4.4.9 The Interpretive Legacy of Qiwamah

Female racing driver Aseel Al Hamad celebrated the end of the Saudi Arabian ban on women drivers on June 24th, 2018, with a lap of honor. Photo Credit: Jaguar MENA, 2018.


In this work of exegetical analysis, Omaima Abou-Bakr traces in detail the ways in which the Qur’anic term qawwamun, from verse 4:34, became an “independent and separate” foundation for shifting and evolving interpretations justifying men’s authority over women (44). Dr. Abou-Bakr is professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University. The chapter, part of the 2015 book Men in Charge?: Rethinking Authority in Muslim Legal Tradition, notes how contingent elements of the original verse have been elided to broaden men’s authority over women to other situations and restrict women from all but the domestic sphere. She also presents four ways in which contemporary Islamic studies scholars are addressing verse 4:34 and questions of gender hierarchy.


Guiding Questions:

  1. How did al-Tabari’s ideas of moral hierarchy turn “the restricted meaning of providing financial support” to “an unconditional favouritism based on gender” (48)?
  2. Why is it important that al-Zamakhshari “dropped the reference to economic provision” in his writings arguing male superiority over women?
  3. Are any of the “mixed bag of innate qualities, social customs, and fiqhi deductions” Al-Zamakhshari used to justify divine preference for men over women still used to explain male authority in your community?
  4. Why does Abou-Bakr argue that the context of the 13th and 14th century Mamluk period, where women participated “in the public arena in various fields,” is relevant to tafsir like that by al-Suyuti prohibiting wives from leaving the home without their husband’s approval (53)?
  5. What “modernist” and “scientific” reasons are used in the fourth stage to justify a limited sphere for women and assure men’s superiority?
  6. Have you heard people argue that women are “ruled by nurturing drives and emotions,” while men are reasonable and rational, and therefore women are “unsuitable for any work other than motherhood” and caretaking (56)?
  7. In their interpretation of 4:34, the Higher Council of Islamic Affairs of Egypt claims that “men have the right of… care of women,” arguing that men are the ones who earn money, not women. Is this a realistic interpretation of contemporary life? Also, note how the interpretation gives men a “right,” rather than a duty based on certain contextual material privileges.
  8. Describe one reformist interpretive strategy.


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Note: Reproduced with permission of Oneworld Publications through PLSclear.