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What does it mean that men are “Qawwamun” over women?

What does it mean that men are “Qawwamun” over women?


What does it mean that men are ‘qawwamun’ over women? I see translations saying it means “maintainer/protector” but I want to know how, from this word, it is derived that men are given the authority to govern and manage the lives of the women in their life or that they are given the authority as leader/head of their house holds. I thought Islam wasn’t meant to be patriarchal so why are these opinions the mainstream?

Salaam alykum,

The other day I was leading a discussion and a topic very similar to this emerged. The usual question I get is “How does Islam deal with this?” or “How can Islam allow this?”

There are two issues that were being discussed that day and two issues that you are discussing: (1) the relative treatment of women in patriarchal societies and (2) what the “source material,” in this case Islam, says on this issue, namely whether it supports this or not.

What is unique about Muslims is that they are the only people whose issues are explored via the lens of formal religion, no one attempts to find a connection between Buddhism and the actions of Burmese against the Rohingya, for instance, and what is actually funny is that Muslims themselves have went from defending themselves against these sorts of questions, to actually perceiving of problems in Muslim countries within the constraints of formal Islam.

In a sense, this can be a good thing, in that Muslims in America can provide a methodology towards applying solutions through actual Islamic frameworks, which has created far greater change than other avenues in the Muslim world. On the other hand, it is also a bad thing, because instead of exploring issues like the perceptions of class, socio-economic factors, or the particular politics of the particular people in question, Muslims declare other Muslims to be “failing” in their duty to uphold Islam or Islamic values; we condemn, are satisfied to do so, and complain that nothing changes.

This process is done by the entire spectrum of Muslims, whether “liberal” or “conservative,” and it is destructive because it obfuscates pragmatic concerns entirely at the expense of exploring the historical opinions of a legal framework (Shariah) that is not in use anymore, at least formally.

So, questions like yours, come from a confused point, they also assume things that are not true. Take, for example, your assertion that these opinions are “mainstream,” or that it is from this term that men are given this authority. Where are we talking about? Nigeria? Indonesia? Egypt? What is “mainstream?” Are you speaking about on a scholarly level? The level of the everyday population? Who?

Yet, the most pressing question is, in my mind, why do we think thatMuslim populations are unique in their patriarchy, simply because they are Muslim?

Therefore, it is from this vantage point that I challenge you, and others, that if you are going to ask questions (and you should, please) about issues pertaining to the Muslim world, refine your questions, be specific, because this talk of this general “Muslim” person harms the study of Muslims and their problems and prevents us from tackling them properly. That we ignore the larger issues means that our prescriptions for change will fall flat, because you cannot discuss patriarchy and ignore socio-economic, educational, and regional factors.

For example, no one would argue that the Wodaabe people, who are Muslims, have cultural constructs that are a product of their Islam. Therefore to say that because of this word in The Qur’an there is patriarchy in the Muslim world is absurd because of the tremendous variance between the experience of Muslim women in Turkey, Indonesia, and Morocco, for instance. Outside the codification of parts of their family law (in many but not all Muslim countries), but again, this is utilizing “Shariah codes” not the actual Principles of Jurisprudence (Usul al-Fiqh), NONE of these countries utilize Islamic Law (Shariah) in their formal legal systems.

In short, I’m saying the following: (1) issues of patriarchy cannot be reduced towards “religion” or “culture,” that is simplistic; (2) your assertions are not the mainstream, nor is it clear what you mean when you say that term; (3) who says men are given this authority, more specifically, what does this mean other than some imprecise, generalized “critique.”

The time it would take to unpack that would be tremendous, and the fact that I do not want to assume your positions on those issues means that I will leave that to another question, because it is so immense, it is akin to asking why racism exists in places.

Therefore, I will address the specific issue of this word “qawwamun” in your question which is found in the following ayah:

“Men shall take full care of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter,” [4:34]

Muhammad Asad in his Tafseer (Qur’anic exegesis) explains this point in the following way:

The expression qawwam is an intensive form of qa’im (“one who is responsible for” or “takes care of” a thing or a person). Thus, qama ‘ala l-mar’ah signifies “he undertook the maintenance of the woman” or “he maintained her” (see Lane VIII, 2995). The grammatical form qawwam is more comprehensive than qa’im, and combines the concepts of physical maintenance and protection as well as of moral responsibility: and it is because of the last-named factor that I have rendered this phrase as “men shall take full care of women”.

There you go, from a linguistic and scholarly point of view, this perspective of men dominating women or whatever is not there, it is simply a statement that charges men with protecting women, which again, Muhammad Asad explains much better than I.

Yet, this statement is perceived as paternalistic for some reason, and I say “some reason” because when this issue is raised, especially on Tumblr, I become even more confused, and I will tell you why:

I have read things that have broke my heart, stories of women and their fears. Reading about how women feel uneasy to walk from class to their car alone, stories from both Muslim and non-Muslim women, the problems that women face, regardless of location, of men who leer, men who intimidate, men who do not accept “no” or how women must say “I have a boyfriend/husband/whatever” to turn away a man… I can keep going, and I’m sure that women can go much longer, but I am confused because set to this backdrop, how is it wrong to tell men to protect women, because it is clear that if men protected women, there wouldn’t be such undercurrents of fear among women.

This phrase is not designed to “rob women of their power” or their agency or anything like that, it has nothing to do with women, it doesn’t apply to women. It is saying: “Hey, men, hi. Sup. So, uh, there are a lot of d-bags out there, so, don’t be a d-bag, be a man, and take care of the women in your life, y’know, provide for your family, help open jars, and make sure she feels safe and secure, not just physically, but emotionally, make sure she feels good in her own skin, because you’re a big part of that.”

If someone chooses to extrapolate past that, then they are overreaching, to be quite honest. If some random Sheikh on youtube says this or that, great, that doesn’t mean anything, not only because patriarchy in societies does not start with religion, but also because the majority of Islamic Scholarship views this differently than some blank cheque to ruin women’s lives.

So, quite frankly, I do not see the connection between this word, or even this ayah, as a “root cause” of patriarchy, nor have I read any reputable scholars who would take this word to mean that they should govern and manage the lives of the women in their life.

If you would like to discuss patriarchy as it relates to societies who are Muslim, please consult reputable academic resources, because I am no expert on the subject, and can only comment as far as the word is utilized in the formal Islamic literature.

I hope this answered your question, insha Allah.

I pray this reaches you and your families in the best of health and Iman, insha Allah.

Please note: If it is clear that you have not read the entirety of my answer, I will delete your message; if you think I am excusing patriarchy, or whatever, please re-read this post, because I am doing no such thing.

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