheritance, there were some mixed views within Tunisian society, she said.

'There are extremists who are saying that there is no way that women can have the same rights as men and that it is against Islam. They are completely indoctrinated by the religion and say that it cannot be changed. Other people think that the new laws are wonderful.'

Wondering how it feels for her to hear others claiming that it's against Islam to give women equal rights, I ask her,

'It's crazy,' she replied. 'When I hear these perspectives coming from other countries, I don't take them seriously.'

'The religion in the Arabic world is presented in the wrong way,' she added. 'They have an extreme version of Islam and use it to get their own way. They treat women as inferior and that's wrong. The Quran does not say that a woman is an object, we need to do a lot to change.'

Kadri feels that the situation for women in Tunisia is much better than in other parts of the Islamic world.

'I have travelled to other parts of the Middle East and even to Algeria which is just next door and the situation for women is so different,' she explained. 'Tunisia is a thousand miles away from other Islamic countries. Women dominate in all sectors, we achieve better success in education and many other areas.'

One of the reasons that women have received more rights than women in other parts of the Islamic world, according to Kadri, is because women speak up. 'Now when a man violates a woman, she can complain about it and take him to court. The situation is always getting better and I am optimistic about it.'

I ask her what has made her willing to speak out for her rights, whereas in so many parts of the world, women are unwilling to do so,

'Education,' she says. 'It was also the way in which I was raised, we are now supposed to be very open minded in Tunisia. I have also travelled and when you go to other countries and you see women in a bad situation, you ask why? But it is also because I dream of things, I want to have the same things as men.'

I finally ask her what she wants for women in Tunisia she says,

'As a Tunisian woman I would like to see more security for women and more education, because women's equality is not spread equally throughout the country.'