Women in Islam: Are they subservient to men?
Mohamad Mostafa Nassar
Mufti Muhammad Taqi Usmani
Translation by Adeel
Allah Almighty says in the Qur’an:
الرِّجَالُ قَوَّامُونَ عَلَى النِّسَاءِ بِمَا فَضَّلَ اللَّهُ بَعْضَهُمْ عَلَى بَعْضٍ
Men are in charge (qawwām) of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other.
Today, we find immense propaganda pertaining to feminism and the idea of men and women being equal. In such an environment, the Muslims feel hesitant in stating that men are the leaders and women are the followers because there is a propaganda that men have taken the upper hand and women have been subjugated and disgraced and considered low.
However, the reality in this life man and woman are like two wheels of a cart. Both have to complete the journey of life together and to spend the journey together, it is a must that one be made responsible for the journey. The Prophet (ﷺ) said:
عن أبي سعيد الخدري، أن رسول الله صلى الله عليه وسلم قال: «إذا خرج ثلاثة في سفر فليؤمروا أحدهم»
Narrated Abu Sa’id al-Khudri: The Prophet (ﷺ) said: When three are on a journey, they should appoint one of them as their commander.
If a leader is not appointed, then mismanagement would take place. The instruction of the Prophet (ﷺ) is not only for a long journey but also for short ones. Therefore, if even a short journey requires one to appoint a leader, why wouldn’t the journey of life require a leader as well?
Now there are two ways to it; either the man has to assume the leadership role or the woman, there is no third workable option. Considering the natural abilities, characteristics and strengths required to undertake the task and even from the logical viewpoint we find that man and not woman has been given the qualities require to discharge the duty of leadership.
Therefore, only man is fit for this job. The Creator of both man and woman, who sent both on this journey, knows better as to who to be made the leader. If we obey the order of the Almighty who created us and knows us more than we know ourselves, we would succeed and if we do not obey Him, then the journey is not going to proceed smoothly.
Now coming to the word used for men to lead, Allah Almighty has not used words like ‘king’, ‘ruler’, ‘owner’ or ‘lord’. He has used the word qawwām which refers to a person who is responsible for some task. Man’s being qawwām does not imply woman’s slavery or ownership. Their relationship is that of the leader and the lead. In Islam, the ruler is not one who sits on the throne and rules but a ruler is as defined by the Prophet (ﷺ):
سيد القوم خادمهم
The leader of a people is their servant.
In today’s time when we hear the word leader, we think of a king or a ruler who does not even like to speak to his subjects and not consider speaking to them worthy of their honor. However, the leader as per Qur’an and Hadith is the one who serves and facilitates his subjects and not the one who merely issues orders and seeks to enforce them.
Maulana Ashraf Ali Thanwi (d. 1362/1943) used to say that men who tend to misuse this relation between man and woman and consider women as their servants must keep in mind another verse revealed by Allah Almighty:
وَمِنْ آيَاتِهِ أَنْ خَلَقَ لَكُمْ مِنْ أَنْفُسِكُمْ أَزْوَاجًا لِتَسْكُنُوا إِلَيْهَا وَجَعَلَ بَيْنَكُمْ مَوَدَّةً وَرَحْمَةً إِنَّ فِي ذَلِكَ لَآيَاتٍ لِقَوْمٍ يَتَفَكَّرُونَ
And of His signs is that He created for you from yourselves mates that you may find tranquility in them; and He placed between you affection and mercy. Indeed in that are signs for a people who give thought.
Maulana Thanwi used to say that while man is the leader over woman (as per the Islamic definition of a leader) it also entails a relation of friendship. In terms of management, man is the leader but in terms of relation with each other, he has to be like an intimate friend. The relation is like that of two friends on a journey where one takes the other as his leader.
It is important to note here that Qur’an 4:34 does not say, ‘Allah made men excel over women’ rather it says, ‘Allah has made one of them excel the other.’ The different is evident and significant. The expression used has an indication that man and woman are from each other and if one of them is given a degree over the other it is not to the discredit or the detriment of the other.
In doing so Qur’an actually strikes at the roots of the Western view of gender relationship which is practically that of mutual rivalry and puts it as that of complementary nature. The Prophet (ﷺ) said; “Women are indeed the twin-halves of men.”
– Usmani, Muhammad Taqi, “Islam aur daur hāzir kay shubhāt aur mughaālty” Compiled by Muhammad Umar Anwar, (Karachi: Zamzam Publishers, 2014) 356-358
 Qur’an 4:34
 as-Sajistani, Abu Dawud, as-Sunan, Translated by Yaser Qadhi and Nasiruddin al-Khattab (Riyadh: Maktabat Dar-us-Salam, 2008) Hadith 2609; classified as hasan sahih by al-Albani
 as-Sakhawi, Shams ad-Din, al-Maqasid al-Hasana, (Beirut: Dar al-Kitab al-‘Arabi, 1985) No. 579
 Qur’an 30:21
 Shafi’, Muhammad, Ma’arif al-Qur’an, Translated by Muhammad Shamim (Karachi: Maktaba-e-Darul Uloom, n.d.) Vol.2, 419-420
 as-Sajistani, Abu Dawud, as-Sunan, Hadith 236, Classified as hasan by al-Albani. The last para is added by the translator.