The Other Half of the Sky: Inheritance in a Tunisian Film

Bornaz. Image via The Daily Star.

Bornaz. Image via The Daily Star.

Tunisian filmmaker Kalthoum Bornaz’s film Shtar M’Haba (The Other Half of the Sky) was recently discussed in Lebanon’s The Daily Star. As it turns out, Bornaz was the only female director to enter the official competition at Ouagadougou’s Pan-African Film and Television Festival earlier this month. The Daily Star tells us that she was not successful, but the message of her film has resonated with audiences.

As The Daily Star points out, the “movie tackles the sensitive subject of what women can – or more pointedly cannot – inherit.”

The film tells the story of fraternal twins Selim and Selima who have a difficult relationship with their widowed father. Ali, a lawyer, blames his children for the death of their mother who died in childbirth.

In carefully crafted dialogue, Bornaz documents the degrading family relations when Selim goes to study abroad and Selima is left to care for their father after he has an accident.

One day Selima learns that girls only inherit half of the part that their brothers get. For Selima, this would mean only one-third of her father’s assets while her brother would get two-thirds. In one critical scene, she asks her father, “Is it because fathers love their daughters only half as much?”

The film sounds quite interesting, mainly because of the topic it touches on. Although many Muslims are weary of films and books, and rightly so, made in the West by non-Muslim filmmakers depicting the stereotypically oppressive and supposedly restrictive situations of Muslim women, there are times and places when depicting the struggles that Muslim women face is necessary. We cannot, after all, ignore the social problems in our communities for fear of what others will think. We cannot at the same time demonize all our Muslim communities while dealing with these issues. A fine balance must be met. And addressing the issue within Muslim communities is a great place to start.

The Tunisian director was also quick to say she does not like the kinds of films in vogue in Europe focussing [sic] solely on the difficult position of Muslim women. “We Tunisian women have even more rights than you European women in certain respects,” she said, “except for this question of inheritance.

“Still, I told myself, if they want a film about the problems of Arab Muslim women, I’ll give them a film about the problem of Muslim women!”

Shtar M’Haba is a film by a Muslim woman addressing an issue, the effects of which are often detrimental for many Muslim women, and which is rarely addressed. As Bornaz says, this is a problem many Muslim women face.The Daily Star includes in their report her own experiences.

The filmmaker, who lives and works in Tunis, was quick to reassure the press that her films are never autobiographical but that she had witnessed dramatic consequences of the law first-hand with friends, cousins and neighbours. Committed to making a film on the theme, she said she researched for a year, speaking with lawyers, religious scholars and sociologist about inheritance before even starting to write the scenario.

Regardless of what the laws may say, what the interpretations are, or how people think they should be implemented or not, the fact remains that many Muslim women around the world do end up with the short end of the stick when it comes to inheritance, and films such as Shtar M’Haba demonstrate the human aspect and the real effects of such laws. I bring this up not to discuss the theology behind it, but rather simply to point out that the today’s impact of such laws can be very complex and often deprive women, as a result of the modern day realities Muslim women face. Though I do think theologians and Islamic scholars need to be thinking about this topic while considering these modern day realities that Muslim women experience.

I have not seen this film, therefore cannot critique the way in which this issue has been handled. However, it does seem to me that showing such realities are necessary for Muslims to consider and discuss.

  • youngmuslimah

    I understand the interest in this issue but am unhappy with the fact that the reasoning behind the half inheritance is completely ignored in your post. After all, women get only half the male’s share but a woman is not expected to contribute anything towards her own upkeep upon marriage nor use that money or any money earned before or after marriage to support her children. I think it’d be extremely unfair if women received full inheritance and still wasn’t expected to contribute to her household. Why is this fact soundly ignored? I think it’s because most people know embarrassingly little about Islamic law and focus only on certain aspects of it while ignoring the rest…and those aspects always happen to be those highlighted by non-Muslims in their attacks on Islamic law, which they usually know nothing about. Remember, where I live now (in the west) I would never take advice from a non-lawyer on how to argue my case before a judge, while many Muslims think they can give their advice and interpretation on Islamic law while knowing nothing about the history and methodology of fiqh. Why is this the case?

  • Fatemeh

    @ youngmuslimah: Thanks for bringing up this point. “women get only half the male’s share but a woman is not expected to contribute anything towards her own upkeep upon marriage nor use that money or any money earned before or after marriage to support her children” While this is great in theory, the reality of many Muslim women’s lives doesn’t mirror this, as shown in the movie. In the movie, Selima takes care of her father, while her brother studies and then moves abroad. I don’t know whether Selima gets married, but say she doesn’t. Then, once her father dies, and her brother, who does not contribute to the family, gets the largest share of the money, where is Selima left? If her brother was sending her money, letting her live with him, taking care of her, then the inheritance thing wouldn’t be a problem. But since he’s shirking his familial duties, it is a problem. Can fiqh solve this?

    I’m not bringing this up to get into a theological debate. I don’t want this to turn into one. I’m just pointing out that the issue is unfortunately not black-and-white and we can’t always deal with the ideal situation, but the real one. Since none of us have seen the movie, we can’t put our fingers on this for sure, but there is probably no explanation of fiqh in the movie. I think it would be great if there was, and if viewers could see alternatives for Selima. But the fictional character in the movie is a reflection of very real circumstances for many women dealing with inheritance issues.

  • Sobia


    The reasoning behind the law was ignored on purpose. Mainly because I did not want to get into a theological debate on the issue. But also because the reasoning behind it was not relevant. This post was about the film which depicts a real life scenario of how the law often gets played out. That is why I said that those who do study and interpret Islamic law must consider the realities of Muslim women today, just one of which is the depiction in the film.

    Today many women are not getting married – either by choice or not – and as such even the reasoning you presented would need to be re-evaluated. What happens if a woman does not get married? She has no husband with whom she can share. Or what happens if she ends up widowed very young? There are so many complexities in life and the laws, as they play out in Muslim contexts, don’t reflect them. This film is an example of that.

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