Maher Al Shaeri

This investigation exposes a traditional practice in Libya that enables men to monopolize inheritance of property to the exclusion of women, on the pretext that a woman might pass the property on to her husband and that the family property would be divided and lost, lowering the social standing of the family.

Fathia (pseudonym) feels sadness whenever she walks past the building in which she grew up in the city of Misrata. She believes that she should, by rights, have inherited the building from her father, but her brothers took it for themselves, leaving nothing for her and her sister.

In Libya, there are social norms that deprive a woman of her right to inherit property. If a woman’s father dies, her legal rights are withheld by her brothers or uncles, and thus, it is now abnormal for women to obtain their stated share of properties passed on to them by the deceased.

Fathia, from western Libya, has one sister and five brothers. When their father died, she and her sister failed to receive their share of his inheritance. All of her paternal grandfather’s estates were also in her father’s name, who did the same thing with his sisters, preventing them from receiving their share of the inheritance. Everything went to Fathia’s father. This pattern is repeated again and again in Libya, along generations, instilling a resentment in women, who see no way to stop their inheritance being taken by the men of the family.

Fathia is far from the only victim of this practice. There are many cases of women in Libya speaking out about the tyranny and controlling behavior of their male relatives, and their weakness as they are deprived of rights under the pretext of traditional custom and practice. But most of the time, such conversations are held in a whisper behind closed doors. Again, custom prevents women from speaking out about any pain they might feel.

When Fathia demanded that her brothers give her what is rightfully hers, they were shocked, given that most women stay silent on this issue. They responded, “We do not have daughters who inherit from their fathers. The family does not inherit or hand down property to women.”

Why women are denied property

Property is regarded as one of the sources of tribal power and status in Libya. So, for many years, custom has dictated that properties should be inherited by men alone, since they carry the family name. If women marry outside the family, they are not allowed a share in the property, for fear that it will pass to their husbands, thus increasing the power and status of a different tribe or family, at the expense of the family of the deceased.

Sometimes brothers will compensate their sisters financially in lieu of property, so as not to be accused of acting unjustly. But according to the women impacted, this “meager” compensation cannot be compared to their rightful inheritance. It is a “gift” meant to “placate” women, not an acknowledgement of their inherent right as a beneficiary, as stated in both religious and civil law.

Property is regarded as one of the sources of tribal power and status in Libya. For years, custom has dictated that property should be inherited by men, since they carry the family name. If women marry outside the family, they are not allowed a share in the property, for fear that it will pass to their husbands, thus increasing the power and status of a different tribe or family, at the expense of the family of the deceased.

Mabrouka Besikri, Director of the International Arab Organization for Women’s Rights, has come across many similar cases in the Nafusa Mountain region in eastern Libya, southwest of the capital Tripoli. She explains that brothers deliberately deprive their sisters of their rights as co-inheritors of land. They claim that a woman will bring a stranger into their midst, and on this basis, they take away from the woman her right of inheritance. Besikri adds, “It is possible that some families will give women financial compensation in exchange for their right to land, but they end up owning no land, property, or anything else. This is a clear and obvious injustice, and many organizations have called for it to be brought to an end.”

For his part, Academic Musa Al-Qunaidi, who teaches at the University of Misrata, describes as “weak and feeble” the justifications put forward by male heirs that their “sustenance” will be lost to the family of the daughter’s husband. Salem adds, “A few families do give a woman the right to inherit, but the overwhelming majority withhold this right from her.” The dominance of this traditional practice led Mabrouka Besikri and her team to demand that Libyan women be given the right to inherit.

Human rights activist Manal Al-Hanashi calls on every individual and institution in society to work to protect a woman’s right to inheritance and to achieve this through legal means. “The state and the judiciary must put in place laws and procedures to stop women’s inheritance rights from being ignored or abused, to hold accountable any law breaker, and to spread a culture of justice and equality. Family, schools, and society all need to bring up future generations to respect and appreciate women’s right to inherit.”

Musa Al-Qunaidi believes that, before any discussion of constitutional and legal action, something needs to be done to raise the level of awareness among those sections of society which stand in the way of the right of women to inherit.

Like hitting your head against a wall

Fathia was biding her time, waiting for the chance to return to the issue of her stolen inheritance, when she heard that her brothers had sold some of her father’s property to people outside the family. So, the very thing they claimed they were afraid of – that family property would be lost by falling into the hands of others – had actually happened.

Fathia raised the issue again and demanded that her brothers give her and her sister their share in the remainder of the inheritance – which consisted of many plots of land – and that they should receive the same share as the men. In return, she would excuse them for the way they handled the original division of the inheritance. The brothers stuck by the tribal custom, but after strenuous attempts by Fathia, they finally compromised and gave her a sum of money in exchange for her share in the building that had been sold, but without informing her of its true value or the sale price.

Fathia is fully aware that her brothers have in their possession not only her father’s money, but also the inheritance that had been due to her aunts, who have received nothing. But none of her efforts, either on her own or her aunts’ behalf, have yielded any result. And her brothers have continued to sell off land whenever they need, to fund their children’s marriages, the upkeep of their livelihood, or other things.

In every family

Fatima had no more luck than Fathia. She has three sisters and two brothers. After the death of their father, the father’s property in its entirety – worth millions of dinars – was inherited by the two sons, leaving the three sisters empty-handed. Fatima was reluctant to come out and speak in this report, since the brothers are keen to prevent their sisters from airing their grievances publicly, or going to court, or even discussing the matter.

The author of this investigative report sought the help of a property assessor, and Fatima gave him information on all the properties her father left to them upon his death. The assessor calculated the total value of all these properties at the current price and, based on the correct legal apportioning of the property, it turned out that Fatima’s share was worth approximately 2.7 million Libyan dinars (about $800,000).

The assessor also calculated the market value of the properties inherited by Fathia and her brothers. In this case also he divided the inheritance based on the correct legal distribution. And it turned out that Fathia’s share of this inheritance was equivalent to about one and a half million dinars (approximately $300,000).


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