If the woman is the breadwinner of the house, is she regarded as superior?

The Details of the Question

- It is stated in an-Nisa 34 that it is the necessity of the head of the family to spend their goods and hence men are superior. However, some women earn their living themselves and take care of the household. Does the verse say the man is the head of the family?
- If the woman is the breadwinner, is she superior?
- The verse says a degree of superiority. Why?
- Because both men and women have different superiorities, like the man’s being superior in inheritance and divorce.

The Answer

Dear Brother / Sister,

Since this issue is frequently asked, is abused by some circles and used for the purpose of Islamophobia, we think it will be useful to explain it in detail:

It is known that the woman was regarded as a second-class creature compared to the man both as a human being and in terms of rights and duties in many religions and cultures before Islam.

The state of women was not different in the Arabs of Jahiliyya (Ignorance) either; the rights of girls and women as mothers, wives, siblings and children were left to the will and decision of men. They used to give what they wanted and take what they wanted.

Umar (ra) expresses that historical fact as follows:

“During the Age of Ignorance, we did not take women into consideration and attach importance to them. It continued like that until Allah sent down some verses about them and gave them certain rights…” (Muslim, Talaq, 31, et al.)

The verse stating that “women also have rights equal to their duties” (see al-Baqara, 2/228) is an unmatched “human rights” rule and “women’s rights document” if the conditions of that period are considered in particular. The three conditions in the verse, which gives a general framework instead of listing the rights and duties one by one, are of great importance in terms of the nature, degree and changing ability of women’s rights:

a) Women are not absolutely equal to men in terms of rights; the relation between the rights of both is “similarity and equivalence”.

b) The change and balance of rights and duties other than what the verses of the Quran render unchangeable can be adjusted according to social conditions and legitimacy measures (ma’ruf) in public conscience.

c) When the rights and duties are compared, it will be seen that there is a degree of superiority in the rights of men.

Those decrees can be explained as follows in detail:

1. The individual needs the society, and the society needs organization and order. An order in all institutions, from the state to the family, necessitates an administration; an administration, on the other hand, necessitates the mutual rights, authorities, duties and responsibilities of the administrators and the administered people to be made clear and balanced.

All people, men and women, are equal in humanity and in human rights and obligations. As for the division of labor and different roles required by the administration and order, values and criteria such as “balance, justice, equity, competence, ability” come into play instead of equality.

Islam made men and women equal in rights and duties related to being humans and servants. All discourses expressing that women are inferior to men in humanity and servitude are either inaccurate in terms of their religious sources or have been misunderstood and misinterpreted.

As for the rights and obligations related to different roles in institutions and society, there is not equality between women and men, but a balance and men’s rights having the measure of equivalence and similarity. Some examples from the old socioeconomic relations: while the woman bakes bread and cooks food, her husband provides the tools and materials; the husband provides sustenance for the family while the woman takes care of her child; while the woman remains loyal to her husband, the husband will be loyal to her and will treat his wife and children fairly.

Similarity of rights and duties that are close to equality is in question related to issues such as getting on well with each other, protecting chastity, applying to an arbitrator in case of incompatibility, counseling and cooperation in family management and raising children.

2. A criterion of legitimacy that religion regards as an arbitrator and gives a role in the change and development of rights and duties that are not determined by the verses of the Quran is “ma’ruf”.

Ma’ruf means “the values, rules, considerations, recognitions, traditions that are formed, developed and changed when necessary, within the framework of the undistorted nature, the mind that is not negatively conditioned, the basic purpose of religion and its scriptures”.

It is not permissible for a woman to be married to more than one man at the same time. This rule is certain according to unchangeable religious texts and conforms to the criteria of ma’ruf. This rule cannot be changed for the sake of equalizing or balancing rights, or based on the common-law cohabitation phenomenon that has become widespread in some Western countries.

However, there may be changes in the roles of husband and wife inside and outside the home – in parallel with the change of ma’ruf.

As a matter of fact, the Prophet (pbuh) distributed the roles between his son-in-law Ali and his daughter Fatima and said, “Let Fatima do the housework such as carrying water, cleaning the house, baking bread and cooking and let Ali to do the things outside the house” but some fiqh scholars say that this division is not binding and permanent and that it may vary according to ma’ruf. (Ibn Qayyim, Zadul-Maad, V, 186 ff.)

Umar (ra) points out another change and development experienced in the years when Islam emerged as follows:

“We were such people among the Quraysh who dominated women, and as we reached Madinah, we found there people who were dominated by their women, and our women began to learn the habits of their women. Once, I became angry with my wife and she retorted upon me. I did not like that she should retort upon me. She said, ‘You disapprove of my retorting upon you. By Allah, the wives of the Prophet (pbuh) retort upon him, and one of them detaches herself from him for the day until the night.’ So, I went out and asked my daughter Hafsa and she confirmed it. (Muslim, Talaq, 34)

According to another narration in the same source, Umar also asked Umm Salama about the issue. She reproached him by saying, “Umar! I am surprised by you! You interfere with everything. Are you now getting between the Messenger of Allah and his wives?” (Muslim, Talaq, 31)

The sound narrations above shed light on the important changes that took place in the relationship between men and women in a short time as a result of the great revolution made by Islam.

3. What is the one-degree superiority of men in general over women in general apart from the exceptions and what is it based on?

Seeking an answer to the question above, the previous tafsir scholars and mujtahids put forward the following as a reason: The physical strength, superior intellect and strong will of men.

Since there is no doubt that the physical strength of the men is greater than that of the women, the differences in rights and duties based on it are natural.

The claim that men have superior intellect is based on the following hadith: “I have seen none lacking in common sense and failing in religion but (at the same time) robbing the wisdom of the wise, besides you.” (Muslim, Iman, 132).

However, the reason why the hadith above was uttered is not to explain the difference in common sense (intellect) between men and women. Besides, the Prophet was asked by the women what is meant by “lacking in common sense” mentioned in the hadith. The Prophet (pbuh) explained lacking in common sense “two women witnesses being required in return for one man in witnessing” and failing in religion as “not performing prayers and not fasting during menstruation”.

The issue of witnessing is explained as follows in verse 282 of the chapter of al-Baqara:

“…And get two witnesses, out of your own men, and if there are not two men, then a man and two women, such as ye choose, for witnesses, so that if one of them errs, the other can remind her

In financial issues, the witnesses are to be either two men or one man and two women. Anything less is not enough to prove the claim. The fact that one man is not enough is not due to the reason that he lacks in intellect and honesty, but the wisdom of being more cautious so that the rights and receivables will not be lost.

The condition of two women instead of one is not because of the doubt or judgment about the adequacy of a single woman’s intellect and honesty, but because they are more likely to forget or confuse things in terms of their special circumstances, status, psychology, and their relation with life outside the home; in other words, it is a precaution against the loss of rights.

The woman is not perceived as a person of a second class and degree in this respect; therefore, it is not said “if there is no man”; the testimony of women is accepted even if there is a man.

As it can be understood when attention is paid to the expression of the verse, it is a woman who testifies in the testimony of two women; that is, a woman is like a man in terms of completing the nisab (the number required for witnessing). The other woman’s duty consists of reminding her, helping her remember if her fellow woman forgets or is mistaken.

As for lacking in religion of women, they do not perform prayers and they not fast - but make up for it later - because they are prohibited from performing them during menstruation. It has nothing to do with lacking in religion in a negative sense. It is clear that what is meant by “religion” here is “obligation”, and hence lacking in religion is used in the sense of “exemption from obligation”.

After stating a fact, the meaning and purpose of the related hadith is to make the following warning based on it: “Even though you are like that, you can still influence and deceive men. Do not abuse that characteristic and ability yours.”

It is not denied that there are differences in the psychology of men and women, including willpower.

The physiological and biological structures of the two sexes are also different from each other.

Although there are exceptions, the heavy burden and the main role in providing the livelihood of the house generally belongs to the man. It is on the basis of those fundamental and unchangeable differences that men are given a degree of extra right.

That right is the right of “protecting and managing” (qawwam) explained in the chapter of an-Nisa (4/34).

Previous fiqh scholars unanimously adopted the priority of men in family and state administration. There are different ijtihads in other areas of judgment and administration.

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