Men have charge of women because God has made the one excel the other and because they spend their wealth on them. Right-acting women are obedient [to God], guarding the unseen as God has guarded. If there are women whose disobedience you fear, you may admonish them, refuse to sleep with them, and then beat them. But if they obey you, do not look for a way to punish them. God is All-High, Most Great. If you fear a breach between a couple, send an arbiter from his people and an arbiter from her people. If the couple desire to put things right, God will bring about a reconciliation between them. God is All-Knowing, All-Aware. (Qur’an, 4:34-35)
The word “baadahum” in the verse “God has made the one excel the other,” verse 34 of Surat an-Nisa’, clearly addresses a mixed society made up of men and women. Therefore, the true meaning here is “God has made some men and some women excel other men and other women.” This means that God has given each one of them different abilities and characteristics.
The passage interpreted into English as, “Men have charge of women because God has made the one excel the other and because they spend their wealth on them.” refers, not to male superiority to women, but solely to physical differences. The words “…because they spend their wealth on them” remind us of men’s responsibility to take care of women in the material sense, as we have already seen in some detail. The Arabic of the passage “Men have charge of women” is “Arrijalu qawwamoona aala annisa-i.” The real meaning of this Arabic statement is “Men watch over women,” or “Men have a responsibility to take care of matters for livelihood for women.”
The word “qawwam” is translated by many commentators to mean “overlord or master.” However, in all the other verses in which the word appears, it has just one meaning, “to watch over and protect.” As readers will remember, we have already seen how one needs to understand the use and meaning of words in Arabic, a very rich language, in verses by looking at how they are employed in other verses. That also applies to the word “qawwam.”
The word “qawwam” is derived from the root “qwm.” Looking at all the verses in which forms of this root appear, you will not find one in which it is used to mean “overlord or master.” Indeed, the word “hukkam” is used for governors and rulers in the Qur’an. On that basis, we may easily conclude that the true meaning of the word in the verse in question is “to watch over and protect.”
We can see this better when we look at the Qur’an in general. As we have already said, women are generally given a superior position in the Qur’an, and they are free, but also protected against the possibility of any difficulty. The defense of women, their protection in the material sense and preventing them from being exposed to difficulties are all responsibilities incumbent upon men Therefore, as the term “qawwam” makes clear in the verse in question, men have a duty to protect women, always and under all circumstances. This verse, which some fanatics seek to use as evidence for male superiority, is a very important one that actually describes the superiority of women.