The false idea of the “beating of women”
16-year-old Malala Yousafzai was shot in the head and neck on her way home from school because of her blog in which she described the oppression of the population by the Taliban. Thankfully, Malala was restored to full health after lengthy treatment and is still fighting for the education rights of young girls.
The original Arabic word in the verse that reads “If there are women whose disobedience you fear, you may admonish them, refuse to sleep with them, and then beat them” that is translated as “beat” in numerous texts is “idribuhunn(a).” The root is the verb “daraba” and ”daraba” may be the word with the widest meaning in Arabic. In addition to meaning “to beat,” it is also used in “minting money” and “going on strike.” Let us consider a comparable example in English; when someone says “the doorbell went off,” it does not generally mean that the doorbell is no longer functioning and therefore no longer of use, but that someone is waiting for us to open the door. When words (or phrases) with broad meaning are used, it is therefore very important to analyze with reason and common sense the way they are used, the context and the true meaning.
One of the most widely employed meanings of the word “daraba” is to travel and to go out. Indeed, the verb “daraba” is used in verses of the Qur’an referring to traveling, going on a journey or departing from somewhere for a period of time. For example;
When you are travelling (darabtum) in the land, there is nothing wrong in your shortening your prayer if you fear that those who are irreligious may harass you. (Qur'an, 4:101)
We revealed to Moses, “Travel with My servants by night. Strike (faidrib) a dry path for them through the sea. Have no fear of being overtaken and do not be afraid.” (Qur'an, 20:77)
It is for the poor who are held back in the Way of God, unable to travel (darban) in the land.... (Qur'an, 2:273)
You who believe! Do not be like those who are unbelievers and say of their brothers, when they are going on journeys (darabu)... (Qur'an, 3:156)
The word “daraba” is clearly not being used in the sense of “to beat” in these verses. The same thing applies to verse 34 of Surat an-Nisa’, which we are considering here. When we analyze the word “daraba” in the light of this verse, there are three different meanings we need to look at: 1) Remove them from the home, 2) Force them to go outside from where they are, or 3) Beat them.
In order to understand this, we need to return to the term “If there are women whose disobedience you fear,” at the beginning of the verse. The word “nushuz” is translated to mean “rebellion and disobedience” in many texts. Some commentators who take every opportunity to try and include the idea of humiliating women in verses about them, either put “obedience to men” in parenthesis or else try to give that idea through misleading translations. Yet the word ”nushuz” means unfaithfulness, from a woman flirting with someone who is not her husband up to the level of illicit sexual relations. Therefore, the next part of the verse describes how the husband should treat his wife who has been unfaithful to him. The man is told first of all to advise the woman not to behave unfaithfully. If that is unsuccessful, the husband is advised to sleep separately from her. However, if the woman still persists in illicit relations and commits adultery, then the best thing to do is to try removing the woman from the home entirely.
It is obvious that the Qur’an, in which women are specially protected, will not contain any practices resembling beating women. When we look at it logically, beating a woman who insists on being unfaithful to her husband despite all his admonitions will do nothing but anger that woman, who has in any case betrayed him; that would create new problems rather than resolving the issue. But removal is one solution. A woman may think more logically while she has been sent away, may feel regret in the face of this behavior and may look at matters in a healthier manner. The verse also says that the husband must not take other measures against her if she repents the error of her ways.
In this section, translated in the words “But if they obey you, do not look for a way to punish them,” there is again attempt to shape the issue on the basis of “a woman who obeys a man.” Yet according to the accurate translation, what the passage actually means is “if they heed your advice and behave in a faithful manner.” The criterion here is not a woman’s obedience to a man, but “faithfulness,” a responsibility attendant upon both sides in a marriage.
Although there are campaigns aimed at raising awareness of violence against women in the press and broadcasting media, it has to date proved impossible to prevent across the world. The reason for that is there is no activity on the level of ideas and based on the Qur'an against the fanatical mindset that represents the foundation of such violence.