A related point raised by critics pertains to the concept of qiwamah or wilaya (custodianship) which strips women from all agency. According to one verse in the Qur’an, men act as (qawamoon) over women; this could be understood to mean protection and maintenance of men over women.64 According to the way this verse has been applied in many Arab contexts, men assume the roles of custodians over women. This understanding of the male-female relationship (especially husband-wife) has led some authors to note that “authoritarianism and dictatorship are the common norms in marriages. The husband assumes the role of ruler, superior, controller, oppressor, and master”65 (p.81). For el-Saadawi, family laws assume that a woman lacks the legal ability to take her own decisions as her husband is her custodian. This is based on old historical practices where the husband actually “owned” his wife. She asserts that “women in our countries have not elevated to the level of humans yet, not only from the perspective of men, but also from the perspective of women themselves”66 (p. 41).
Critics assert that custodianship, and the way it is put in practice, puts many hurdles in front ofwomen participation. In many cases she has to refer to the consent of her father or husband before initiating a transaction.
El-Saadawi mentions, as an example, restrictions on women’s travel, noting that this is tantamount to imprisonment. This system has advanced laws that give power to a man over his wife. He owns, by virtue of those laws, her body and her mind. He can effectively imprison her in her house as she cannot travel except with his permission. She cannot go out of her house to work without his permission. She laments the current situation asking: “Why did women (in the early days of Islam) fight alongside men in the battles of Prophet Muhammad?... Why do millions of female agricultural workers in our countries go out from their houses from dawn to sunset? Why do thousands of female factory workers and female employees in the public and private sectors go out to work?”67 (p. 36).
Other authors contest the jurist understanding of the verse pertaining to qiwamah as this was not done on a gender-conscious basis.68 A genderconscious method re-reads the text and looks for alternative meanings that have been lost by early and contemporary jurists and interpreters who are predominantly male. One such gender-conscious understanding of qiwamah understands it to mean “to take care of, to serve, to protect,” rather than “to lead, to preside over, to manage.”69 The drive towards an alternative gender-conscious understanding of the text has led some organizations, such as The Women of Morocco’s Justice and Spirituality Organization to hold intellectual meetings that aim at reviewing religious texts and historical applications from a woman’s perspective.70