Defining the term women – pt-d
The verse lists a woman’s male relatives to whom she is not prohibited to show her zina: to her brother, her father, her son, the father of her husband, and so forth. In the context of this list a woman’s husband, by necessity, assumes the status of a ba’l because a zawj husband with all his conjugal rights would be allowed to see his wife entirely naked and would not need an explicit (thus, redundant) permission to see other parts of her body! Verse 72 of Surat Hud gives us an example of how precisely the Book distinguishes between zawj and ba’l; we notice how Abraham, when he had passed his sexually active years, was now called by his wife her ba’l husband, not any longer her zawj husband: She said: “Alas for me! Shall I bear a child, seeing I am an old woman, and my husband here [ba’li] is an old man? … (Hud:72)
Another example can be found in baqara:228 in which divorced husbands are categorized as ba’l, not as zawj, since it is clear that they have ceased to have sexual intercourse with their former wives:
Divorced women shall wait concerning themselves for three monthly periods. Nor is it lawful for them to hide what God has created in their wombs, if they have faith in God and the Last Day. And their husbands women and islamic law [bu’ulatuhunna] have the better right to take them back in that period (Baqara:228)
Divorced husbands may still have close contacts to their divorced wives and their children, they may even continue to be the bread winner of the family, and in some cases they may even still live in the same house as the rest of the family, but mostly their (sexual) intimacy with their former wives has stopped. The term that uniquely signifies this special relationship between a men and a woman is ba’l.
Since the verse in question (4:128) uses the term ba’l, not zawj, we can now safely say that contrary to popular belief, it does not discuss the sexual relationship between a wife and her husband. Instead it addresses a woman’s social relationship with the ba’l provider of the family who possesses qiwama. Two things that can put a strain on such a relationship are mentioned:
- Nushuz: a man becomes a despot and a tyrant to his family, which results in (complete) loss of freedom: the woman is not allowed, without his prior consent, to do anything in the household, not even the smallest things of everyday life. Good leadership (qiwama) is thus lost and has turned into bad leadership.
- Neglect: a man does not fulfil his duties: he is absent from work,irresponsibly spends money that he has not earned himself and is—as the Arabs say—‘swept around by the winds of the day’.
A woman can respond to this dreadful situation in two ways. She can accept it and regard it as God-given. This is, unfortunately, what most women in the Arab world do, despite the fact that the Book encourages them to actively try to seek a way out of the predicament (e.g., ‘there is no blame on them if they arrange an amicable settlement between themselves; and such settlement is best…’ [Nisa”:128]). Or, alternatively, she can refuse to accept it and strongly object to his lack of respect, his despotic attitudes, and his neglect of his family duties. The Book instructs women what to do in this situation.
It resolutely urges women to be firm in their protest and to seek ‘a peaceful settlement, for peace is best’ (:128).
Finally, it is absolutely vital to consider those situations in which an amicable agreement cannot be reached. The text mentions cases when ‘men’s souls are swayed by greed’ (4:128). In this context ‘greed’ must be interpreted as a man’s denial of any wrongdoing on his part. He blames the woman for the breakdown of their relationship while claiming all goodness for himself.
In front of an arbiter, who wants to reconcile the two parties, the man admits no fault in his own behavior, resists all attempts at change, and avoids reflection on the things that have gone wrong in his relationship. Such behavior makes it extremely difficult, if not totally impossible, to mediate and reconcile the differences.
It is most intriguing to see that our verse ends with Allah’s encouragement to practice self-restraint, and that the next verse (4:129) continues the theme by advising against the practice of polygyny. It is as if polygyny is seen as one of the reasons why men forget their duties and neglect their families.
But if you do good and practice self-restraint, God is well-acquainted with all that you do. (Nisa”:128) You are never able to be fair and just as between women, even if it is your ardent desire: But turn not away (from a woman) altogether, so as to leave her (as it were) hanging (in the air). If you come to a friendly understanding, and practice self-restraint, God is oft-forgiving, most merciful. (Nisa”:129) It should be stressed again that the problem of ‘injustice between women’ is not primarily sexual negligence. Injustice is caused by negligence regarding all the other aspects of family life: care for children, support of elderly people in the family, provision of food and clothes, mortgage payments, and so on. This is exactly how the previous verse defined men’s nushuz and neglect as the two reasons why men have lost their qiwama.