Half of a man – 23 Dec 2022

DECADES ago, I was watching a documentary in which a foreign journalist was talking with a young man in Afghanistan. The interviewee was probably an Afghan Talib and the question was about their treatment of women. The young man said: “They (women) are only half of men: it is written in the Quran.” The interviewer was shocked into silence, but not more shocked than I was. I turned off the television.

Recently, a lawyer was giving instructions on getting a document signed. “Find a man, otherwise you will need two women.” This too came as a surprise. Has this interpretation of the Quranic verse related to signing a financial dealing (2:282) seeped into Pakistani laws without consideration of its context? This appears to be so.

This perception of female inferiority is strengthened by narratives of their weakness in intellect, poor reasoning power and emotional outlook.

The belief that the woman is inferior, only half of a man, is also supported in the minds of many men (and some women) by the law of inheritance in the Quran (4:11-14). None of these verses, however, suggests inferiority of women. Instead, they are a reflection of the social conditions of the time and aim to support and include women in matters that had been handled exclusively by men.

Today, women support families along with male relatives.

Some parts of the Quran are time- and situation-specific and provide instructions on local issues of its direct addressees. In considering each and every Quranic instruction, the context needs to be studied and changes in socioeconomic conditions assessed.

A basic principle of Islamic jurisprudence is change in laws if the operative causes change. Inheritance for a man was double that of a woman because in those days the man was financially responsible for supporting the woman who was not a direct earner, especially a brother who supported his sister. There was no question of the woman being inferior because she was getting only half the inheritance. It was entirely a financial consideration. Today, women, whether sisters or wives, support families along with male relatives.

In case of witnessing a financial deal, firstly there is no indication that this refers to any court case in which the evidence of two women would equal that of one man. Secondly, in that society, women would normally not engage directly in financial matters and were more inhibited, less exposed to these issues. They would often work together in groups or pairs, hence the support aspects of the other woman reminding the one who may forget. Here too there is no mention of the inferiority of a woman. It is merely an expediency, under the social milieu of those times.

To apply this as a law, and to current times would imply that, for example, the signature or evidence of a woman judge or of a woman lawmaker is half that of a male janitor in the same court or parliament. How contradictory is this law when women today are presidents of banks and financial advisers and legal experts?

Note that the Quran advises that women be considered as witnesses, when it could easily not have mentioned them, thus removing them as witnesses altogether. Another important point is that this is the only instance in situations requiring a witness in which gender has been mentioned. In all other cases requiring a witness, such as sexual relations and divorce, gender is not an issue.

Laws in Pakistan, including ones on apostasy, qisas and diyat, marriage and divorce, claiming to be based on the Quran and Sunnah have been developed entirely on the literal meaning of the Holy Book’s verses. According to Islamic scholar and jurist Dr Khaled Abou el Fadel, the Quran is much more than the static and restrictive set of instructions that Muslims and their governments have reduced it to. The laws reinforced a certain social ethic which has since changed over time and we cannot use the same laws aiming to recreate the same social networks. The Quran stated these laws to empower disadvantaged groups in the seventh century. It is up to us to decide if we would wish to further this empowerment process according to the changed social and economic situations, thus enabling the Quran to be a dynamic and living book for all times.

Muslims need to recognise the need to converse on these issues. Educated women and men from various walks of society, traditional and contemporary Quran scholars, sociologists, economists and others need to discuss and debate the social and economic evolution of humans since the advent of divine revelations, human rights, laws, social ethics and norms and principles of justice as espoused by the Quran.

Pakistan would benefit from beyond its physical and intellectual borders and invite international scholars including traditionalists and reformists. Works of Mohammad Iqbal, Fazl-ur-Rahman and others should be studied and discussed. Only thus the Quran may be freed from the clutches of the likes of the Afghan Talib.

The writer is an individual contributor with an interest in religion.


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