The daughters of Zelophehad … came forward. The names of the daughters were Machlah, Noah, Choglah, Milcah, and Tirzah. They stood before Moses, Eleazar the priest, the chieftains, and the whole assembly, at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting.(Bamidbar 27:1-2).
They cross the camp
dry-mouthed, hearts pounding:
all eyes are fixed
on the lonely quintet
walking with resolute steps.
They are pious and wise
and they call us to action:
to move from the place
of injustice and bias
and pave the untrodden way.
The five daughters leave the domain of women in order to challenge an injustice: their father has died with no son to inherit his land and his name will thus be lost. Without being called by anyone, they approach the door of the Tent of Meeting. This is the place where only the high-ranking men congregate – the place of holiness and authority where women simply do not belong. According to the Talmud (BT Bava Batra 119b), Zelophehad’s daughters were wise, pious and astute interpreters. They say to the leaders, “Give us a holding among our father’s kinsmen!” (B’midbar 27:1-4).
In an article entitled, Dispossession of Women’s Land: the audacity of the request of Zelophehad’s daughters, Rachel Farbiarz says, “While the daughters of Zelophehad seem emboldened by their grievance, it only silences their leaders. The sisters’ cause appears righteous, but its remedy is simply unthinkable in a society that numbers only its men. Into this mute vacuum comes the Divine ruling: “Rightly do the daughters of Zelophehad speak. You shall surely give them a secure holding in the midst of their father’s brothers and you shall pass on their father’s estate to them.” And then God reshapes the law in its entirety, commanding Moses: “And to the Israelites you shall speak, saying: ‘Should a man die without having a son, you shall pass on his estate to his daughter.’ ” (B’midbar 27:6-8).”
The achievement of Zelophehad’s daughters was a landmark in women’s rights regarding the inheritance of land, from those days up to now. That it took God Himself to resolve the sisters’ complaint shows how unparalleled and courageous their demand was. This dispossession is a reality for millions of women around the globe today and the preference for men over women in matters of property and landed inheritance is deeply rooted in law and practice.
In the developing world, men overwhelmingly control access to the arable land, with estimates of female ownership at an abysmal 2% in Africa. While women are legally prohibited from holding title in countries such as Malawi, female ownership and control elsewhere is more broadly barred through custom, culture, and family.
The prevailing laws and practices that bar women from secure access to land inevitably result in hunger and poverty in vulnerable communities and populations.
(From Dispossession of Women’s Land by Rachel Farbiarz.)