Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 March 2008
Issue No. 888
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

The better half

Women's rights in Egypt have a long and occasionally rocky history. New proposals equating a woman's testimony with that of a man, and the right of non-Muslims to inherit Muslims, promise more bumps on the road, Reem Leila reports

Women have forever been debating their status in the societies in which they live and, naturally, how to improve it. Discussions have been conducted at the highest echelons of government while others merely serve as the fodder for gatherings among women just following the news. The People's Assembly (PA) was the site of the latest high-level give- and-take, with the PA's deputy speaker suggesting that the testimony of just one woman be acknowledged. At present, two women are needed if they are to act as witnesses in a business transaction, whereas one male witness will do.

Zeinab Radwan was not finished. She also advocated that the testimony of non-Muslims in a Muslim's affairs -- in all personal status issues -- be accepted, plus enabling non- Muslims to inherit Muslims and vice versa. The three issues are inherently deep-rooted in society and any overhaul in the status quo is bound to have repercussions across the country and beyond.

Historically, many people, needless to say most of them men, have harboured doubts about Islam's position regarding a woman's self-worth. According to Radwan, a common but erroneous belief is that as a rule, the worth of a woman's testimony is one half of that of a man's. But a survey of all passages in the Quran relating to testimony does not substantiate such an assertion. Radwan explains that testimony means giving information about a certain person. This involves two stages: bearing the burden of testimony and giving the testimony. As far as bearing the burden of testimony is concerned, a woman can handle such responsibility in all spheres of life. In other words, a woman can be a witness to an incident of whatever kind. Most Quranic references to witnesses do not make any reference to gender. Some references fully equate the testimony of males and females. One reference in the Quran distinguishes between the witness of a male and a female, mentioned in Surat Al-Baqarah (verse 282):

(O ye who believe! When ye deal with each other, in transactions involving future obligations in a fixed period of time, reduce them to writing. Let a scribe write down faithfully as between the parties: let not the scribe refuse to write: as Allah Has taught him, so let him write. Let him who incurs the liability dictate, but let him fear His Lord Allah, and not diminish aught of what he owes. If they party liable is mentally deficient, or weak, or unable himself to dictate, let his guardian dictate faithfully, and get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her)

According to Radwan, the reason for the variations in the number of male and female witnesses required is given in the same verse. No reference is made to the inferiority or superiority of one gender's witness over the other. The only reason given is to corroborate the female's witness and prevent errors in the perception of business deals. The context of the verse relates to testimony on only financial transactions which are often complex and laden with business jargon. The Arabic term used in this passage, tadillah, literally means "loses the way", "gets confused", "errs". But are females the only gender that may err and need corroboration of their testimony? Definitely not, but because Islam is keen to protect people's rights, and women at that time were not accustomed to business transactions -- because it was mainly a man's job -- the general rule of testimony in Islamic law is to have two witnesses even if they are both male.

Abdel-Moeti Bayoumi, a member of the Islamic Research Council (IRC), agrees with Radwan, adding that the corroboration of a woman's testimony by another woman who may be present ascertains accuracy and, hence, justice. It would be unreasonable to interpret this requirement as a reflection on the worth of a woman's testimony since it is the only exception discerned from the text of the Quran. This may be one reason why a scholar the likes of El-Tabari could not find any evidence in any primary text (Quran or hadith ) which would exclude women from something more important than testimony, being herself a judge who hears and evaluates the testimony of others.

Bayoumi added that unlike pure acts of worship, which must be observed exactly as taught by the prophet, testimony is a means to an end, ascertaining justice as a major objective of Islamic law. Therefore, it is the duty of a fair judge to be guided by this objective when assessing the worth and credibility of a given testimony regardless of the gender of the witness. "The witness of a female graduate of a business school is certainly far worthier than that of an illiterate person with no education or experience. On issues related to women's affairs, a woman's testimony is accepted even if it is given by only one woman," Bayoumi said.

Concerning a non-Muslim's testimony for or against a Muslim, past jurisprudent Imam Ahmed Ibn-Hanbal allows this when travelling, when a Muslim witness cannot be found. Imam Malik and Imam Shafei, however, do not accept it at all. Radwan argues that Imam Abu-Hanifah adopts the view that a non-Muslim's testimony for or against another non-Muslim is acceptable. Imam Ibn Taymiyah is of the view that Imam Ahmed's acceptance of the testimony of a non-Muslim applies to all cases of necessity whether one is travelling or not. Therefore, the testimony of a non-Muslim is admissible in case there is no Muslim. If the case at hand is witnessed by two non-Muslim males, then their testimony is accepted. Radwan adds that both the Quran and Sunna do not identify the religion or gender of the witness. They state: "Of whoever you accept as a witness."

Radwan notes that a careful examination of Islamic philosophy on inheritance, as stipulated in the Quran, reveals that Islam takes into account certain considerations that assert the value of equality between people but which has been subjected to an erroneous, biased- focussed reading. "While women inherit half the share of men in some cases," she explains, "in others they inherit an equal share, and sometimes even double the share of men, or more. Indeed, there are instances in which women are entitled to inherit while men are not."

Both Radwan and Bayoumi agree that Islam has allowed Muslim men to marry a Christian or Jewish woman, thus granting to both man and wife the same rights and duties. Why then should a woman not inherit her husband? Islam would not agree that a wife becomes destitute after her husband's death especially if she is unemployed.

Radwan says those who disagree with her share views based on what they believe to be the inferiority of Christians and Jews to Muslims. "This is totally against what Islam preaches, which is that there is no difference between people on the basis of gender, colour or religion," Radwan said.

Muslim Brotherhood MP Hamdi Zahran Hussein disagrees with Radwan, arguing that Islam does not accord non-Muslim relatives the right to inherit from a Muslim. When a Muslim dies, only his Muslim relatives have the right to inherit according to a predefined process. "If a Muslim would like to give some of his property to his non-Muslim relatives, it would be better if this were done during his lifetime. After death, his estate cannot be distributed to non-Muslims," Hussein said.

Hussein believes that People of the Book (Christians and Jews) are considered non- Muslims. "So, until and unless one believes in one creed of Allah, the Holy Quran is the only book of Islam and that Mohamed is the last messenger of Allah. As such, non- Muslims cannot benefit from an inheritance. But Hussein, seeking the approval of the IRC, left the door open. "If they agree, then I will agree."

Bayoumi said a 32-page paper conducted in this regard states that a woman's testimony is not half to that of a man and that the testimony of non-Muslims for or against a Muslim does not violate Islamic precepts. On the contrary, they coincide fully with Sharia since they preserve the principle of equality between man and woman. Regarding the issue of inheritance, "a Muslim is entitled to inherit a non-Muslim," Bayoumi said. "However, for a non-Muslim to inherit a Muslim will still have to be thoroughly researched before reaching a definite conclusion. Within the next few days a final decision will be reached."

Radwan called the issue of non-Muslims inheriting Muslims debatable.

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