As an example of the problems facing women that are based on textual understandings or misunderstandings, is the one related to qiwamah which was discussed earlier. This is an issue that has been raised multitudes oftimes by secular feminists as an example of how a religious ruling has been putting obstacles in front of women’s participation. When a religious understanding puts a man above the woman, at a higher degree, then this would inevitably lead to lack of equitable participation.
Islamic feminists argue that the concept of qiwamah has been grossly misinterpreted and falsely applied. The concept of qiwamah is not related to a higher regard for males over females.28 This is more related to the varying roles assumed by each gender. As males in most cases are the economic custodians of the family, this responsibility rests on their shoulders. This is definitely not related, Islamic feminists argue, to an inherent preference for men over women. Qiwamah is not patriarchal from this perspective.29 It is rather an acknowledgement that from an economic perspective, the man is the person who takes care of, serves, and protects the woman, and not the one who controls, leads, or manages.30
Saleh31 criticizes how the qiwamah has been interpreted by one of the key interpreters of the Qur’an, Ibn Katheer. This early interpreter indicated that men are “better” than women and thus it is only appropriate that men become women’s guardians. Such understandings have overwhelmed many of the interpretations of the Qur’an including some contemporary ones, and thus the religious text (the text of the Qur’an) has to be “saved” from such prejudgments.32 If the text is approached from a new perspective, Saleh asserts, totally different interpretations would be reached.
Aziza El-Hibri, in analyzing the verse (aya) related to qiwamah, which she calls the “complex verse,” notes the following:
The Complex Phrase was revealed in an authoritarian/patriarchal society that the Prophet was attempting to civilize and democratize. Consequently, it should be viewed for what it really is. It is a limitation on men which prevents them from assuming automatically (as many did then) oppressive authoritarian roles with respect to women. At most, the Complex Phrase tells them, that they can guide and advise only these women they support financially and then only when certain conditions obtain. The rest of the ayah does not change this analysis if one takes a fresh non-patriarchal look at it.33 (p. 32)
On a related note, Heba Raouf Ezzat34 (1965-) asserts that the concept of shura should apply within family relations in the same manner that it is applied in the political arena.35 The concept of shura, or consultation, means that decisions are made through a process of mutual discussions and exchange of ideas. The institution of the family, she asserts, should not be different from other societal institutions. Accordingly, husband-wife relations should be based on a system of consultation and participation, and not on the principle of putting an authoritarian leader who behaves the way he wants within his family. Many Islamic feminists contend that there is still a distinction between men and women that pertains to the roles that they assume during certain periods of their lives.
Any differences between men and women, Ezzat affirms, should not be used as grounds for discrimination against women who should be granted the same opportunities and other rights guaranteed by the Qur’an. Those differences related to the nature of women would require them to assume different responsibilities and functions during their lives both in the private and in the public spheres. Each woman should be given the choice between different roles that she wants to play at different stages of her life. A woman, during the time when she is giving birth, nursing her children, and raising them, needs to have the choice to assume a role different than her husband during that period. Later in life, she can assume a different role where she can participate more in the public sphere. Society should be responsive in both cases. Society should accept the fact that she has chosen to immerse herself more into her private space with her family and children in the first instance. Moreover, when she decides that it is time for her to assume larger roles within the public space, society should not discriminate against her in that regard.
Like their secular feminist counterparts, the issue of the veil has understandably been of keen interest to Islamic feminists. There does not seem to be a unified discourse even within Islamic feminism regarding the veil. Some intellectuals who would be categorized under Islamic feminism consider the veil a making of male readings of the holy texts which engulfs a misreading not only of the text but also of Islamic history. Mernissi is one of those voices. She takes a critical approach as to how the early traditions were read. Others, on the other hand, argue that the veil is indeed a matter of religious injunction, and women have the right to heed what they believe in terms of how they should dress.