The Quran addresses men and women together in many verses (“O ye who believe”). However, it never directly addresses women alone. The sole exceptions to this rule are the verses in which the Prophet’s wives are directly spoken to (Surah Ahzab).
Every address is made deliberately in the Quran, and every grammatical intricacy serves a purpose to be examined.
The Quran contains a story that describes God speaking directly to a woman, in the case of Umm Musa (28:7). In Surah Maryam, God also relates the story of the Holy Spirit, who came to inform Mary (pbuh) of Jesus’s impending birth. From these descriptions, it is clear that God has, throughout history, addressed women directly, and bestowed Revelation upon them.
So, in the Quran, why are women never directly addressed? I will examine this question here.
The Quran’s primary audience is the Prophet (sws) and his contemporaries, who were mostly male. Thus, the text addresses men in the main.
Nahida S. Nisa composed this article regarding the Quran’s method of address, noting that the Quran speaks to men through the adoption of a female perspective.
She elaborated on this in the comments section:
“It addresses men, but critically it addresses men through the assumption of a female perspective. The Qur’an very deliberately invests in protecting women’s rights, freedoms, and interests and addresses (and chastises!) men regarding these. And, particularly in the configuration of a court for adultery allegations, it even greatly curbs men’s privilege…to the point where it can be argued that it privileges women over rights that men have. I mean, telling men not to bury their daughters alive or not to continuously divorce the same woman and remarry her for money (a common practice pre-Islam) so that she is forced to completely surrender her person and her wealth to a man is simply taking away from unearned male privilege to alleviate undeserved female oppression, but to raise a woman’s witness above a man’s witness is to actually reverse privilege. So when I read the Qur’an…[I noticed that] the perspective with which men are being addressed is female.” -Nahida S. N.
The Quran’s adoption of the woman’s perspective is clearly exemplified in verses 58.1-4, in which a woman complains to the Prophet that her husband divorced her indecently and dishonorably.
“Allah has indeed heard (and accepted) the statement of the woman who pleads with thee concerning her husband and carries her complaint (in prayer) to Allah: and Allah (always) hears the arguments between both sides among you: for Allah hears and sees (all things).
“If any men among you divorce their wives by Zihar (calling them mothers), they cannot be their mothers: None can be their mothers except those who gave them birth. And in fact they use words (both) iniquitous and false: but truly Allah is one that blots out (sins), and forgives (again and again).
“But those who divorce their wives by Zihar, then wish to go back on the words they uttered,- (It is ordained that such a one) should free a slave before they touch each other: Thus are ye admonished to perform: and Allah is well-acquainted with (all) that ye do.
“And if any has not (the wherewithal), he should fast for two months consecutively before they touch each other. But if any is unable to do so, he should feed sixty indigent ones, this, that ye may show your faith in Allah and His Messenger. Those are limits (set by) Allah. For those who reject (Him), there is a grievous Penalty.” (58:1-4)
According to these verses, a man who divorces his wife unjustly and wishes to go back on his word has to fast for two months, free a slave, or feed sixty poor people as expiation. Sixty!
Many aspects of Islamic financial law are tilted in women’s favor:
- A man is responsible for the financial maintenance of his wife and children, while a woman is not obligated to spend any of her earnings on her family. (2:233/4:34)
- Women must be provided for by their ex-husbands 3-4 months after divorce. (2:241)
- Men must give a (generally monetary) gift to their wife upon marrying her (the mahr/ujoor). The mahr cannot be taken away unless the woman is found guilty of adultery/fornication, with four witnesses presented to prove the charge. The woman is to have a say in how much mahr she is given. (4:4/4:24-25/4:19)
- If a man is not able to financially provide for his wife while she is taking care of their children, the duty falls upon his heir. (2:233)
- Men who divorce their wives before consummation of the marriage are to compensate them with a suitable (usually monetary) gift. (33:49)
Women clearly have the right to initiate divorce in the Quran, and there are few restrictions placed upon them with regards to this. (2:229) However, multiple warnings are issued to men concerning the treatment of their (ex-)wives during divorce proceedings. (Chapter 65/2:226-241)
Men are warned to live with their wives in honor/kindness/righteousness (Arabic: bil ma’rufi, 4:19), even if they dislike them. However, no such warnings are issued to women.
Unrelated men who accuse chaste women of adultery without evidence are to be punished with 80 lashes, and their evidence is to be rejected forever after–whereas no such requirements are put in place for women who accuse chaste men. (Chapter 24/Surah Noor)
If a man accuses his wife of adultery without proper evidence, she can simply swear five oaths and the allegation against her is automatically dropped. No such provision exists for men whose wives accuse them of adultery without evidence. (Chapter 24)
Men and women are allowed to be alone together, but only if “honorable” conversation takes place. Men are solely addressed in this respect and are told to make their conversations decent. (2:236)
Gender-related rights are clearly laid out in the Quran, and men’s fair treatment of women is greatly emphasized. Even allowances are punctuated as a warning:
“Your women are a place of cultivation for you, so come to your place as you wish. And send forth (good deeds) for yourselves. And fear Allah and know that you will meet Him. And give glad tidings to the believers.” (2:223)
The Quran places the reverence of God and the reverence of women/mothers in the same sentence.
“O mankind! Reverence your Guardian-Lord, who created you from a single person, created, of like nature, His mate, and from them twain scattered (like seeds) countless men and women;- reverence Allah, through whom ye demand your mutual (rights), and (reverence) the wombs (that bore you): for Allah ever watches over you.” (4:1)
And finally, verse 4:34, which is usually mistranslated to degrade women, can easily be used to honor them.
“Men are the protectors/maintainers (Arabic: qawwamuna) of women because of that which God has given some over others and because they spent of their wealth. So righteous/honorable (Arabic: salihat) women are devout, guardians (Arabic: hafizatun) in the Unseen of that which God has guarded…” (4:34)
Anyone who is familiar with the Quran is aware that the Unseen, referenced in 4:34, is constantly associated with God and with divinity. In 4:34, honorable women are described as guarding in the Unseen “that which God has guarded.” This verse places women in great proximity to God, just as verse 4:1 does.
Men who call themselves Muslim, who deny women the rights given to them in the Quran in the name of Islam, who cheat their sisters and wives and daughters out of inheritance, who kill their female relatives in the name of religion–they are wronging themselves, and they will be taken to account for it.
“And when you divorce women and they have [nearly] fulfilled their term, either retain them according to acceptable terms or release them according to acceptable terms, and do not keep them, intending harm, to transgress [against them]. And whoever does that has certainly wronged his own soul. And do not take the verses of Allah in jest. And remember the favor of Allah upon you and what has been revealed to you of the Book and wisdom by which He instructs you. And fear Allah and know that Allah is Knowing of all things.” (2:231)