One of my readers posted a valid question about some legislation that is in Syria stipulating that two women are required for a testimony to be accepted in the place of one man. The summary of what I am saying is that this is no longer necessary, and that to do so is not a contradiction of Islam if we extract the correct rationale behind the Qur'an's stipulating that it be so. I am not an authority on the matter, and if I find a more convincing reason than my arguments then I'll accept it, but my search has not yielded anything convincing. Below is my response:
Sunday, January 17, 2010
The matter of requiring two women in place of one man for witnessing the signing of legal documents has as its origins Islamic law. At first glance it seems odd from a modern perspective that two women are needed whilst only one man's testimony will suffice. There is the uncomfortable implication that the woman is somehow less important than the man, or is only half the moral worth of a man. This can be a difficult situation for someone to justify, so what is the justification used for it apart from the well known Qur'anic stipulation?
Well the basis for this stipulation is taken from inheritance law. Whilst a man is under an explicit duty to provide for his female relations, the woman is under no such duty. When the inheritance is to be distributed, it is to assist the male in providing for these relations. The female has no obligation to spend her inheritance on anybody but herself. Contrary to popular Muslim belief, this does not mean that the man should exercise dominance over the woman. In fact, far from being an advantage, it should in reality be a burden, and a proper Islamic court would be much more sympathetic to the woman than the man who falls short of his obligation, in order to maintain equity between the two. The economic stipulation imposes a duty and not a discretion, and the duty requires economic support, without any reciprocal gratitude, obligation or obedience required by the wife, mother, sister or daughter. It is important to note this often misused inheritance clause which is given as an excuse for misogyny and male dominance. The legal position is clear but there is a lack of executive will to make this happen because there is no independent judicial system in the Arab world to ensure this happens.
Now, how does this relate to the case of witnessing a document? We still are not told why two women are required for testimony whilst only one man will do. Well firstly, is it any man whose testimony should really matter? I am not familiar with the precise legal text in Syria's case, but in Islam, which I am taking to be the basis for this curious legislation, the one man should be Muslim, and a man whose testimony is respected amongst his peers, with a sound repute. They must also be free men and of sound mind and independent judgement. So far so good, this is similar to Western legal requirements for an acceptable testimony in a court or tribunal.
The same requirements are needed for women, but again, why two instead of one? I had a brief search on Islamic sites on the internet and found the answers to be mostly ridiculous, unconvincing and based on assumptions and generalisations which are actually quite insulting. The only reason I could find in the Qur'an or by consulting friends who know more than I do is that at the time Islam first spread the world was much more patriarchal than it is today, but the reasons for requiring two women are similar to those behind the inheritance laws, but with a different justification. Where in inheritance it was to impose an obligation upon men to look after their female relations when required to do so, in testimony the most important factor is truth, and the safeguarding of truth. If we accept the same requirements for a man testifying as we do for a man inheriting, and we see that the requirements for a man's testimony to be accepted are that they be Muslim, free, independent and of sound judgement, we obtain the criteria for what an acceptable witness should be. When the Qur'an stipulated that two women were required in the place of one man, it is not because Allah means they are mentally deficient to men, or of less moral worth, but that it could not be taken for granted that a woman would not be influenced by her husband, father or brother, either due to economic or direct physical coercion. There is an interesting example we can draw upon, which is when the Prophet Muhammad would send letters to the Roman and Persian kings, the letter would state "Become Muslim and you will be saved, Allah will give you two rewards". By two rewards it is implied that the first is for themselves as human beings, the second reward is because they had a responsibility to the people in their empires, who would be more likely to become Muslim.
The rationale we can extract from this is that under a system of obligations and duties, there were situations which required the testimony of two women rather than one. Today, this requirement does not necessarily have to hold if it can be proven that the person is independently making the judgement and is of sound character, this does not need to contradict the Qur'an or its assumptions.
We must remember that human society has only really accepted complete sexual equality in the last 100 or so years, but it is known that in times of civil war, strife and general societal breakdown that females are more vulnerable to exploitation than men. There is no reason to believe that the Qur'anic passage is no longer relevant, so whilst an exception to the rule can exist without compromising Islamic values, there is no danger that the exception can swallow the general rule.
Sorry for the long post, but I thought I'd clarify this quite sticky topic with a genuine and honest response that is a)not insulting to the intellect or to women, and b) to provide a response to people ignorant enough to think such a stipulation is part of a perceived misogyny allegedly inherent in Islam.