By Astrid Zweynert
DUBAI, March 1 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The misinterpretation of Islamic law and a lack of knowledge about inheritance rights are major hurdles in improving women's access to land in Muslim countries, experts said.
Traditional leaders or judges often exclude women from inheriting land and property based on discriminatory cultural practices, wrongly believing these are Islamic principles, the experts told a conference on land rights in the Arab world.
Inheritance is the main avenue through which Muslim women acquire independent ownership of land and housing.
"Inheritance rights are often misinterpreted, leading to women being excluded from inheriting land," said Rafic Khouri, co-author of a new report on women and land in the Muslim world.
In Islamic law, a woman's inheritance share is generally half that of a man, although in some rare cases they might get an equal or larger share than a male relative, the report said.
Unequal access to land is a global issue, and evidence from a broad base of research has shown that boosting women's chances to own property helps economic and social development.
In the Middle East and North Africa just 4 percent of women are believed to have land titles, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, a think tank.
Although more than 100 countries recognise equal land rights for women and men, implementation is a major challenge, according to the World Bank.
Even where national and Islamic laws recognise women's land rights, the report said, cultural norms restrict their access to property, work and education.
And when women do assert their inheritance rights, they risk being cut off from their families or creating friction.
"Unequal access to land for women remains a serious problem in many parts of the (Arab) region," Wael Zakout, a global land policy expert at the World Bank, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Even when national laws allow title deeds to include husband and wife, men often refuse to add women's names, he said.
If a woman's husband dies or she divorces, she then lacks formal proof of ownership - a growing problem for thousands of widows in conflicts in Iraq and Syria, he said.
Sound knowledge of Islamic inheritance rules is key for religious leaders, tribal chiefs and judges in formal and religious courts - and for women themselves, experts said.
The report highlighted Niger, where training of religious leaders involved in distributing inherited land helped women to increase their access to land.
In Afghanistan, where only 2 percent of women are estimated to own land, women used Islamic principles to resolve disputes over property, the report said.
(Reporting by Astrid Zweynert @azweynert, Editing by Robert Carmichael and Katy Migiro. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's rights, trafficking, property rights, climate change and resilience. Visit http://news.trust.org)
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