Chapter Three
The Cultural Construction of Gender in Islam


Introduction
    In the broadest sense, the idea of complementarity is at the center of the conception of gender and genderization in Islam.  The male and female genders complement each other and to act in accordance with the nature, function, and role of one’s own gender in the absolute sense and toward each other in the relative (or relational) sense is the secret of harmony between and the happiness of either sex.  In his Sexuality in Islam, Abdulwahab Bouhdiba puts it well.   He writes:
 
 The Cultural Construction of Gender in Islam
There are a number of verses in the Qur'an that lay down its essential teaching on gender and genderization.  A few of these lay down the equality of the male and female sexes and/or genders, but the more decisive verses lay down the hierarchy of the sexes and/or genders.  Whether the Qur'an is contradictory or, at least, inconsistent, will depend upon how one reads the verses in question, but, it seems safe to maintain, that while, on the one hand, the Qur'an appears to put both male and female Muslims on a plane of spiritual equality, it, on the other hand, certainly seems to put them on a footing of social, economic, psychological, and cultural inequality.  In these respects, it favors what can only be described as patriarchy and sexual hierarchy, with superiority of the male over the female.  We shall look at both sets of a few selected verses of each kind in the Qur'an, viz., those that favor the equality of man and woman and those that favor the inequality of man and woman.  Among the verses that favor male-female equality may be included also those that emphasize the mutuality and/or complementarity of the two.
Equality Verses
The decisive verse, which favors the equality of male and female, is 33:35.  In English translation Yusuf Ali has rendered it as follows.  (All quotations below are from The Holy Qur'an, Texts, Translation and Commentary, with Arabic Text and English Translation by Abdullah Yusuf Ali, reissued with Roman Transliteration of the Arabic text by Nusrat Ali Nasri. )
 
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Other verses of the Qura'n which support the equality of men and women are:
  Besides spiritual equality of both man and woman, the Qur'an also holds both equally responsible for the transgression of the laws of the Islamic Shariah, i.e.; the boundaries set by God.  This is clear from the following verses:
      In the above verses of the Qur'an, certainly the intent of, at least, limited forms of equality of men and women are quite clear.  Islam also makes the seeking, pursuit, and acquisition of education, learning, and knowledge an equal obligation of both men and women.   But the evidence from both Islamic history and contemporary Muslim societies is that the idea of what limited equality Islam provided for was systematically and effectively ignored by Muslims.  But this was not entirely a failing of Muslims.  I am concerned less with the historical and/or sociological actuality of historic or contemporary Muslim societies and
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cultures and more with the doctrinal system of Islam, for, in my opinion, it, too, has to share a part of the blame for the failure of the equalitarian and/or egalitarian teaching of Islam to realize itself in Muslim life and living.  There are a number of verses of the Qur'an which intended, certainly seemed, to provide the basis of the cognitive, psychological, moral/ethical, and existential states of mind and psyche, on the one hand, and the creation and persistence of social, political, economic, and cultural institutions of society, on the other hand, that in unison, doctrinally, systematically, and effectively, maintained the Muslim ways of life and living and social orders, based on the sexual, gender, and functional inequality of men and women.

    At any rate, these verses of the Qur'an were so understood, interpreted, and constructed, and their teaching incorporated in fiqh, or Islamic jurisprudence, and the codifications of the Shariah, or Islamic law, and implemented in real life that, in sum and substance, not equality in any sense of the word, but the inequality of men and women became the stock tradition and the general rule of Muslim life and living, and the transcendental organizational principle of the Islamic social order.  Consequently, not only inequality of the sexes, but also the inequality of the sexualties of men and women, became the accompaniment and the outcome of this centuries old trend in the intellectual, cultural, and social history of Islamic civilization.  Although all sectors, sections, and segments of Muslim society have been a party to this, in my opinion the guiltiest party has been the Ulama (religious scholars), Fuqaha (Shariah jurists), and Imams (Islamic clergy), i.e., professional prayer leaders and Khatibs, or the givers of the Friday Khutaba, or the sermon, because it is they who acted as the professional interpreters of Islam.  In collaborating opportunistically with the holders of political power—the Khalifas (caliphs), sultans (kings), and military rulers of Islam---they not only devalued and denied equality and dignity to Muslim women but also the social and cultural evolution of the religious, social, political, and cultural life of the ummah, i.e., the Muslim community as a whole.

    This alliance of organized religion and its professional representatives with the Islamic State and the holders of political power effectively held back the progress of the whole Muslim society.   It also turned Islam into a political religion in ways that were neither good for Islam nor for the Muslim state, and definitely not in the best interest of the Muslim masses.  Taqlid, or the unthinking, virtually blind, imitation or following of the religious pronouncements of past imams, religious scholars, and jurists and the categorical rejection of fresh thinking and conceptual breakthroughs or any sort of innovation in Muslim life and living and the reorganization of the social, political, and economic institutions became their sole public theology, with disastrous results for Muslim society and the fortunes of Muslims in the modern world.  Under the influence of the ulama, fuqaha, and imams, religion, state, rulers, military, feudal lords, merchants, and masses were all turned into the internal enemies of the social, political, economic, cultural, intellectual, religious, moral, and civilizational progress of Muslim society and culture.  The inequality of the sexes in Muslim society had consequences not only for Muslim women, but also for Muslims as a people, as an ummah, or a community, and as nations and states.  In the end, both Islam and the Muslim society were/are the losers for it.  The present day social stagnation; economic underdevelopment; scientific, technological, and industrial backwardness; political despotism; military weakness; cultural incompetence; and psychological demoralization of Muslims are all directly traceable and attributable to the frustration, obstruction, and holding back of the evolution and progress of society under the dead weight of what organized religion in alliance with the state imposed upon society under the guardianship of orthodox, traditionalist, and fundamentalist religion.  Especially in denying women opportunities for personal growth and development and to play a social role in society and a measure of equality with men, the orthodoxy denied the whole society to evolve and grow.  Inequality, inequity, and oppression in the home translated themselves into inequality, inequity, and oppression in society at large.  As the husband and father denied freedom and dignity to wives and children, so the ruler and his ministers denied freedom and dignity to citizens and subjects.  What is called Zulm in Islam, meaning injustice, inequity, oppression, and more, became the most outstanding feature of Muslim society in history.  Justice simply meant carrying out the punishments of the Shariah without any real concern for social, economic, and political justice.  Our main concern is with the situation that resulted from the doctrinal and sociological genderization in Islam and the Muslim family and society.  Let us look at some of the verses of the Qur'an that were/are responsible for the inequality of and inequity between men and women in Islam and the holding back of the progress of women in Muslim societies and cultures.

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Inequality Verses

There are many verses of the Qur'an, that constitute some of the muhkamat, or commands, that clearly and straightforwardly state doctrines which provide a doctrinal basis for the psychologically, socially, culturally, and civilizationally constructed inequality of the male and female in Muslim life and living.  Indeed, nothing is more evident in all of Islamic history than such inequality of men and women.  The sexual and gender inequality, with the inferior statuses, rights, and role of Muslim women in contemporary Muslim societies and cultures, derive directly from the doctrines of inequality of man and woman in the Qur'an, Sunnah, and Islamic Tradition and history.

Among the inequality verses of the Qur'an, the most decisive verse that supports male-female inequality, I think, is the following:
 

    The above verse is addressed to men.  They are told certain things about their own status and the status of women and the relation in which men stand to women.    First, men are told that they are in control of women, i.e., wives, but also responsible for their maintenance.  Second, they are, then, told that, because they are the stronger sex physically and take care of, provide for, support, maintain, and protect women from sexually predatory men, they are entitled to the unquestioned obedience of their wives to them, and, finally, they are told, in the event of nushuz, or disobedience by a wife, how the husband is to proceed in order to discipline her.  The verse opens with the Arabic words: Ar-rijaalu quwwaamuna ‘alan-nissa, which words are translated into English differently by different leading translators of the Qur'an.  The key word in the above portion of the verse is quwwaamuuna.  This word is variously interpreted and understood to mean different things by different interpreters of the Qur'an.  It is, therefore, important to form some idea of its meaning, connotation, and implications for the cultural and social construction of gender and genderization in Islam.

    In his influential book, Status of Women in Islam,17  Justice Aftab Hussain, retired Chief Justice of the Federal Shariat Court of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, the highest Shariah, or Islamic law, court, in the country, explains the meaning of Qawwam, from which is derived the word Qawwamuuna, as follows:
 


    Since its publication in 1934, The Holy Qur'an: Text, Translation and Commentary by A. Yusuf Ali has been regarded as an authoritative source on the Qur'an in the English language and is the most widely used contemporary translation, used by the mosques and Islamic centers in the United States.  When Pope John Paul visited Los Angeles, it was this translation of the Qur'an that the Muslim community of Southern California presented to him.  For missionary propagation of Islam in America, too, it is this translation that is given as gift to those converting to Islam or intending to convert.  It is important, therefore, that we should familiarize ourselves as to how Yusuf Ali understood the word qawwam, as used in verse 4:34, quoted above.   He defines the word qawwam as follows: "one who stands firm in another’s business, protects his interests, and looks after his affairs; or it may be, standing firm in his own business, managing affairs with a steady purpose."19 (By the way, Yusuf Ali was a Muslim from what is now Pakistan.)

    In his The Meaning of the Glorious Koran: An Explanatory Translation (New York: The New American Library, Twelfth Printing, n.d.), Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall translates the qawwamuuna as "Men are incharge of women" (p. 83) without any further explanation.  (By the way, Pickthall was an English Christian who converted to Islam early in the twentieth century.)

Muhammad Asad writes:
 

    T.B. Irving (Al-Hajj Ta’ lim Ali), translates the same concept, viz. qawwamun, as "Men are the ones who should [italics added for emphasis] support women." 21    (By the way, Irving is an American Christian who converted to Islam.)

    Hitherto, in the Muslim society, the authentic voices have been those of men only.  Only in the twentieth century have Muslim women begun to speak.  The meanings, interpretations, and ideas about the qawwama, or the rule of men over women, were determined and given currency in Muslim society by Muslim men.  As would be expected, they always upheld the superiority, even supremacy, of men as the summum bonum of the message and intent of the Qur'an.  Often non-Muslim translators, interpreters, and commentators of the Qur'an provided similar meanings, interpretations, and implications for gender relations of the same word, too.  Male sexism in Western society was different in degrees only, but it was always there as well.  At any rate, it is only fair that we should familiarize ourselves with what meaning, interpretations, and implications for gender relations Muslim women see today in the words "men are qawwamuun over women" in verse 4:34 in the Qur'an.  I will take note of what such distinguished women as Dr. Amina Wadud-Muhsin, Dr. Aziza al-Hibri, Dr. Shaheen Sardar Ali, Dr. Rifat Hasan, and Dr. Ghada Karmi have to say about the status of women in Islam.

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Amina Wadud-Muhsin writes about verse 4:34:  "This is classically viewed as the single most important verse with regard to the relationship between men and women: ‘men are qawwamuna ‘ala women."22   She goes on to say:
 

 A leading Muslim feminist in the United States is Aziza al-Hibri.  In her essay "A Study of Islamic Herstory: Or How Did We Ever Get Into This Mess," Al-Hibri writes:
      Many men interpreted the above passage (verse) as one which puts men in charge of women’s affairs because men were created by God superior to women (in strength and reason) created men, and because they provide for women (they spend their money on them).  However, this interpretation, which by the way is the standard one is, (i) unwarranted and (ii) inconsistent with other Islamic teachings.

    Let me first show that the interpretation is unwarranted.  To start wit, nowhere in the passage is there a reference to the male’s physical or intellectual superiority.  Secondly, since men are ‘qawwamun’ over women in matters where God gave some [italics in the original] of the men more than some of the women, and in what the men spend of their money, then clearly men as a class are not ‘qawwamun’ over women as a class.

    I shall now show that (ii), the traditional interpretation, is inconsistent with other Islamic teachings.  Elsewhere in the Qur'an we have the following passage (verse): ‘The believers, men and women, are "awliya," one of another’ (ix, verse 71).  Al-Hibri goes on to say:
 

The Pakistani Syed Abul A’la Maududi, or Sayyid Abul A’la Mawdudi, an authoritative and certainly the most influential fundamentalist alim, or religious scholar, of Sunni Islam in the twentieth century, who is convinced that men are superior to or have excellence over women, according the teaching of the Qur'an, translates the relevant portion of verse 4:34 in the English version of his Tafhim al-Qur'an, as rendered by Dr. Zafar Ishaq Ansari, with the words: "As for women of whom you fear rebellion, admonish them, and remain apart from them  in beds, and beat them."25, 26  To this Mawdudi [Maududi] adds his commentary in Note 59 as follows:
 
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    Dr. Zafar Ishaq Ansari has omitted a crucial sentence in his translation of Mawdudi’s commentary in Urdu, as it is found in his of Tafhim ul-Qur’an.  In my English translation, it is:  "However, the truth of the matter is," writes Mawdudi, "that there are some women who, without being beaten, just will not and/or cannot be made to mend their ways [tr. Ausaf Ali]." 28

    Al-Hibri quotes, no doubt approvingly, a statement by Nazirah Zein Ed-Din, a Lebanese (Muslim or Christian, al-Hibri does not say) in a 1928 writing of hers, as a commentary on the Islamic teaching on man-woman statuses, as given below (all italics are al-Hibri’s):
 

    In her essay "Misogynistic [sic] Trends in Islamic Jurisprudence: A Feminist Perspective,"in the collection of essays, entitled Women: Myths & Realities, edited/compiled by Kishwar Naheed (Lahore: Sange-e-Meel Publications, 1993), Shaheen Sardar Ali provides an interesting interpretation of the word qawwam, or guardianship, of men over women and poses some pertinent questions, with the forewarning that "the ‘woman in Islam’ is a controversial and difficult subject about which generalizations should be made with caution."30   According to her, the Qur'an and the Prophet wanted to raise the status of women and provided an equalitarian ethics of gender relations and statuses.  But the meaning and import of this ethics of Islam were lost upon the Arab society and both the Qur'an and the Prophet failed to change the attitudinal environment in that society right from the beginning.  Consequently, not much changed, neither was the change that did take place considered desirable.  "This attitude is reflective of the triumph of the tribal male elite of early Islam over the non-discriminatory, democratic and egalitarian vision of the Prophet Mohammad’s notion of Muslim society."31 But it was not simply a question of tribal resistance to the idea of equality of man and woman, in the end even the Qur'an retreated from reinforcing it in its revelation, the case in point being verse 4:34, that was received after the most decisive equality verse 33:35.  Shaheen Sardar Ali writes:
      ‘Men are in charge of women because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other because they spend their property  (for the support of women)’ (Qur'an, 4:34).

    It is indeed difficult to explain this double retreat from the initial egalitarian message.  Not only does the inequality between the sexes seem to be re-established, in addition this is justified by the access of men to wealth from which women are excluded, Verse 4:34 even sanctifies the right of men to strike their wives in case of nushuz—that is---rebellion against male authority.32

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    In the above cited source, viz., Women: Myths & Realities, is also presented a dialogue with Dr. Riffat Hasan, another leading Pakistani feminist, entitled "Are Women and Men Equal Before Allah," in which she responds to certain questions, bearing upon verse 4:34, that were asked of her.   She starts by pointing out that this verse has been misinterpreted to mean:
  Then follow in the bold four crucial questions and Rifat Hasan’s answers to the same:
 
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    Rifat Hasan footnotes the permission in the Qur'an by restricting the use of violence to "a single blow" by the husband against the wife with the explanation: "Another such restriction of an existing pre-established practice is the verse on polygamy which restricts the permissible number of wives from unlimited to a maximum of four."34

    Lastly, Rifat Hasan makes what I would regard a crucial point.  Apparently, she thinks that verse 9:71, which I have quoted above as an equality verse in the Qura'n, renders verse 4:34, which I have called above the most decisive inequality verse in the Qur'an, ineffective, or at least less decisive, though not abrogated.  This is my, not her, preface to what she has to say in the following statement of hers, in which she actually interfaces or confronts verse 4:34 with verse 9:71 of the Qur'an.  In her own words:
 

    Revealed in 8 Hijrah towards the end of the Prophet’s life, this verse sums up the Islamic way of life within a relationship of women and men as each other’s protectors and friends.  It sums up the spirit of equality and mutuality that the Qur'an preaches in the relationship between women and men.35

    There is obviously much in verse 4:34 that can easily be regarded as being objectionable and which raises questions, such as why, because men are physically stronger, they should have the right to control women and their affairs; what about the woman who works and earns her own living and does not require her husband to support and maintain her; and why only the wives who obey their husband unquestionably should be regarded as good, righteous, and/or virtuous women? But definitely the objection to the permission to the husband to beat a disobedient wife into submission and obedience is more or most conspicuous to the modern reader of the verse.

    That beating of wives has been a universal phenomenon since times immemorial is undoubted.  Hence even the Europeans and Americans who convert to Islam—and Muslims can, indeed, show off these converts from Christianity and Judaism as prized trophies: such names as those of Titus Burckhardt, Ahmad von Denffer, Muhammad Asad (formerly Leopold Weiss), Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, Martin Lings, Roger du Pasquier, T.B. Irving, Paul Garaudy, and, of course, Murad Wilfried Hofmann, whom I am quoting below, come readily to mind—usually take hardly any critical view of some of the obvious provisions in the doctrinal system of Islam that do violence to the human dignity of women.  These cultured Europeans and Americans, who choose to embrace Islam, too, seek to justify such institutions of Islam as polygamy, divorce by repudiation, patriarchy, subordination of wives, unfreedom of women, and/or the beating of wives.   But, then, perhaps, I say perhaps because I do not mean to question anyone’s motives for conversion to Islam, these might be precisely some of those things that might attract an European or American Jew or Christian to Islam, possibly on account of the nostalgia of the modern and, even more so, of the postmodern man, for a way of life in which women, certainly the wives, existed to serve and wait on men and understood their place in the scheme of things.

    Be that as it may, twentieth century Europeans and Americans usually try to soften the harshness of the permission in the Qur'an to beat a disobedient wife to force her to return to obedience, in which opinion they follow the recommendation of the Prophet Muhammad and other Muslim sages that the beating should be only symbolic and as light as it can be and, then too, in the interest of holding the family together for everyone’s sake.  The justification of beating ultimately is that it is better to give the wife a beating than a divorce.  Quoted below are two present day rationalizations of the permission of beating the wife in case of nushuz, or disobedience, by a learned German and an Austrian-American.  The former is Murad Wilfried Hofmann, a

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convert from Catholicism to Islam, who was Ambassador to Algeria (1987-90) and Ambassador to Morocco (1990-94).  Hofmann presents Islam as an alternative to Western Christianity, Judaism, and Secularism, he writes in behalf of the permission in the Qur'an to beat the wife in case of nushuz, or disobedience, as follows:
 

    I cannot but take it that Dr. Murad Hofmann is actually presenting the above statement as an excuse, no, a justification, for wife beating in Islam.

    Muhammad Asad, an Austrian Jew who converted to Islam, and produced one of the most highly admired translations of the Qur'an in the English language with learned commentaries, takes much the same view of the matter.  In the following commentary of his on the permission to beat the wife, granted in verse 4:34 in the Qur'an, Asad writes:
 

    What I find remarkable, actually remarkably disappointing, is that, instead of saying to their newly gained brothers and sisters in the religion of Islam that, though certain permissions, as those of polygamy, concubinage, sexual intercourse with the female captives of war, divorce by repudiation, beating one’s wife for disobedience, segregation of the sexes, and seclusion of women are there in the Qur'an and/or in the Sunnah, they are one and all indicative of gross inequality between men and women and, therefore, not only unjustifiable and unfair to women, but also outdated, unsuitable, and uncalled for in the contemporary world, even the contemporary Muslim world.  That is what I should expect from an educated, cultured, and civilized European or Euro-American convert to Islam and not the sort of glossing over and rationalizing of the excesses against women that have been the standard fare in Muslim societies and cultures through Islamic history, because it only lends support to such things in today’s Muslim societies and cultures as the veiling of the woman’s face, opposition to coeducation, and
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restrictions and/or outright denial of educational and training opportunities and the permission to women to aspire and prepare for and seek employment in many lines of work, occupations and professions and hold jobs and build careers, with the consequence that, all in all, it keeps Muslim women helpless and dependent.  But unfortunately, these European and American men of very considerable civic and intellectual culture who convert to Islam tend to favor the sort of Islamic orthodoxy, traditionalism, conservatism, and fundamentalism—presumably to win acceptance, favor, and/or score points with Muslims---which only confirms orthodox, traditionalist, conservative, and fundamentalist interpretations of the message of Islam by Muslims themselves.  I only hope that these new Muslims do not say some of the things they do say simply because they think that that is what old Muslims would like to hear.

    In the Islamic tradition women have been compared and likened to children.  As a teacher may beat his student in order to make him learn and do his homework, so a husband, who, too, is his wife’s teacher in religion, morals, and conduct, may beat her in order to correct her and make her become a more surrendering Muslim wife.  After all, Islam is a religion of obedience, submission, and surrender to God, the Prophet, and those in authority, to whom wives and children must submit.  And in the family it is the man of the house that is in authority.  The wife owes him unquestioning obedience, because he is her husband, and children because he is their father.  The beating which he can administer to the wife (or wives) and children under his own authority he can himself be administered under the authority of the caliph, king, or the government of his country.  Actually, the ethos of the Muslim society is that of corporeal punishment in the form of flogging, cutting off limbs, beheading, stoning, etc., depending on the crime.  There has not existed in Islam the concept of incarceration or imprisonment.  According to the orthodox, traditionalists, and fundamentalists therefore, beating wives and children fits right into the ethics and the ethos, and the legal system and the punitive philosophy of Islam.  It is not a question of justice, certainly not justice as fairness, as such.

    The Qur'an, however, lays down different remedies as cure for the nushuz of the male and female spouses.  Once again, the nushuz of the wife is her disobedience to the husband and of the husband his indifference to his wife.  His options are the verbal counseling of and/or admonition to the wife, then denying her sexual gratification, and, finally, beating her into submission and obedience to him.  The wife’s only option is to plead with her husband and invoke his generosity, as befits one in a position of superiority.  There certainly is no symmetry of rights or empowerment between the two.  The disparity between the options open to the spouses is drastic.   The Qur'an clearly upholds the superior status of the husband.  Of course, beating the wife therefore has a context within the logic of corporeal punishment in the Qur'an, though it seems quite offensive to our modern-day sensibilities.  But what sets me thinking is the second step, which requires denying/depriving a wife, including a disobedient wife, of sexual gratification, such denial beyond a reasonable period of time—not to exceed four months---becomes cruel and unusual punishment and is, therefore, forbidden in the Islamic Tradition.  If she still refuses to submit and obey, the beating of the wife can begin.  But even during the permitted period of abstaining from sexual intercourse with a wife guilty of nushuz, there is a question to ponder whether it is the wife who is punished more or the husband on account of the discontinuation of sexual relations between the two.  In other words, while phase two of disciplining lasts, who is missing out more on sexual gratification: the wife or the husband?  I cannot imagine that any husband would wait for long before he starts beating the disobedient wife to bring her back to submission and obedience, even more so back to servicing him sexually. Perhaps, the presumption implicit in commanding the husband to deprive the disobedient wife of sexual gratification and thereby to make her to regret her disobedience and beg forgiveness for it and promise to submit to and obey her husband in future, is because she cannot go on for weeks, certainly not months, without sexual gratification.  But what about the husband?  Can he go on for weeks, months, without sexual gratification?  Maybe, maybe not!  But he does not have to go without it, not in the Islamic scheme of things.  The presumption is, has to be, must have been, that he has two, three, or four wives and, if he is a man of means, a few concubines and/or slave girls, on the side.  So, he has sexual partners to spare.   If so, he does not have to go without sexual gratification, while he is trying to discipline his disobedient wife by depriving her of sexual gratification.  There is, of course, the frightful possibility; too, that the disobedient wife might turn out to be so stubborn that even beating her might not avail.  Then what?

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A Comment on the Different Interpretations of Verse 4:34

    My overall reaction to the different interpretations of verse 4:34 is that, expectedly, men interpreters derive from it some sort of superiority, even supremacy, of men over women and a justification for the former exercising authority over and control of women.  Women, who in the twentieth century have begun to read and interpret the Qur'an for themselves in more or less degree, question this interpretation, and well they should.  I am amazed that it took Muslim women fourteen centuries to start interpreting the Qur'an for themselves.  But women seem to me to be, as would be expected, ever so hesitant and tentative in their interpretations.  They are certainly faced with a cruel choice between their loyalty to the venerable Islamic tradition and their yearning for equality with men.  This poses a consequential question for formulating and conducting a struggle for sexual and/or gender equality in the Muslim society.  I am sure this is what Shaheen Sardar Ali, whom I cited above, must have had in mind when she wrote:
 

    My own point of view is that, because Muslim men and the society and state, by and large, insist on the superiority of the male over the female in the family, society, polity, economy, and culture on the basis of verse 4:34, it is up to Muslim women—with what intellectual, moral, and material help those Muslim men who are equality-minded and in favor of the full and complete sexual and/gender equality can provide.  They, Muslim women, should and must, first, forthrightly acknowledge what verse 4:34 says, and that it says what it says, and, then, take the decisive position that they do not like what it says and that this verse ought not to be the basis of genderization in Islam and of Muslim marriage, social policy, political philosophy, and legislation in the contemporary Muslim society.  They should say to their friend and foe, and the opponents and proponents of equality in Muslim society alike that inequality based on sex and/or gender is just as unfair, unjust, uncivilized, unjustifiable, indeed, inhuman, as is inequality based on race and/or color.  In other words, they should declare that they want equality, preferably within the framework of Islam, but if some of the verses of the Qur'an, such as 4:34 and 2:228, for example, are a permanent obstacle in the path of the equality of women with men, then they want those verses ignored in favor of those verses, such as 33:35 and 9:71, in the Qur'an that do favor male-female equality in Islam, and that they see nothing un-Islamic in this procedure.  There is a wisdom saying of existential philosophy that the boundary to oppression is set, not by the oppressor, but by the oppressed when they declare: "Thus far, no further."  It is Muslim women—or at least those who are convinced that they are unduly and unjustifiably restricted, dominated, subordinated, controlled, exploited, abused, beaten, and denied human freedom, dignity, and even the rights that the Qur'an has given them, in the name of orthodox, traditionalist, and fundamentalist Islam—who have to stand up to men and claim what is due to them.  Never and nowhere have the oppressed, including women, achieved equality, freedom, and dignity until the time they stood up to their oppressors.

That verse 4:34 of the Qur'an is problematic is the least we can say about it.  But it is there, and it is there forever.  Muslims have somehow to come to grips with it and what it says.  By the Qur'an’s own witness, there is nothing allegorical or metaphorical about it either.  It is one of those verses that lay down clearly the commands to be obeyed in Muslim life and living.  How can Muslims do so in the modern and postmodern world in which we live today?   One way is to interpret the injunction of 4:34 of the Qur'an, as to men’s guardianship of women, as did Prophet Muhammad.  In Sahih Bukhari, a collection of Hadith very highly regarded as an authentic one, the Prophet is reported to have said as follows:

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    The problem with this interpretation is that it leaves the authority and superiority of men over women and especially of husbands over wives intact.  Man remains the "king in his house," with all the authority over his wife (or wives) and she, at best, is the guardian of her husband’s home and his children.  She is not allowed ever to call the home and children her home and children—they are her husband’s.  I am afraid the Prophet did not forthrightly confront the issues involved in genderization in Islam.   The inequality of the powers, statuses, and roles of husband and wife is duly maintained.

    For us today, the suggestion of Dr. Rifat Hasan as to the status of verse 4:34 provides a possible resolution.  Because she says that verse 9:71, which clearly supports equality, was revealed later than verse 4:34, which clearly demands inequality, hence we can rightfully take our guidance as to genderization and relations between men and women, husband and wife mainly, in Islam in our time from the later than the earlier verse.  I find her suggestion perfectly acceptable.

A Restatement of the Gender System of Islam:
The Construction of Men and Women

    Though in a number of its verses the Qur'an sanctions and provides for the spiritual, perhaps even for the moral, equality of men and women, in its social conceptualizations and cultural constructions of men and women, the Qur'an is predominantly, indeed all too authoritatively, patriarchical and hierarchical between the sexes and clearly introduces and lays down inequalities between the male and female that calculatedly, systematically, and effectively make men and women in Islam unequal in their social (familial), economic, political, psychological, and cultural lives.  In these respects the two are simply not equal in Islam.  The Qur'an constructs men and women, not only differently because they are biologically different and differentiated, but it makes biology the destiny of each, particularly of women.  While Islam is remarkably free of the prejudicial preconceptions in other respects, it does impart a superstition, perception, belief, and/or conviction to its followers that the male is socially, politically, economically, and psychologically superior to the female.  Certainly, orthodox, traditionalist, and fundamentalist Islams do so.  This it does in the senses indicated in the following tabulation.

The Comparative Cultural Constructions of Men and Women
 in Orthodox, Traditionalist, and Fundamentalist Islam

Men are constructed as being:                                          Women are constructed as being:
A degree above women                                                      A degree below men
Qualified and fit to be religious leaders (imams)            Unqualified and unfit to be religious leaders
Qualified to be moral guides and guardians                    Unqualified to be moral guides and guardians
Active in family and society (world outside)                    Passive in family and society
Dominant and domineering                                              Subordinate and submissive
Independent, in control, in charge of women                  Dependent, controlled, under the charge of men
Free, self-directed, self-responsible, self-determined      Unfree, other-directed, responsible to and
                                                                                                determined by men,
Supporters, keepers, protectors of women                        Supported, kept, and protected by men
Political rulers, leaders, and governors                             Political subjects, ruled, and governed by men
Bread winners, workers, businessmen, industrialists       Domestic, rearers of children, homemakers
Intellectuals, scholars, scientists, researchers, writers     Dedicated to home and hearth, sex providers,
                                                                                                care providers, nurturers
Rational, reasonable, capable of greater spirituality         Irrational, emotional, incapable of spirituality
Morally independent                                                           Easily led into immorality

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    Throughout Islamic history, Muslims have found support for the above constructions of men and women in the Islamic sources—the Qura'n and Sunnah---and fiqh (Islamic jurisprudence) and Muslim public theology and practice.  They do so today, too.  The cumulative result of it all has been the inferior position of women in Muslim societies and cultures.  Before the women’s position and status can be improved in contemporary Muslim society and culture, we have to begin constructing men and women differently from how they have been constructed doctrinally, socially, and culturally in Islam in the past and continue to be by our orthodox, traditionalist, and fundamentalist representatives of religion.  Fortunately, the Qur'an provides a sufficient basis to do so, i.e., construct Muslim men and women along libertarian, equalitarian, and egalitarian lines.  Liberty, equality, and egality are as much the rights and entitlements of women as those of men in Islam.  Not even in the name of Islam ought Muslim women to be denied freedom, autonomy, and dignity as human beings, as individuals, as persons, and as autonomous and self-responsible moral agents.  Being female need not be, must not be, and ought not to be a reason for cultural disadvantage—not in the world of today, not even in the Muslim world, societies, and communities today.
 

    Islam, I think, provides perspectives of both equality as well as inequality of men and women.  In this respect, there is, indeed, a tension between certain verses, such as 2:223, 2:228 and 4:34 of the Qur'an, on the one hand, and certain other verses, such as 9:71 and 33:35 of the Qur'an, on the other.    The former set of verses lays the basis of social and economic inequality of men and women and the latter of their moral and spiritual equality.   My considered opinion is that it is the message and intent of the equalitarian verses of the Qur'an that ought to be taken as the more beneficent, compassionate, and judicious paradigmatic basis and determiner of Muslim life and living in the twenty-first century of the Common Era upon us.  Judged by the standards of civilization and civility, in our time, for instance, verse 33:35 provides a better guide for genderization, sexuality, and marriage in contemporary in Islam and Muslim societies than verse 4:34, that is, if human equality is the goal of the message of Islam, and, I am convinced, it is.  I, for one, have no hesitation in saying that if Muslims cannot handle sexual and gender equality conceptually,  morally,  ethically,  psychologically,  socially,  politically, culturally, and economically today and/or in the foreseeable future, then they have little of universal  value to offer to the human race.

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