The Styles of Addressing Women in the Qur'an
To some readers of Allah's mighty Book, curiosity regarding ways in which Allah communicates with women may arise. Why the Qur'an sounds the way it does in various places? Yet it feels it has addressed both men and women?
All sincere readers of the Qur'an see that the Qur'an is a plea to both male and female, yet, it is not understood the styles in which it is addressing women and why it deals with issues pertaining to womankind in the way it does at certain places. To these readers, who include believers, the questions are significant, but the answers are not available or if they are, they are not satisfying or comprehensive to their minds. Thus, the curiosity remains in them.
Generally, there are five styles of addressing women used in the Qur'an. These are as follows in the order of general popularity of use in the Qur'an:
1) A verse addresses men, yet women are discussed in relation to them, e.g. "Forbidden for you are your mothers, your daughters, your sisters..." (Qur'an 4:23).
2) Women are addressed in the third person, e.g. "Divorced women should wait by themselves for three menstrual cycles." (Qur'an 2:228).
3) Women are addressed directly along with men in the expression, e.g. "You who believe...".
4) General expression which keeps both men and women in third person but addresses both explicitly, e.g. "Believing men and women are protectors of one another..." (Qur'an 9:71).
5) A direct address to women in the first person, e.g. "Wives of the Prophet! You are not like other women..." (Qur'an 33:32)
Out of the five styles, the style which arouses most curiosity is the first style, and which happens to be a common one. In this style, a topic related to women are addressed via the men. In other words, men are addressed, but women are kept as the third party in relation to men. There are many examples of this in the Qur'an, some of them are as follows:
"When you divorce women, and they are near the end of waiting period, then either retain them with courtesy or release them..." (Qur'an 2:231)
"If you divorce them before you touched them but have already allotted them dowry, they should have half the amount which you have alotted..." (Qur'an 2:237)
"Those of you who die leaving wives behind should make a bequest to their wives of maintenance for a year without them having to leave their homes. But if they do leave, you are not blamed for anything they do with themselves with correctness and courtesy. Allah is Almighty, All-Wise." (Qur'an 2:240)
"If any of your women commits indecency, call four witnesses from among you..." (Qur'an 4:15)
"You who believe! It is not lawful for you to inherit women by force. Nor may you treat them harshly so that you can make off with part of what you have given them, unless they commit an act of flagrant indecency. Live together with them correctly and courteously..." (Qur'an 4:19)
To realise and understand why it is necessary to utilise this way of addressing women, it is necessary to understand the hierarchal structure of the society at the time of the Prophet, and the path Quranic injunctions regarding women had to take in order to be implemented among believing women.
In order for an instruction to be implemented, in usual cases, it had to be implemented through men. This is because, it was the men in 7th century Arabia who kept women in a subjugated and isolated state under male control in every social sphere - and guidance of the Qur'an first reached the men via the Prophet.
It is paramount to understand the socio-cultural environment of the Prophet. In 7th century Arabia of the Prophet, men were dominant face of society. The prophet dwelled among mostly men, where women were either despised, or neglected or were only reached through the men of the society who were in charge of them. Through these men who featured in the environment of the Prophet, most of whom were subject to the prejudices of the mind 7th century Arabia imposed on them, the teachings of Allah had to transpire to womankind. Also, not only did information flowed through men to women, the liberation of women of 7th century Arabia, would involve significant shifts in the minds of men, more so than women (not to suggest the intended changes of the Qur'an were ever successfully achieved).
"They assign to Allah (the female child), which they hate, while their tongues assert the faleshood that they will have what is good, (the male child)."
The information flow from the Qur'an to women was not a direct and free-flowing one. Usually, any change in the treatment of women as well as implementations of Quranic rulings regarding them first had to be accepted by men who were in charge of them (for example, details pertaining to divorce and inheritance). To reach women or to bring change in their treatment in 7th century Arabia, the Qur'an had to take the following path:
Generally speaking, it was only possible to reach women via the men. And generally speaking, men were the subjugators and needed to be addressed regarding the women in their lives. Reaching women, was not easy - but bringing change via men was the way in the tribal 7th century Arabia.
Therefore, those verses that refer to women in the following style can now be understood much better: "You who believe! It is not lawful for you to inherit women by force", "If any of your women commits indecency", "Those of you who die leaving wives behind...", "If you divorce them before you touched them...", "When you divorce women...". Today, there has been some improvement in the perception of women compared to the olden days.
Towards recent times, it has become increasingly acceptable in the Arab Muslim world for women to partake in public matters with men, compared to the time of the Prophet. The Quranic styles of addressing women and bringing change in society concerning women reflects the stylistic need of the environment of 7th century Arabia and not necessarily a modern day or Quranic one - still, a lot remains to be improved today to bring it in line with the ethics of the Qur'an.
Other styles such as second person, or direct addressing of women are also used. Each style is used depending on the need of how the Quranic injunction needs to reach women in that given society. In other words, when a given teaching is most beneficial to be received in a particular way, the Qur'an will use that style. For example, the verse regarding nursing children for two full years is most efficient for implementation if addressed to mothers, "Mothers should nurse their children for two full years - those who wish to complete the full term of nursing." (Qur'an 2:233), thus it bypasses men in this example.
The principles, rulings, inspiration and status the Glorious Qur'an gives regarding womankind are solely to bring honour and dignity to women of the entire world. To understand the Qur'an in its truest sense of equality, it must not be taken out of it socio-historical context. The various styles of addressing women used in the Qur'an should be appreciated as such and its message surrounding believing women remains universal at every era for all believing women regardless of the styles used.
"Whoever does good work, whether be male or female, being a believer, we will make them live a good life. We will then reward them with the best of what they did". (Qur'an 16:97)
The Qur'an is not an ordinary book revealed to simply impress a universal mind, it was revealed over a span of years and tailored to bring gradual but dramatic changes in a very particular society characterised by misogyny and phallogocentrism.
"It is a decisive statement, not mere pleasantries." (Qur'an 86:13-14).
The Qur'an utilises the most effective styles of bringing change in that society.
"Their Lord has answered them: 'I will not allow the deeds of any one of you to be lost, whether you are male or female, each is like the other.' " (Qur'an 3:195)
To conclude, the styles of addressing women in the Qur'an are optimised to expedite the implementation of Quranic morality and ethics in bringing believing women on par with men taking into consideration the backdrop of 7th century Arabia. One key to understanding the Qur'an is to realise the need to know the greater historical, cultural and social contexts in which the Glorious Qur'an was revealed in, even though the Qur'an is a book that explains its self. As we have seen, the styles of addressing women in the Qur'an is an example of the socio-historical context of the Qur'an.
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