Quranic Verses and Misconceptions: Divorce and Male Privilege

A common practice before the introduction of Islam—and continuing afterward illegally despite severe restrictions by the Qur’an on the gratuities of men in pre-Islamic divorce—was for a man to perpetually divorce his wife, each time pretending to take her back and divorcing her again to coerce her either to surrender her dower for autonomy or inhibit her from remarrying to obtain the protection of another husband. The Qur’an renders this practice illegal, along with the practice of initiating a divorce on false charges so that a man may legally confiscate some of his wife’s property,

A divorce is only permissible twice:
after that, the parties should either
hold together on equitable terms,
or separate with kindness.
It is not lawful for you (men)
to take back any of your gifts (from your wives.) (Qur’an 2:229)

and ordains that after the third time, he may not divorce her again until she has been married to someone else,

And if he has divorced her [for the third time],
then she is not lawful to him afterward
until [after] she marries a husband other than him.
And if the latter husband divorces her [or dies],
there is no blame upon the woman
and her former husband for returning
to each other if they think that they
can keep [within] the limits of God. (Qur’an 2:230)

There is a misconception among Muslims—and consequentially among non-Muslims—that divorce in Islam is very easy and privileges the man. This is because Muslims blatantly ignore these verses. Were they taken into account and incorporated into the legal routine of Muslims, divorce for the husband would be the most difficult situation he has ever undergone as a believer. Divergent to the way in which divorce is commonly outlined and implemented, Muslim women have the right not only to extended provisions three months following the divorce but the right to their husbands’ kindness.

And women shall have rights
similar to the rights of men against them,
in kindness, according to what is equitable;
but men have a degree (of advantage) over them.
And God is Exalted in Power, Wise. (Qur’an 2:228)

This verse is actively contrary to the commonly held belief that men may divorce their wives at any time and for any reason, spontaneously and unilaterally; it contains also mention of the infamous “degree” that men have over women, referring of course to advantage, or privilege, without tolerating privilege—and, in fact, actively restricts this advantage by commanding that women must have the right to kindness and equity. The Qur’an therefore once more employs the female perspective to address men, who were privileged in pre-Islamic society with these powers, but does not intrude on the rights of women—and, in fact, expands them. Although the verses elucidating the process of divorce are addressed toward men (because of the unauthenticated privilege of men) women are not hindered from initiating divorce and for whatever reason they wish, unlike what is most commonly interpreted, since the Qur’an does not place constraints on divorces initiated by the wife. Instead it only holds men accountable for the license of divorce they have granted themselves and considers this in allocating rights to women—it does not support this license, nor does it deny a woman the power of repudiation. And in fact, in considering male privilege in its allocation of rights to women, the Qur’an additionally holds men responsible for a three-month waiting period following the divorce in which they must provide for their wives, in case the wife is pregnant, and to which a woman has right,

Divorced women shall wait
concerning themselves for three
monthly periods, and is not lawful
for them to hide what God hath created
in their wombs, if they have faith
in God and the Last Day.
And their husbands have
the better right to take them back
in that period, if they wish for reconciliation. (Qur’an 2:228)

also retaining the responsibility of reconciliation on the husband. If the woman does in fact give birth to a child, the Qur’an expects (but does not require) that she will breastfeed the child for two years and then obliges her ex-husband to maintain her “on a reasonable scale”:

Divorced women shall be maintained
on a reasonable scale.
This is a duty on the righteous. (Qur’an 2:241)

and also that she is not shamed for the child,

No mother shall be treated unfairly
on account of her child.
Nor father on account of his child. (Qur’an 2:233)

The Quranic approach toward divorce is radically advanced, even by contemporary standards. It states about the accommodations men must provide during a divorce,

Let the women live in the same style as you live,
according to your means:
and do not harm them in order to oppress them
And if they carry (life in their wombs),
then spend (your substance) on them
until they deliver their burden:
and if they suckle your (offspring),
give them their recompense:
and take mutual counsel together,
according to what is just and reasonable.
[…]Let a man of wealth spend from his wealth,
and he whose provision is restricted,
let him spend from what God has given him. (Qur’an 65:6—65:7)

Though male scholarship has claim that a woman who displeases her husband displeases God and wrongs her soul (collapsing God with the husband and committing the sin of shirk), the Qur’an makes a reverse implement (obviously without the shirk, as it is not about the wife but the justice toward women granted by God), addressing men and proclaiming that “any who transgresses the limits of God does wrong his very soul.” (65:1)

Decent behavior is especially commanded on the husband’s part at all intervals of the separation procedure, from when he may divorce his wife to how, and the way in which he must support and treat her, illegalizing (as mentioned at the beginning) the practice of perpetual divorce in order to confiscate the woman’s wealth or obstruct her from seeking protection,

When you divorce women, and they fulfill
the term of their waiting period,
either take them back
on equitable terms
or set them free
on equitable terms;
do not take them back to injure them
or to take undue advantage—
If anyone does that,
He wrongs his own soul.
Do not regard God’s signs as a jest. (Qur’an 2:231)

Punctuated in a warning. In fact the Qur’an adopts the female perspective so wholly that it takes into consideration in the process of its revelation the complaints of a particular woman who protests a manner by which her husband divorced her (58:1), going so far as to list penalties for men who pronounce a divorce in this manner, including freeing a slave and fasting for two months.

These are the requirements in an event of divorce; above all, the Qur’an encourages tolerance and the preservation of a marriage. Attempts of compromise and harmony should be made initially, and divorce will follow only if all else fails. Despite the fact that the culture of the Muslim community often blames women for divorce, the Qur’an once again holds men accountable,

If a woman fearth ill-treatment
from her husband, or desertion,
it is no sin for them twain if they make
terms of peace between themselves.
Peace is better.
But greed hath been made present
in the minds of men.
(Qur’an 4:128)

Thus marital peace is recommended even in circumstances of great difficulty, but—as men commit acts of greed—divorce is permitted in order to separate a woman fearing ill-treatment from her husband.

13 thoughts on “Quranic Verses and Misconceptions: Divorce and Male Privilege

  1. Maliha

    Nahida, another well written post about a topic that often infuriates me! It never fails to amaze me when reading the Quran how neutral and non-judgemental the tone is on divorce. An acceptance that at times marriages do not work and relationships cannot be fixed–in which case its best for the couple to part company with good grace and civility and not cause trouble to each other (this warning aimed more at the men!).
    Yet, in reality the tone in our societies is so censorious and ridden with emotive statements (and bizarre hadiths!) to the effect that of all permissible things divorce in most hated by God. Really?
    Women who are given the right to divorce in the Quran (as you correctly pointed out they do not have to give any reasons for wanting out) but in reality get massive roadblocks put in their way. In some countries on the Nikah document itself, if a woman or her family members do not tick on a box giving them the right to divorce, it can become a very painful and lengthy process to extricate oneself from a bad marriage.
    As you have pointed out: It clearly states that the ex-wife should be given some form of alimony/provision. Yet, in reality this happens rarely if at all and many ex-husbands go out of their way to be as unpleasant & tight-fisted as possible.
    As for who gets the children…..this makes me livid…..age eight and up kids are given over to the father with zero justification for this in the Quran.
    I sometimes wonder what is the point of having a holy book enshrining laws for women that no one is the least bit bothered with implementing and enforcing and yet the tired old line of how Islam gave women rights is trotted out shamelessly.

  2. JDay

    Where are you getting your information on Central/Western Arabian society in pre-Islamic days? Are you only pulling from 9th century Muslim exegetes?

    1. I’m only addressing the contexts in which the verses were revealed (according to the practices they seek to address) not all pre-Islamic marriage customs, obviously–just the ones that were the reasons for these particular verses.

      1. JDay

        But when the Qur’an says “men have a degree over women” and you interpret ‘degree’ as ‘privilege’, how do you know for sure that the Qur’an is not, perhaps, reversing an earlier pre-Islamic tradition of “women have a degree over men”? How do you know that 9th century exegetes are any different from 21st century conservatives with their agenda of absolutely asserting that the pre-Islamic days were ‘horrible’ for women and of course women are much better off with Islam? How do you know?

      2. Never said that. I’ve never believed pre-Islamic days were absolutely horrible for women to the degree that so many Muslims claim–I think that tends to be exaggerated a great deal. I’ve always only cited specific practices as having been more oppressive. To say that’s it’s a reversal of privilege that existed before, however, is quite speculative, especially considering the evidence suggesting otherwise (Fatima Mernissi and Leila Ahmed both make similar claims and cite sources in their books), including the woman who complained about the manner by which her husband divorced her that pre-existed Islam (collapsing the wife and the mother) and marked a kind of significance over which women evidently had no power. There are few societies in which women experienced institutional privileges over men, and the pre-Islamic Arab society was not one of them.

        Furthermore the Qur’an would have made it clear if the objective was a reversal, as is consistent with its language in rendering past activities or systems illegal, particularly relating to marriage and whom one can marry. “Except what has happened in the past.” (4:22)

        How do you know that 9th century exegetes are any different from 21st century conservatives

        I’m not trying to make a 9th century exegesis or a 21st century one. Gathered from other verses that refer to the ‘degree’ of men over women often employing the same language (maintainers) to refer to the wealthy over the impoverished, I’m making a point to assert that the correct interpretation is that men are unauthentically privileged and the objective of the Qur’an is the curb that privilege of sexism, just as it is to curb the privileges of classism and preserve justice and equality. Whatever the reality was–whether women were better off or worse–the comparison is irrelevant if they were underprivileged in both time periods.

        with their agenda of absolutely asserting that the pre-Islamic days were ‘horrible’ for women and of course women are much better off with Islam?

        Even if I were, well, I’ll just be beating them at their own game. ;) No one pulls shit like that over my head without me confiscating it for myself. I recommend this to all women. They say you can’t take down the master’s house with the master’s weapons, but they’re really your weapons. He just stole them.

  3. Coolred38

    I was forced to remain married to my abusive (and then later found he was sexually abusing our children) husband for 20 years because in his country the Sharia courts will not allow a divorce to happen unless the husband agrees to it…and then she will most likely lose her children by default. Especially if she is a foreigner…and then because it has a sponsorship system in place…once she is divorced her exhusband is no longer her sponsor..which means she must leave the country unless she one of her male children is old enough to sponsor her. Once out of the country the likelihood of her being allowed back in is marginal at best. Due to the consequences women are more likely to suffer through her marriage than risk losing her children…and all of this is considered Islamic.

  4. Islam has given women rights… it’s the men who take them away (and some women collaborate on that, I have to say…). It’s too bad things do not play out in real life this way even by those who claim to practice. It occurs to me that the whole divorce scenario as prescribed in the Qur’an would be a good thing to include in a pre-nuptial agreement. Surely the man would have to accept it at that time and then might be bound to it more stringently than happens in court. I’ll have to think about this for next time… if there is a next time :P

    1. Maheen

      Well they take them away because women let them do that…..if they stand strong to it men will have to surrender kif they call themselves muslim…..however i must mention that women are a big reason to hurt other women in whatever way they can coz they cannot accept change and can’t see other woman happy.

  5. Alhamdulilah that I found this blog! I’m from the U.S., feminist, and considering Islam, but there were so many issues like divorce that I simply couldn’t wrap my mind around, but it’s such a wonderful discovery to find Muslim feminists spreading modern truth.

  6. Marlene Jackson

    I admire the extensive research done by Nahida and a few other women to find that females have more rights in the Koran than are acknowledged by men but I feel it is all futile. There is no Muslim country that treats women as equals and in a number , the lives of females are absolutely horrible. There are no democratic type governments that protect everyone and when there are laws, the courts and the police won’t protect females. I have read man of the posts in the Fatal Feminist and books on the lives of women in various Muslim countries and parts of the Koran translated into English and cannot understand why a woman, once she is in a country where she can choose ( some lack the courage for fear of being ostracized by family or even killed by people who bring their primitive beliefs to democratic countries), would remain Muslim. The Muslim religion is supposed to control every aspect of life: education, government, laws and men are in charge of it all so you don’t stand a chance of improving the lives of women and children belonging to the Muslim faith.

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