Women’s Testimony – A Problem with the Female Mind or the Egyptian Mind?

Nehad Abul Komsan
2008 / 3 / 26

While we in Egypt are debating about co-educational schools, and women who tempt poor men, clouding their minds and pushing them to commit sexual harassment unwillingly, the world is busy discussing more important issues such as human rights, the quality of education, climate change, the crisis of water and food all over the world and its effect on human life, and the responsibility of women in leaders and their contribution to important global decisions.

Meanwhile, we are still preoccupied with the issue of a woman’s competence in giving testimony, and whether she is equal to half a man or a quarter of a man, and if she does not deserve to be considered a human being and if God created her to be dependant on man or not.

In fact, I did not wish to discuss this topic, which as a woman I find personally insulting. But the actions of Doctor Zeinab Radwan, Deputy of the People s Assembly, may God reward her on behalf of this country and Islam, have encouraged me to do so.

According to one interpretation, all women, whatever rank or position they have reached, even the martyred Benazir Bhutto, or the great Merkel, or the murderous Condoleezza Rice evidently "all have half-testimonies and half-minds because of the dominance of emotion over them.” God alone knows what could happen in the Arab and Islamic world if we were not preoccupied with whether a woman has a mind in the first place, or whether she has half a mind and half a testimony.”

This is not only a problem for women, but is a serious issue for Islam in general. The hypocrisy, misinterpretations, and misunderstandings that have occurred with respect to God, his religion and his Holy Book, have reached levels that should be considered criminal.

The religious pillars of Islam are faith and worship – faith in God, his angels, his messengers, the day of judgment, destiny, good and evil, prayer, giving to charity, fasting during the month of Ramadan, and making a pilgrimage to Mecca if able. Nevertheless, faith doesn’t exclude understanding, explanation and interpretation.

Any matter other than the ideological pillars is considered within the changing framework of worldly dealings, which necessarily accompanies the interest and the development of society. In spite of the fact that Islam is the state religion of many nations, interpretation differs from place to place. For example, a woman in East Asia governs a country, while women in Saudi Arabia can not even drive a car. In Egypt women serve as judges and in the Cabinet, yet their testimony only counts for half of a man’s testimony.

Other than fundamental tenets, some religious rules are changeable and open to interpretation, the best example of which is Omar bin Al-Khattab who was well-known for his equity and wisdom when he abolished a number of the Qur’anic judgments, most famously the penalties, such as cutting the hand of the hungry thief. Legal systems worldwide have settled on the abolishment of slavery, except the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, by reinterpreting the verses pertaining to punishments like cutting off the hand of the thief and stoning the adulteress. It is well established that with the development of legal systems and criminal reform, it is impossible to deal with the Qur’anic verses by reading the texts without understanding their purpose and context.

The real issue at stake is not women’s intelligence or their supposedly highly sensitive feelings. There is a double standard – women are said to be too sensitive to associate with criminals and are thus prevented from testifying, but when they actually require protection from the judicial system, when they are injured for instance, or when left without income by their husbands and are thus forced to sell their bodies in order to feed their children, this so-called protective impulse vanishes. These purportedly soft women manage to teach their families, many help their husbands support their families, and others manage meager budgets within our failed economic climate, indicating that perhaps they have better mathematics and financial managing skills than some economists and the Minister of Economy himself.

The main problem in Egypt is that the people who are using Islam to further their own interests, and who became powerful in the oil industry in the seventies and the satellite channels stock markets in the nineties, have hijacked the country. The legal experts (Fuqaha) have become more important than the law itself (Fiqh), which has transformed religion into a business. With this change, we enter a new period of the Dark Ages. These legal experts exploit religion in order to control all aspects of our lives, from the bedroom to the courtroom. No longer is there a direct relationship between God and Muslims. Now each Muslim has his own private sheikh, and can summon him with the rubbing of a lamp, or even a mobile phone!

With the civilian state on one side and the millionaire interests on the other, we are truly between a rock and a hard place. Dr. Zeinab Radwan’s statement about women’s testimony follows logically from the constitutional amendments and is in line with the principle of citizenship that was the main thrust of these amendments. In fact the part related to equality in testimony is a normal result of a legal and a judicial reality, and is not new for Egypt.

Because the Egyptian legal system was founded at the beginning of the last century, before it was hijacked by the legal scholars, it does not distinguish between the testimony of a man and a woman. The criminal courts are governed by the code of criminal procedure, and regardless of whether the witness is Zaid or Ebeid or Um Mohamed, the courts judge only by their confidence in the impartiality of the witness, his/her wisdom, and his/her mastery of the knowledge of the events about which he/she will testify.

Commercial and Civil Law both recognize testimony regardless of the gender or religion of witnesses. The Personal Status Law from 1920 is the exception. This law was developed for the political purposes of the king at that time. Since then, there have been many developments in the Egyptian legal system, but the Personal Status Law has not changed. Some wrongly claim that it is based on Islamic Shari’a, but the latter does not recognize the term House of Obedience, which transforms marital life into a prison. Islamic Shari’a acknowledges only respectable relationships between spouses, either living together respectably or divorcing quietly. In the present-day Personal Status Courts, now known as Family Courts, most judges ask for two female witnesses simply in order to comply with the legal regulations, but in fact they listen only to a single woman. This shows that judges themselves know very well that the quality of witnesses’ testimony depends only on their impartiality and wisdom, not on their gender.

Nehad Abul Komsan

Lawyer and Human Rights Activist

The Egyptian Center for Women s Rights
135 Misr-Helwan El Zeraay
2nd Floor, Suite 3
Hadayak El Maadi, Cairo

Tel: (20) 2 2.527.1397 / 2.528.2176
Fax: (20) 2 2.528.2175
E-mail: [email protected]

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