Does a woman witness merit half of a male witness?
The issue of male and female witnesses in the Quran has been a topic for contentious discussions. Certainly we need to look through the time to a culture of 1400 years ago to make a balanced judgment of the revelation in this regard.
Firstly, It was a time when the female literacy rate was virtually zero. Women were involved primarily with household works. So, they were unfamiliar with the business and other financial transactions which were the domain of the men.
It is fair to say that the primary purpose of a financial deal was to protect the rights of all sides of the financial contract. The Quranic verses relating to witnessing financial transaction or other contracts need to be examined with appropriate historical and cultural contexts. https://qpeace.net/?p=4064
So, what is the deal?
Does the Quran consider women to be unable to judge objectively? Does the Quran imply that women are inherently unable to be a full witness?
The answer is an emphatic “no”. The Quran discredits these assertions.
Examples in the Quran where the gender of a witness does not play a role
The examples of gender neutral testimony includes: (a) In preparing a will for inheritance, there is no difference in the male and female witnesses (Quran 5: 106). (b) In matters of the divorce process, there is no distinction between male and female witnesses. (Quran 65:2).
Example where woman’s testimony nullifies man’s testimony
In the case of wife’s self defense against suspected infidelity, wife’s testimony supersedes husbands testimony (The Quran 24:6-9)
The Quran 24:6-9
“As for those who accuse their own wives of adultery, but have no other witnesses, let each one four times call God to witness that he is telling the truth, and, the fifth time, call God to reject him if he is lying. Punishment shall be averted from his wife if she in turn four times calls God to witness that her husband is lying – and, the fifth time, calls God to reject her if he is telling the truth…”
The Quran 2:282
“…You who believe, when you contract a debt for a stated term, put it down in writing: have a scribe write it down justly between you. No scribe should refuse to write: let him write as God has taught him, let the debtor dictate, and let him fear God, his Lord, and not diminish [the debt] at all. If the debtor is feeble-minded, weak, or unable to dictate, then let his guardian dictate justly. Call in two men as witnesses. If two men are not there, then call one man and two women out of those you approve as witnesses, so that if one of the two women should forget the other can remind her”………….”Have witnesses present whenever you trade with one another, and let no harm be done to either scribe or witness…..”
The primary purpose of witness: Securing the integrity of the transactions
The central consideration of the Quranic verse 2:282 can be understood as (a) to keep the integrity of the financial transaction, and (b) to protect the witnesses from potential manipulation and bullying in a patriarchal society (Quran 2:282 “….. and let no harm be done to either scribe or witness…..”).
In this verse, the Quran approached to it’s objectives by proposing two male witnesses or one male and two female witnesses for the purpose of witnessing financial contracts.
How does this help the Quranic objectives?
Consideration given to a specific cultural context
In “The Study Quran” (published by Harper One), a team of Islamic scholars explained the context of this verse: “..Since the woman of the time, as a general rule, would have been inexperienced with the particulars of potentially complex financial arrangements, accepting two women in the place of one man would have been more practical, since the purpose of such testimony was to ensure of the proper observance of the particulars of the loan or sale. Considering the social conditions of the time, for women to participate this way at all would have been itself a major change, and to require two of them in such transactions can be understood as providing a measure of protection for them against bullying or manipulation, rather than an indictment of their testimony…” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Study_Quran
The historical context of revelation
The Quranic verse 2:282 was revealed in connection with agricultural forward sales practiced in Madinah at the time of the Prophet (Peace be on him). Source: “The Study Quran” (published by Harper One).
Analyzing the process: 1. A written contract is needed
(a) Scribes are to write down the deal correctly in best of their ability. (b) Borrowers or borrower’s legal representatives are given preference to describe the contract to the scribes. This recommendation would help the borrower to affirm his understanding of the contract and work as a reminder of the liabilities he is stepping in.
2. Witnesses need to be assigned
The verse suggests securing two male or one male and two female witnesses in case of a future dispute.
3. What the verse 2:282 suggests and what it does not
(a) The verse suggests that between two female witnesses, one will actively provide witness. (b) The second female witness is a standby witness, necessary only in case of a presumed forgetfulness or error. (c) The verse does not suggest that both the female witnesses have to give witness to make the witness valid.
4. How do we know that one of the witnesses “forgot” or “erred”?
One will assume an error in the process of witnessing if there is a discrepancy in the testimonies between the male and the female witnesses. In case of such a discrepancy, the verse 2:282 of the Quran suggests that the second woman witness will be asked about her testimony.
Important note 1: Non interference from the male witness
The male witness shall refrain from counseling the female witness to correct her or remind her in case of supposed forgetfulness. As the verse suggests, the second female witness will assist her in recollection and reconciling the testimony.
Important note 2: Maintaining the Integrity of the contract
If the 2nd woman witness’s account collaborates with the male witness, then evidently the first female witness erred or forgot. So the integrity of the contract is saved by the testimony of the second woman.
Important note 3: Collaborative strength for the female witnesses
If the 2nd woman witness suggests that the first woman’s testimony is correct, that will indicate that the male witness might have erred or forgotten. In such a case, the presence of the second woman witness will serve the followings:
(a) Any attempt to unfairly marginalize the credibility of the female witness will be difficult due to the presence of a second female witness.
(b) Presence of a second female witness gave woman witness a collaborative strength in the face of potential manipulation and bullying in a patriarchal society.
(c) As we mentioned earlier, this provision also provided an extra security for the contract at an age when female literacy would be more likely to be near zero, and the women were less familiar with business transactions and related mathematical calculations. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Study_Quran
Note 4: Objective of achieving social justice
With the historical context in mind, we can say that what the Quran proposed for seventh century Arab society regarding the male and female witnesses for financial transactions, was practical. It was also consistent with the objective of achieving fairness and justice to the society.
Muslims believe that Allah is well aware of the nature of human beings. That is to say, He knows their strengths and their weaknesses in any cultural setting. This is because He Created them. He is also aware of the status of different stages of human civilization, because He let the civilization grow in it’s own pace.
There is no pair of shoes that fit every feet in this world. Certainly, the appropriate historical and cultural context is of paramount importance in understanding the Divine revelations.
Indeed, the type of tools we can use to serve the humanity can be different in different time and in different culture. Yet, God’s prescribed objectives of justice, fairness and equality of humanity in front of Him remain unchanged.
Empowering Women in Islam: Index
(1) Does a female witness merit half the male witness? Discussion on male and female witnesses in the Quran. Please click to view: https://qpeace.net/?p=314 (2) Is it fair that men get double the of women’s share of inheritance? How Does Islam Empower Women? Please click to view: https://qpeace.net/?p=5034 (3) Myths About the Status of Women in Islam. Please click to view: https://qpeace.net/?p=4064