By Chaudry Zuffrullah Khan
Of the great faiths, Islam has been foremost in assigning to woman a position of economic independence. It is well known that in the United Kingdom till as late as 1882, when the first Married Women's Property Act was passed by Parliament, a married woman could hold no property of her own, independently of her husband. Any property that a femme sole (unmarried woman) held in her own right vested automatically in her husband on her marriage. A hundred years later traces still linger in certain aspects of British Law which illustrate a married woman's position of dependence upon her husband.
In Islam the independent economic position of woman has been established since the very beginning. Mention has been made of the obligation of the husband to make a settlement on the wife, in proportion to his means, at the time of marriage. This settlement is called dower (mehr). If at the time of the death of the husband the wife's dower should be still unpaid, it ranks as a debt to be discharged out of his estate, in priority to all his other debts. In addition, the widow is entitled to her share in the husband's estate, which is determined by law.
Any property that a woman might acquire by her own effort, or might inherit as an heir or receive as a legacy or gift, belongs to her independently of her husband. She may ask her husband to manage it, but if she chooses to manage or administer it herself, he cannot interfere in her management or administration of it.
A married woman who possesses means of her own may, and in most cases does, contribute a portion or the whole of her independent means towards the upkeep of the household, but is under no obligation to do so. The upkeep of the household is the entire responsibility of the husband, even when the wife is in her own right better off than her husband.
This is well illustrated by the following incident. The Holy Prophet, peace be on him, on one occasion admonished women to spend in charity out of their own means also. Thereafter two women, both bearing the name of Zainab, one of them the wife of the well known companion Abdullah bin Masood, came to him and told him that their respective husbands were men of straitened means, but that they in their own rights were comparatively better off. Would it be an act of spiritual merit if they were to assist their husbands out of their own means?
The Holy Prophet assured them their spending on their husbands would be doubly meritorious, as it would rank both as charity and as graciousness towards kindred. The Holy Qur'an admonishes:
Covet not that whereby Allah has made some of you excel others. Men shall have a portion of that which they earn and women shall have a portion of that which they earn. Ask Allah alone of His bounty. Surely, Allah has perfect knowledge of all things. (4:33)
For everyone leaving an inheritance We have appointed heirs, parents and near relations, and also husbands and wives to whom you are bound by solemn covenants. So give all of them their appointed shares. Surely, Allah watches over all things. (4:34)
The Islamic system of succession and inheritance, set out in 4:12-13 and 177, aims at a wide distribution of property. If a person should die leaving his or her surviving parents, wife or husband, sons and daughters, they all share in the inheritance; the general rule being that the share of a male is double that of a female in the same degree of relationship. In this there is no discrimination against female heirs in view of the obligation of the male to provide for his family, while the female has no such obligation. In practice the rule works out favorably for female heirs.
A Muslim may not dispose of more than one-third of his assets by testamentary directions. Legacies, whether for charity or in favor of non-heirs, must not exceed one-third of net assets; nor may the share of an heir be augmented or diminished by testamentary direction. There is no room for discrimination between the heirs under the Islamic system of inheritance, like, for instance, primogeniture, or exclusion of females.
A direction designed to secure the preservation of testimony relating to civil transactions, which requires that they must be reduced to writing, is sometime mistakenly seized upon as evidence of discrimination against females. The direction is as follows:
Procure two witnesses from among your men; and if two men be not available, then one man and two women, of such as you like as witnesses, so that if either of the two women should be in danger of forgetting, the other may refresh her memory. (2:283)
There is here not the slightest trace of discrimination. The normal rule is that women should be safeguarded against the contingency of having to appear as witnesses in judicial proceedings. Therefore, normally a woman should not be called upon to attest a document recording a transaction. This rule may be relaxed in an emergency. But then another difficulty would arise. In the case of male witnesses their memory of a transaction that they attest as witnesses would be refreshed when they met socially and the transaction was recalled for one reason or another. In the case of a document recording a transaction, which is attested by one male and one female witness, the female witness, under the Islamic social system, as will presently be appreciated, would not normally have frequent occasion to meet the male witness and talk to him, so that there would be little chance of her memory of the transaction being refreshed. To overcome this lack of opportunity of refreshing the memory, it is wisely provided that where only one male witness is available two female witnesses may be called upon so that, in the very words of the text, one may refresh the memory of the other.
This provision is concerned only with the preservation of evidence, and does not deal with the weight to be attached to the testimony of a male or female witness. An illustration may help to clear up any doubt on the matter. Assume that a transaction recorded in a document attested by one male and two female witnesses becomes the subject of a dispute which comes up for judicial determination. It is then discovered that one of the two female witnesses has in the meantime died. The male witness and the surviving female witness are examined in court and the judge finds that their respective accounts of the terms of the transaction are not entirely in harmony; but he feels very strongly that taking every relevant factor into consideration the testimony of the female witness is more reliable than that of the male witness. In such a case it would be his plain duty to rely on the testimony of the female witness in preference to that of the male witness. There could be no question of discrimination in favor of or against a woman.