In many societies, men are considered as the heads of the family. This perception has been emphasized through cultures, politics, and religious interpretations. Most people believe that men’s leadership in the family is a normative rule. It seems apply anywhere, anytime and in any circumstance. Such opinion has continued until today and unfortunately some women believe in this male leadership, no matter whether they come from uneducated or highly educated backgrounds. It is hard to find any opinion that women can or able to be the head of the family.
Women or wives have been positioned --or they position themselves-- as subjects that must be ruled, organized, controlled, directed, and must follow the instructions of men or husbands. The position of men has been recognized as the sole authority in the family. It means that all responsibilities and the needs of household affairs were put in their hands. In what way the family will be formed and shaped depends on him. While the woman/wives only function to help and assist the men/husbands.
In Indonesia, the different position of husband and wife is confirmed in the Marriage Law No. 1/1974 and the Compilation of Islamic Law (KHI). The article 79 KHI said: "The husband is the head of the family and the wife is a housewife." In addition, the article 80 stated: "The husband is the supervisor of his wife and household. However, in the matters of important affairs in the households must be decided by both the husband and wife together."
In Muslim societies, the position of men as the heads of the family often refers to the texts in the Qur'an and Prophetic traditions (hadith). Both are the most authoritative sources for the basic law of human life, including domestic affairs. The verses in the Qur'an which talk about this provision has been known by many people, including some secular activists, namely QS. al-Nisa, [4:34).
In the "Qur’anic translation", issued by the Ministry of Islamic Religious Affairs, Saudi Arabia, the verse is translated into Bahasa Indonesia as follows:
"Men are the leaders and maintainers of women, because God has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means...". ( QS. al-Nisa, [4:34).
In this translation, we can see clearly that the word "leader" is the meaning of the Arabic word "qawwam" as mentioned above. The translation of leader is only one view from the other views which refers to the word "qawwam". Al-Tabari, a great professor of the commentators (Shaykh al Mufassirin), interpreting these words: "Ahl al Qiyam 'alaihinn Ta'diibihin fi wa al Akhdz Aydihinn". In short, it means that the men are "educators" of women (the wives).
Fakhr al Din al Razi (d.606 H), another great commentator, interprets "Musallathun 'ala wa al akhdz fawqa Aydinhin. Fa kaannahu Ta’ala Ja'alahu Amiran 'alaiha wa Nafizd al Hukm' alaiha". In summary: "a man is a person entrusted with the power to educate women and guide them." As if God makes them as "rulers" over women and supervisors for women's interests. " Ibn Kathir says: "Huwa raisuha kabiruha wa al hakim ‘alaiha wa muaddibuha idza I'wajjat" (a man/husband is the head, authority, decision maker and educator for woman/wife, if she deviates).
Some other commentators interpret the word "qawwam" differently, including "protection, guidance, supervisor, supporter and so forth. Apart from the various different interpretations, in essence, the commentators agree that men/husbands are superior to women/wives. Concerning these interpretations, people may have different impressions which reflect each different nuance in accordance with their life experiences. In general, these impressions assert that the leadership of men may not be used to oppress, let alone to exploit and hurt women/wives, but for the sake of goodness, including for the women themselves.
One important thing that should be analyzed here is about the reason or rationality behind the belief why men should be the head of the family. In this regard, the verses above have mentioned it, mostly because their God-given superiority over most women. The word of God is very interesting to be observed carefully. God stated very clearly that the word is “some”, not the word is “all”, as understood by many people. This means not all men are God-given superiority over all women. If so, not all women are given inferiorities over men. Some people say that actually men and women have been equally given the advantages, but in different forms. In this way, then, as summarized by Imam al-Razi: "wa la ka annahu fadhla al battah" (it seems that there is no superiority of one over the other).
The next important question is what form the real advantages are given to some of these men? Here, the Qur'an itself does not explain it. Therefore, the commentators (mufassirun) provide explanation about it. Zamakhsyari, a great commentator of the rationalist school of thought, said that the male superiority included the potential of reason (aql), firmness (al hazm), spirit (al-'azm), physical strength (al quwwah), courage and agility (al furusiyyah wal al ramy). Al Razi (d.606 H), another great commentator of the Sunni (traditional), called the factor of male superiority included the potential of knowledge (al-‘Ilm) and physical strength (al qudrah). In summary, all commentators give similar explanations that the superiority of men over women lies in: intellectual, physical strength, mental strength and skill in writing. Therefore, in those areas, men are blessed to be stronger than women. However, it is interesting they also immediately mentioned the word "fi al-ghalib" which means “in general”, or "urfan", its tradition. These words show that those reasons do not apply to them as absolute, comprehensive or even for every male.
The above verse then mentions a second reason, because of the (males) have spent most of their properties. From this, it means that the property given by the husband to his wife and family is not all the treasures, but only part of them. Living can be the things or something that someone gives to his family.
In short, the verse above has mentioned two reasons why men were given authority and responsibility for women and their families. The two reasons are first is reasoning ability and physical strength, and second is the function of financial responsibility.
The question is whether these two reasons are intrinsic factors, natural, innate or God-given on each sex, which cannot be changed or modified? The majority of commentators refer to different languages. Ibn Kathir, an expert commentator, for example, called it a "fi nafsihi" (inherent). Muhammad Thahir bin Assyria, a contemporary interpreter, a friend Muhammad Abduh, called it mazaya Jibilliyyah (natural features, character). Syaikh Nawawi Banten in "Uqud al Lujain" called it "haqiqiyyah" (essence). These attributes: fi nafsihi jibilliyah wa haqiqiyyah, imposing a permanent nature, not something that can be cultivated, studied, modified or constructed.
This view is different from the facts of social developments which are changing over time, and different from one place to another. In today’s situation, it is more visible how more women have a level of intelligence and strength equal to men, even in many reality they exceed men. Many women have reached the high achievement in many aspects of life.
This development starts from few and continues to many in numbers. They are many things that once were unthinkable for us and then appear in factual reality. Actually, these social facts occurred at the time of the Prophet and his companions. In those days, we found that many women have a level of intelligence equal or exceed men. Many Muslims in the world would know the exact words of the Prophet that ‘Aisha was the most intelligent woman and a leading scholar, "Kanat 'Aisha A’lam al Nas wa Afqah wa Ahsan al Nas Ra'yan fi al' Ammah".
Al-Dhahabi, a leading hadith scholar, informed that more than 160 leading male scholars studied with ‘Aisyah. Some of them are Urwah bin Zubair, Ibrahim al-Taimi, Thawus, al Sya'bi, Sa'id ibn al Musayyab, Sulaiman bin Yasar, Ikrimah and others. Sayyidah Nafisah, great-grand daughter of the Prophet and Imam al-Shafi'i teacher, is a female scholar as well as the leader of a popular movement who opposed a despotic ruler, Ibn Talun. She wrote a letter that criticized his behavior. He said: "You have hurt and make people hungry. The people who have been oppressed will not die and despots will not live long. You can do what you want. God would reply your despotic behavior." We have many women with brilliant intellectuals in our country which cannot be mentioned here, both in the past and present.
In this section, I want to mention the name of a woman who has intelligence and brilliant intellectual: Maria Farida, a woman judge in the Constitutional Court. She is a woman alone among the nine judges of men, but with her full authority and elegance, took a different attitude from other Constitutional Court judges who rejected judicial review of Law No. 40/2008 on Pornography. Maria Farida did a dissenting opinion. Her attitude to me is a rare example of courage, and her intelligence is stunning.
All the above facts have shown that the intelligence factor, depth of knowledge, courage, mental fortitude, emotionality and so forth in men and women, is something that is purely relative, can be cultivated, learned, and exchanged to each other. Men and women are equally able to lead the community and any kind of institution, commanding combat troops, teaching the Qur’an and the Islamic classical texts, cooking, caring for and carry a baby/child, sew clothes, climbing coconut trees, and so forth. In short, what is thought and done by man can also be thought and done by women. This is all the fact that we can observe together, everywhere in the world.
Thus, the above reasons are definitely not something natural, innate, inherent, but are created by social processes, education, culture, law, politics and so forth. Actually the conclusion of this relativity can be understood from the words of the Qur’an "ba'dhuhum 'ala ba'dhin" (part over another part) as mentioned in the verse above.
This is also contextual with the problem of living. Works for a living is not a typical for male. We cannot deny that women also can earn a living and feed the family. The reality today shows that many women seek and provide living for her family, including her own husband, even by working overseas. In traditional markets, we find more women than men are selling goods. Muhammad Abduh, as elaborated by Rashid Ridha, asserts that this factor is "kasbi", an acquisition, can be cultivated. There is no controversy about it.
We see many people understand this verse as a legal norm, as already stated. However, these critical views will find that this verse is merely an informative statement about the realities faced by the people to whom it was revealed. In the language at pesantren, it is understood to be "kalam khabar", the news sentence, not "kalam thalabi or insyaiy", normative sentence, which means compulsory or should be and remain valid throughout the period. Thus, the above verse is actually preaching to us and reflecting on the social system, cultural and economic situation of the audience as well as the division of labor of men and women which generally applicable or enforced at that time. This means that the verse contains a content of contextual meaning. This social reality later became the basis for making rules or relevant legal norms. It appears on the continuation of the verse, "The righteous women are devoutly obedient…….... As to those women on whose part ye fear disloyalty and ill-conduct, admonish them, refuse to share their beds, beat them.. ".
Another reason mentioned in this verse of the Qur'an for the leadership of men in the family is because he is responsible for his wife and family living. This is also the information about the division of labor between men/husbands and women/wives which prevail in the social system. This is the choice of social, cultural and political of the Arabian society at that era, and therefore there is no problem. The crucial problem lies in the belief that the choice of the division of labor has become permanent practice, covered by the decision of God which should not be modified in such a way as to hinder or forbid women as the heads of households. Moreover, if the choice of individual, social, cultural and political to place women as the heads of households is considered to be against the law of God.
It is very clear that the two arguments to answer why men become the heads or leaders of the family above, based on the factors that are not something inherent in nature or permanent in each sex, but something which is merely relative and contextual. Therefore, the problem once again is in the choice of system and social ethics, or imposed political decision.
We often hear about people's opinions and we read a book or Islamic classical texts, saying that if women become the heads of families, it would create conflict within the households. This is because, they say or words from the books, the households must be managed by and with the power of emotions, feelings, two things that are believed to be the nature of women, not by the intellect of reason and clarity of thought; two natures of men. This view often forgets the fact that in everyday life, where conflict, chaos and messy home occur frequently in the households headed by men. Is not almost every day we expose to news, reports and research about many cases of domestic violence in which the majority of perpetrators are men/husbands? The report from the National Commission of Women in 2009 recorded that there are 143,586 victims of violence against women, and 95% is domestic violence.
In the past or even up to this day, we often listen to the lectures and books, or writings which contain religious view that does not justify women's leadership in public/political, for example as a president. A woman president is forbidden and violates God's law, because emotional and less smart. But the view was later revised or corrected. Women’s leadership in public/political is precisely appreciated when the history has approved that they are successful or better than men’s leadership, as well as not cause problems. In some other opportunities many women have been campaigned with bells and whistles to seize the position. I do not know anymore which religious arguments that are used to legitimize, sustain and reinforce these views and realities. The dominant assumptions about female’s emotionality on one hand, and less intelligence on the other hand, are suddenly not heard again. How do we understand these inconsistencies and ambiguities on the opinion and how it should be?
I want to create another example similar to the above case, although it is not about women but about the leadership on the basis of ethnicity. The Islamic classical books inform us about the views of scholars in regard to the conditions of political leaders. One of them mentioned that it must be from the descendants of the tribe of Quraysh. This is based on the Prophetic traditions: "Al Aimmah min Quraish" (government leaders are from Quraish tribe). Another Hadith says "Quraish are the leaders of the people in good and evil until the Day of Judgement." Al Mawardi states that this is a consensus of Sunni scholars.
When in the course of history, the practical leadership is not from the people of the ethnic of Quraish, people soon give a new interpretation of a more contextual-substantial about the text of the hadith. Thus, Quraish is no longer understood textually, such as aspect of blood/descent, but certain qualifications. Some of them are honest, fair and firmness.
The above illustration actually says that textual understanding of the text cannot always be maintained in the presence of social contexts that evolve and change. The textual meaning is the descendant of the Quraish tribe (ethnic). The textual meaning of the leader head of the family as in the QS al-Nisa, 34 above, is men. Second, people are forced or compelled to seek the substantive meaning. The substantive meaning refers to the qualitative indicators, for both cases explained earlier. This means that the head or political leaders are not based on indicators of ethnicity, and the head of family head is not based on gender, but on the leadership qualifications in public/political and domestic/household.
If the above analogy can be understood and accepted, then it should no longer be questioned about the lack of legal invalidity of women as the heads of households. In other words, we have to accept women as the heads of families, when they meet the qualitative criteria and the choice together. So it's not based on gender or another.
The view that establish the role and position of men as the heads of the family, and in the same time forbid the role and position of women will create potential injustice to women. The simple question is how if the household is headed by a stupid man and unemployment husband, while his wife is smart and feed the family? Then how this kind of man is using his authority?
These questions are really not intended to require or force women as the heads of households. Absolutely it is not. The main purpose is that we should not impede, blame, proscribe or punish to the choice of people to make women as the heads of families, for reasons of their women-ness. And if it is her choice, then she also should be treated proportionately and valued/respected as they should. The most fundamental thing is that the leadership in the household, also in the public domain, for anyone who held it, should not be used for the purposes of exploitative, dominating and violence in any form. The Qur'an has given instructions for the husband-wife relationship built on respect for the “mu’asyarah bi al-ma’ruf”, love each other, communicate well, act with justice and work together in addressing the problems.
The issue of female heading the family is an important to be discussed although it may be very complicated and contains its own complexity, because it is the system. Moreover, our blood and veins, male and female, are still trapped by and in the culture of patriarchy. It is said, according to Taufiq Hakim, Nobel Prize recipient candidate in the categories of literature, from Egypt, that the equal rights of men and women will be achieved perfectly in the year 2400. What will happen next? Wait and see.
1. Zamakhsyari, al Kasysyaf, Dar al Kitab al Arabi, Beirut, p. 523.
2. Al Razi, Al-Tafsir al Kabir, Dar al Pole al Ilmiyyah, Tehran, Juz X, p. 88
3. Muhammad bin Umar al-Nawawi, Syarh Uqud al Lujain, in "Ta'liq wa al Lujai Takhrij Syarh Uqud, FK3, Jakarta, p. 38.
4. They include: Ibrahim al-Taimi, Thawus, al Sya'bi, Sa'id ibn al-Musayyab, Sulaiman bin Yasar, Ikrimah and others.
5. These arguments are often mentioned every time before the election and other political events. For example, it was used to block Megawati Sukarnoputeri before the 1999 election or rejection of the appointment of 5 women in Tasikmalaya district around the year 2002.