(Reflections on Book 12: On the Etiquette of Marriage and Book 23: Breaking the Two Desires)
It is a struggle to accept verse 4:34 for many a modern, egalitarian mind. No matter how much legal, linguistic or hermeneutic gymnastics one wishes to undertake, the verse envisions a situation where hitting a woman is allowed. Scholars throughout the ages have tried to limit its authority; no sincere interpreter can dismiss it.
To justify the patriarchal punitive power, the verse states that men are guardians or caretakers of women. If there is fear of rebellion can hit a woman in order to bring her back into order. Hierarchy is certainty pronounced in this verse.
Ghazali would tend to agree with this patriarchy. He defines the gender roles, seeing the man as the authority and the woman as the maintainer. Women are subordinate to the man, and so a man can exercise his punitive powers if the context allows.
Verse 4:34 is a long verse. Analysis will typically be on the parts that imply a women’s inferiority and more particularly, the permission to hit. However, the verse is quite complex, and subtle points tend to be ignored.
The verse frames good women as obedient – once again a controversial term, although it is not clear if it means obedient to God or to their husband. The verse also frames good women as women that guard for the unseen what Allah guarded.
Translations differ. Some say “women guard in (husband)’s absence”, while others state they are “guarding in secret”. Translations and tafsirs suggest that women are protecting a man’s honour though this is not clear. The ambiguity allows for other interpretations. What appears clear from the Arabic is that women are guarding something Allah guarded. There is a sense that God has transferred something of his responsibility to women. When juxtaposed with the idea of man as caretaker of women, then men protect women (something of this world, or the mundane) and women protect something God protected (the transcendent).
In categorising differences between men and women, many commentators focus on psychological and emotive differences. These are not really differences. Behaviour can be controlled. Indeed, as the modern world has shown, women can more or less do what men can do. They can lead nations, they can write tomes, they can fight, they can be scientists or they can be weightlifters. Overall, as seen in sports, men are stronger and faster. But this is one of extent, not of ability.
Instead, the one true difference between men and women is that women have the capacity to create. It is within their bodies that a soul gathered on the day that God asked “Am I not your lord” is given its physical form. Women are the conduits between the transcendent world and the mundane world.
Not all women can create. Likewise, not all women will be wives. However, in merely having the potential to create, a woman is symbolically the nurturer of our souls. Qualities such as compassion, generosity, mercy are generally considered to be feminine qualities. These are the qualities required to enable a person to learn and grow. These are also the qualities that God overwhelmingly defines Himself.
Protecting these qualities is paramount if souls are to be nurtured. Women, as the best exemplars and purveyors of these qualities, have to be safeguarded and protected and more importantly, honoured. So while most translations and legal opinions suggest that women should be protecting her husband’s honour, perhaps God meant it the other way. Perhaps men should be honouring women because they are the guardians of the most highest virtues.
Of course, there is a risk that the egalitarian mind can be apologists for the verse, attempting to reconcile the verse with prevailing norms. However, verses 4:34 and 4:35 combined are quite layered, expounding on principles, authority and hierarchy. It requires a longer discussion, yet if one is expected to honour women as a fundamental principle of behaviour, then any instances of punishment can only be justified in most severe of circumstances. It is akin to the respect people have for their leaders. We honour them, we humble ourselves to them, we respect them, we eulogise them and we obey them…but only up to the point that they fail in their duties to look after us. What that point is hard to determine. All that can be said is that only in the most drastic of circumstances can rebellion be justified.
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