What does it mean that men are “protectors and maintainers” of women?
To answer this question, let us first look at the Arabic word that we are translating as “protectors and maintainers”. This word is “qawwâmûn” the plural of “qawwâm”.
This word – qawwâm – in turn, is an emphatic form of the word “qayyim”, which means a person who manages the affairs of others. The qayyim of a people is the one who governs their affairs and steers their course. Likewise, the qayyim of a woman is either her husband or her guardian – the one who has to look after her and ensure that her needs are met.
When Allah says: “Men are the qawwâmûn of women…” it means – and Allah knows best – that men are held liable for handling the affairs of women and are responsible for the women under their care. A husband, therefore, has the responsibility of taking care of his wife, protecting her, defending her honor, and fulfilling her needs regarding her religion and her worldly life. It does not mean – as all too many people have falsely assumed – that he has the right to behave obstinately towards her, compel her, subject her to his will, suppress her individuality, and thus heinously negate her identity.
His status as protector and maintainer is pure responsibility, pure liability, and not so much a position of authority. It requires from him that he uses his good sense, thinks carefully about what he does, and exercises patience. It means that he cannot be hasty and offhanded in his decisions. It does not mean that he can disregard his wife’s opinions and belittle her good person.
Why does Islam make men the protectors and maintainers of women?
The verse gives us two reasons why men are given this burden to shoulder. Allah says: “…because of what Allah has preferred one with over the other…” and “…because of what they spend to support them from their wealth.”
A problem arises when it is said that men have a preference to women. Then we see all those organizations, establishments, and activists who call to women’s equality stirring into motion, jumping up ready to fight over this point, and going off on all kinds of tangents in their thinking. Rather, they should pause long enough to properly understand what it means when Allah says: “…because of what Allah has preferred one with over the other …” This proper understanding can only be had in the light of the Qur’ân and Sunnah and their sound application.
Those who go overboard in asserting the rights of women and claim that the woman in Islam is oppressed and that Islam does not do her justice are driven to the point where they transgress against the very texts of the Qur’ân and Sunnah. In the name of “equality”, they demand absolute uniformity in matters of inheritance, in governance, and in everything else wherein a distinction between the sexes is made, sometimes taking matters so far that it is the men who have to chase after the hope of equality with women.
This brings us back to the question of what the verse is saying. Is it indicating that there is some inherent preference of men over women, something that is built into their very natures? The scholars of Qur’ânic commentary have taken two approaches to this matter.
The first approach is to refer the matter of the verse back to the natural makeup of men and women, with respect to their intellects, their different manners of thinking, and their natural strengths. They found that men, by nature, are more hot-blooded, tending more towards strength and severity, while women’s natures are cooler, tending more towards gentleness and weakness.
The second approach is to look at it from a legal angle – that Allah has imposed upon men to pay dowries to the women they wish to marry and has made men liable to spend on women and provide for them. This is the preference that men have over them. Likewise, Allah has placed prophecy with men only, as there has never been a woman prophet. In the same way, Allah has made the offices of supreme political authority and the obligations of jihad the exclusive domain of men.
The issue of testimony is also brought up in this regard, for Allah says: “And bring to witness two witnesses from among your men. And if there are not two men available, then a man and two women from those whom you accept as witnesses – so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her.” [Sûrah al-Baqarah: 282]
Others using this approach have cited certain acts of worship, like the fact that the Friday prayer and congregational prayers are prescribed only for men and not made compulsory on women.
The fact that men can have four wives while women cannot have more than one husband, or the fact that men have the exclusive option of immediate divorce have also been advanced as an interpretations.
With respect to both of these approaches, there are two observations that we can make:
The first is that the followers of both approaches agree on a preference of men over woman on the basis of Allah’s words: “…because of what they spend to support them from their wealth.”
The second is that the opinions of the commentators regarding whether or not the preferentiality refers to the natures of men and women is all based on their discretionary opinions (ijtihâd) with respect to their understanding of the verse. In any event, it would be fair to say that Allah has indeed singled out men for certain distinctions – prophethood, supreme political office, jihad, and military service, among other things – and this is because men have a nature different than that of women. This is a conclusion that all reasonable people would have to agree upon. The obligation imposed upon men by Islam to protect and maintain women should be seen in the context of the difference in their natural makeup and that the purpose for this is to secure the best interests of women.
Allah’s laws always accord with nature and take into consideration the unique gifts that Allah has bestowed upon each half that makes up the human whole – the man and the woman, so that those gifts can be employed to their maximum effectiveness.
We must remain cognizant of the fact that both men and women are Allah’s creations. And that Allah would never oppress any of His creatures. He prepares each of His creations to the purpose that he intends for it and bestows upon it the innate abilities needed to carry out that purpose.
Allah has made it of the exclusive qualities of women that they fall pregnant, bear children, and nurse them. Therefore, she is by nature burdened with the care of what the union between a man and a woman brings about, and it is an immense responsibility. Not only is it a heavy responsibility, it is a critical one, not something that can be approached lightly, without the physical, mental, and emotional preparation that Allah has bestowed exclusively upon women.
On this basis, it is only just that Allah would burden the other half of humanity – the men – with the task of fulfilling the needs of those women and protecting them, and that He would bestow upon men the innate physical, mental, and emotional qualities that would allow them to excel in doing what is required of them. Moreover, he would require men to be financially liable for the women under his care, since this is a necessary consequence of the duties he has to carry out. These two elements are, essentially, what the verse is talking about.
It is interesting to point out that the examples given by the commentators who follow the legal approach – things like prophethood, supreme political office, military duty, and carrying out certain religious rites like the call to prayer and congregational worship – are merely consequential of the natural dispensation of men. The reason these duties are suited to men is because men are not otherwise preoccupied with domestic burdens that would prevent them from carrying them out.
Though prophethood, for instance, is an honor of the highest degree, it is by no means the cause of why men are the protectors and maintainers of women. The distinction of prophethood can neither be derived from these duties, nor is it remotely indicative of any general preference of men with regards to women. It is but a fact that all the prophets were men.
Likewise, when we look at religious duties like making the call to prayer, leading the prayers, and giving the Friday sermon, we must acknowledge that these duties were given to men by the decree of Islamic Law. In no way do they necessitate that men are distinguished with every other possible legal ruling. Had Allah instead delegated these religious duties to women, this would not in any way have prevented men from being burdened with their protection and maintenance.
I must reiterate the point that the protection and maintenance given to men over women in no way implies the denial of the woman’s identity, whether in the context of the home or her position in society at large. It is merely a role to be played by men within the family environment so that this important social institution can be properly managed, safeguarded, and upheld. The presence of a manager in a given institution does not negate or diminish the individuality or the rights of the others who share in it or of those who work for it. Islam has clearly defined what the protection and maintenance of women entails for men – the care and protection, the manners and behaviors, and all liabilities associated with it.
How the Prophet (peace be upon him) put this duty into practice
The Prophet (peace be upon him) was not an emperor who lorded over his family. When we look carefully at his life, we would find it the most eloquent testimony of what we have stated above – that a man’s protection and maintenance of women in no way entails obstinacy, compulsion, or subjugation.
`A’ishah said about her husband: “When he was at home, he was totally involved in housework.”
He was very clement. One of his wives woke up in the middle of the night and discovered that the Prophet (peace be upon him) was not beside her, though it was her night to have him with her. She tells us that she locked the door on him, thinking that he had gone to one of his other wives on her night. When he returned after a short while to find that she had locked him out of the house and asked her to open the door, she confronting him on why he had gone out. He calmly told her that he simply had needed to go to the bathroom.
On many occasions, his wives would argue with each other in his presence. He never got angry when they did. He always solved their problems with wisdom, gentleness, and sensitivity, never with harshness. This shows us what a man’s role as protector and maintainer of women is all about.
On one occasion, his wife Hafsah chided her co-wife Safiyyah by calling her “the daughter of a Jew”. This was true, because Safiyyah’s father, Hubayy b. Akhtab, was in fact a Jew who had died without ever accepting Islam. Still, such a comment was meant as a take on Safiyyah’s person, which was only more hurtful as it was coming from her co-wife. So when she heard what Hafsah had said, she started to cry.
The Prophet (peace be upon him) then came in and asked her why she was crying. She said: “Hafsah called me the daughter of a Jew.”
To this the Prophet (peace be upon him) replied: “Verily, you are the daughter of a Prophet, your uncle was also a Prophet, and you are the wife of a Prophet, so what does she have over you to boast about?”
He then turned to Hafsah and said: “Fear Allah, O Hafsah.”
In an alternate narration, the Prophet is reported to have turned to Safiyyah and said: “Why didn’t you say: ‘So how can you be better than me? Muhammad is my husband. Aaron is my father, and Moses is my uncle.”
Safiyyah was a descendant of Aaron (peace be upon him). So, when Hafsah insinuated that Safiyyah’s being the daughter of a Jew was something bad, the Prophet (peace be upon him) showed Hafsah another way of looking at it: that Safiyyah was the descendant of Prophet Aaron and that her uncle was Moses, and that her husband was Muhammad (peace be upon them all), so there was no reason for her to be ashamed.
Anyone who would take the man’s status in Islam as the protector and maintainer of women and use it as a pretext to oppress women is committing a crime against Islam.
Islam has guaranteed women their rights as individuals, including their right to have and express their own opinions. The Sunnah is full of examples of this.
We have, for instance, where Khawlah bint Tha`labah complained to the Prophet (peace be upon him) about her husband who foreswore ever again having sex with her by the old pagan custom of claiming her to be like the back of his mother, whereupon the following verse of the Qur’ân was revealed: “Allah has indeed heard the words of the woman who pleads with you concerning her husband and carries her complaint (in prayer) to Allah…” [Sûrah al-Mujâdlah: 1] followed by the verses abolishing that oppressive custom.
We can look at the case of Khunsâ’, who’s father married her off with her disapproval, so the Prophet (peace be upon him) had her marriage annulled.
In another instance, a young woman complained to `A’ishah, saying: “My father married me to his brother’s son in order to raise his social status. However, I hate it.” When the Prophet (peace be upon him) heard her complaint, he gave her the option of having the marriage annulled. She said: “O Messenger of Allah! I have accepted what my father has done. However, I wanted to know that women had a choice in the matter.”
Then we have the story of Burayrah and her husband Mughîth. Both of them were slaves. When she acquired her freedom, she had the legal right of staying with her husband who was still a slave, or of leaving him. She chose to leave him and he began following after her, crying for her to return to him. The Prophet (peace be upon him) said to her: “If only you would go back to him.”
She asked: “O Messenger of Allah! Are you commanding me?”
He said: “No. I am only pleading on his behalf.”
She replied: “Then I have no use for him.”
On another occasion, a woman came to the Prophet (peace be upon him), complaining that men are given the opportunities of military duty, congregational worship, and other things. The Prophet (peace be upon him) let it be known that he was very pleased with her question and with her manner of address.
During the reign of the Caliph `Umar b. al-Khattâb, we have the story of a woman who rebuked him while he was on the pulpit about a decree he wished to make. To this, he said publicly: “`Umar is mistaken and this woman is correct.”
We can go on citing examples of women’s right to speak their own minds, even before the heads of state, not to mention their husbands. From this, we should be able to keep the status of men as protectors and maintainers of women in the proper perspective.