Part of the feedback to my April 6 Local View column, “Quran forbids men from hurting wives,” indicated a mistaken inference by some that Islam gives husbands and wives an unequal partnership in marriage. I would like to make it clear that Islam not only forbids men from abusing women under any circumstance; it also champions gender equality.
In my column, I discussed women’s “disobedience” to describe a serious spousal conflict. I think that, in part, can be blamed for the confusion.
The Arabic word “nashuz” used in the quoted Quranic verse does not mean a simple act of disobedience; rather, it implies a clear deviation from the expected conduct of a partner that poses a tangible threat to the marriage or family integrity, e.g., having an extramarital affair or losing the family’s life savings in a poker game. While either partner could commit such evil acts, the Quran advises only the man to curb his anger and to try his best to reconcile when it is his wife who is at fault. A Muslim man can divorce his wife only after all attempts to reconcile fail. On the contrary, Islam makes it easier for a Muslim woman to part ways with an evil-doing husband by giving her the right to seek divorce with or without a reason. In Pakistan, where men can find many un-Islamic ways to exploit women, a woman’s right to seek divorce at her discretion is the law.
In all other matters, Islam gives both men and women equal rights, including the right to an education, to choose whom to marry, or which career to pursue. Although the Quran makes the husband responsible for providing for the family and the wife responsible for homemaking, it neither restricts them to lend a hand to each other nor does it make one superior to the other.
The illusion of men’s superiority prevailed when humans lived in caves and men brought home food while women performed mundane chores. In today’s civilized world, where providing for families requires much more than bringing home food and where women are fully capable of taking care of themselves, if men continue to boast superiority and usurp women’s rights, then perhaps we have not come out of the caves yet.
We can claim to be civilized only if men help out with household chores, even when the man is the sole provider, and if women are free to choose to be homemakers without losing their equal status in society or to pursue any career of their choice with confidence, demanding similar salaries as men for the same jobs. The real worth of a man or a woman should not be gauged by the titles of their roles or the sizes of their paychecks but by the energy and wisdom they invest in nurturing relationships at home, in supporting their company’s mission at work and in benefiting the community at large.
I have known many career women in my life who have earned my utmost respect because of the intellect and leadership they command in their professions, leaving many men far behind. On the other side of the spectrum, I equally respect my wonderful mother, who not only cherished homemaking but, when my father lost his job, helped provide for the family using her extraordinary talent in painting and embroidery. Last but not least I adore my wonderful wife, who not only takes pride in homemaking but does an immense amount of volunteer work without earning a single penny in spite of having an education and skills for a lucrative career.
Coming back to the Islamic concept of equal partnership in marriage, let me sum up with a Quranic injunction: “They (women) are a garment for you and you (men) are a garment for them.” Just like a garment, both husband and wife equally are obligated to adorn, comfort and protect each other, physically as well as emotionally. Any other discriminatory practice, whether it is barring girls from schools in Afghanistan or unequal gender pay in America, is as un-Islamic as it is uncivilized.
M. Imran Hayee is a professor of electrical engineering at the University of Minnesota Duluth (d.umn.edu/~ihayee). He belongs to the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community of USA.