I frequently see people saying “In Islam a woman’s worth is equal to half of a man” or “two women equals one man”. This is wrong.
The misconception stems from a verse in the Quran which says to seek the testimony of two men, or one man and two women (Al-Baqarah, 2: 282) – “And bring to witness two witnesses from among your men. And if there are not two men [available], then a man and two women from those whom you accept as witnesses – so that if one of the women errs, then the other can remind her.”
This verse deals not with criminal testimony, but testimony in the case of an affadavit for a financial transaction that involves debt. In the days of early Islam, women did not typically deal with financial matters. So if they felt pressure on being asked to give testimony in this particular kind of case, they could bring along another woman for moral support (“if one of the women errs, then the other can remind her”).
If a man’s testimony were superior to a woman’s, why the need for two male witnesses?
Giving testimony in court is a nerve-wracking experience in the best of situations, and to give testimony for a financial issue you may not be too familiar with, or where there may be pressure and repercussions for your family if you don’t testify favorably for someone, you can see that this option is a mercy, not a limitation; an option, not a requirement. It is not a statement on a woman’s intellect or ability to understand finances. If a woman is competent enough to testify on her own, she is allowed to do so.
In fact, it is not a limitation. The judge can decide whether or not the evidence being given is honest, he or she can approve the testimony of any number of combinations: two men, or one man and two women, or one woman and two men, or one man or one woman. If the man or the woman is not deemed competent, neither’s testimony will be accepted. If the evidence is deemed valid, the gender of the witness does not matter.
In many other cases, legal as well as religious, a woman’s testimony is equivalent to a man’s. For example, in sighting the Ramadan moon, or in the oath of Li’an, in which a man and a woman take a series of oaths against each other when a man accuses a woman of unlawful sexual intercourse. And the woman’s testimony is always the last word. In matters pertaining to women’s biology — breast-feeding, childbirth, menstruation and pregnancy, and so on — a woman’s testimony is invaluable. All these things are important because they can determine many legal cases regarding divorce, child custody, alimony, and the like.
But sexist commentators decided that this meant a woman’s ENTIRE worth is only half a man’s. Sexist judges followed suit, and in distortions of Islamic law, such as what we saw in General Zia’s dictatorship over Pakistan from 1977-1988, it became widespread.
But this extrapolation is inaccurate and misguided. It suits a patriarchal agenda to imagine a woman is deficient, inferior to a man. Therefore they boiled a complex legal and financial issue with much elegance behind its reasoning down to a sexist conclusion: that a woman’s worth in its entirety can never amount to a man’s.
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