Dispossession of Women's Land

The audacity of the request of Zelophehad's daughters.

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After decades of the Israelites' wanderings, God's decree upon the willful generation of the Exodus--"In this very wilderness shall your carcasses drop"--is nearly fulfilled (Numbers 14:29). To take stock of the new generation born in the desert, a census is ordered. Lineages are recorded; tribes' sums inscribed; fresh tallies of the war-ready men collected. And from among these men, God charges, "shall the land be apportioned as shares, according to the listed names" (Numbers 26:53, 26:1-56).

AJWS LogoAgainst this backdrop--the work of the census complete, the law of the land's division laid down--come five women: the daughters of Zelophehad, a sonless Manassite who died for his sins in the desert. The sisters demand a landed inheritance alongside the newly-numbered men. "Let not our father's name be lost to his clan just because he had no son!" they lament. "Give us a holding among our father's kinsmen!" (Numbers 27:1-4).

The women present themselves for judgment before the "whole assembly" at the Tabernacle's entrance. They bring their case to the tribes' chieftains, to the high priest Eleazar, and to Moses. They are stubborn, these sisters--a "stiff-necked" cabal of five, undaunted by the only inheritance they have received until now: the cautionary knowledge that they are the progeny of a people annihilated for their murmuring complaints, the daughters of a sinner buried in the desert (Numbers 27:2-3).

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'" (Numbers 27:6-8).

That it took the voice of God to resolve the sisters' complaint reveals just how profoundly audacious--and brave--was their demand. That this would-be dispossession is a reality for millions of women around the globe today reveals just how deeply entrenched in law and practice is the preference for men over women in matters of property and landed inheritance.

Control of Land

Throughout much of today's 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. 

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Rachel Farbiarz

Rachel Farbiarz is a graduate of Harvard College and Yale Law. Rachel worked as a clerk for the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco, after which she practiced law focusing on the civil rights and humane treatment of prisoners.