Does The Qur’an use dehumanizing language against women?

Does The Qur’an use dehumanizing language against women?


Why does the Quran describe women as fields/tilths for their men to go in to as they please? I’m referring to the common English translations of Q 2:223, which I’ve always felt really uncomfortable with because it’s dehumanizing in a way and I’m not sure what it says about women’s sexual agency. I’ve tried to see it as poetic symbolism but the metaphor still bothers me. I am not an Arabic-speaking Muslim so is it possible that this is just a case of nuance being lost in translation? I hope so.

Salaam alykum,

There are several issues in your question that need to be addressed, and I will try to be as concise as possible, insha Allah.

First, we must unpack whether The Qur’an utilizes these sorts of metaphors onto women alone, or if this is a general practice. If we look at The Qur’an we find that this is not unique to women and that it is used upon numerous occasions. An example of which is this:

“as does he who spends his wealth only to be seen and praised by men, and believes not in God and the Last Day: for his parable is that of a smooth rock with [a little] earth upon it – and then a rainstorm smites it and leaves it hard and bare” [2:264] Muhammad Asad

In this instance, The Qur’an compares those (male or female) who do not offer their charity with sincerity, as rocks, which is to say that they are not great for their acts since they were done simply to impress others and not help others.

Does this mean that every parable and metaphor used is necessarily a negative one? The Qur’an compares those who call to Truth, to a tree:

“Art thou not aware how God sets forth the parable of a good word? [It is] like a good tree, firmly rooted, [reaching out] with its branches towards the sky,” [14:24] Muhammad Asad

Thus, the comparison of people to objects does not underline that someone is being dehumanized, nor is it a unique process, but one that is continuously done for both negative and positive purposes.

Second, our perception of what is dehumanizing is relative towards the standards of our language, and as you rightly pointed out, the confines of English and the baggage of English as it relates to what is considered offensive, racist, sexist, and so on and so forth is not going to be the same in other languages. We continuously forget this when we make this comparisons, to our detriment.

For instance, to say someone has a negative attitude (more or less) in Arabic, I would literally say that their “blood is heavy.” To say they have a positive attitude, I would literally say that their “blood is light.”

This phrase does not translate at all, and it is a basic phrase. Thus, when we impose our assumptions (from another language) onto The Qur’an, in terms of linguistics, then we have robbed ourselves of the idea expressed, because we ignore it at the expense of exploring the constructs of the language used, which, would be rather daft considering these “explorations” are commonly done in English.

Third, when it comes to the issue of women’s “sexual agency,” I do not think that it addresses women’s agency, because the ayah does not rob women of their choice, it is centered upon discussing to men how they should honor their wives and perceive of them, which we miss because of how disconnected we are from the earth. The sexual agency of a woman is no different to a man’s, in that, the only concern is that sexual relations are conducted within the confines of marriage. Furthermore, your assumption that sexual agency is even touched upon in this ayah (verse) seems to be predicated on the “dehumanizing” language supposedly used, which, we have explored and confirmed that it is not really the case.

Fourth, because we do not look at our needs being met through our actual work, in that, we do not hunt for our food, we do not grow our food, in fact, we do not even know how it comes to the grocery stores, to the point where you can see it even in the ways we look upon other societies… because of all that, the statement is lost upon us, regardless of our language. When any Western photojournalist or filmmaker goes to another country, I’ve noticed that the first thing they like to shoot is butcher shops, where meat can still be seen for what it is, as if it is some surprise.

I have had the pleasure of spending years of my life on farms, and when your life is connected directly towards the land, the soil, you look at your food differently, you look at your fields as not just mere objects, they are not your possessions, they are not even completely within your control. You realize that your crops success will not be determined by you and you alone. You love your land, you love your source of sustenance in a way that cannot be articulated, because you are attempting to describe what provides you life.

Can you ever control this? Can you ever dominate it? Can you ever truly own it? The answer to all these questions is a resounding no.

This perspective is what is alluded to here. It is something that is lost upon us because we do not understand the impact of where we get our life from. This ayah is not designed to dehumanize, it is not meant to make women be seen as mere objects, but as integral parts of our lives, of what makes us able to live, to prosper, to have a future.

We miss this because we have become so engrossed with patting ourselves on the back with some pseudo-intellectualism that we are painfully disconnected from nature. We do not know how to start a fire, we do not know how to find water, we do not even know what to do with ourselves when Tumblr shuts down, let alone if the internet shuts down.

It would be difficult for us to understand this concept, the power of this phrase, because we look at everything, our food, our car, our house, everything, as possessions. We do not understand the nature of the farmer, how one must look upon their life and their future relative to their means. This outlook, a common one for humanity, but not for our particular milieu, is at the root of why we cannot grasp such a simple concept.

The fifth and final point is that to take one ayah of The Qur’an without considering others is highly problematic. The reason why I can so confidently dismiss the idea that women’s sexual agency is not mentioned herein is because of The Qur’an itself.

The Qur’an actually describes the relationships between spouses, sexually, romantically, emotionally, and so on, which is not the subject of this particular ayah. It is found in 2:187, and it is concise, and actually uses (unsurprisingly) a metaphor involving objects, again, not to dehumanize anyone, but simply to communicate ideas:

“they are as a garment for you, and you are as a garment for them.”

This short statement encompasses the relationship between a husband and a wife. It is not the heavy-handed methods of misguided machismo we are told is traditional, but which is simply reflections of our cultures’ flaws. It is not the process of infantilization passed off as “empowerment” a la Sex and the City. It is not a process where women must do this, or men do that.

Rather, it is a relationship where discretion must be used, where every situation is different, but protection of each other is central. Where a woman may be a lioness one moment, but a fragrant flower another; where a man may be the epitome of strength in an instance, and in another no more powerful than grains of sand passing through his wife’s fingers.

We put in so much energy into discussing what is expected of a man, of a woman, and fail to recognize something: everyone is different, everyone has different expectations, different abilities, different strengths, different weaknesses. We are not honest with ourselves, and yet expect others to be with us, we demand perfection and dismiss our imperfections, we write out shopping lists of characteristics and traits we desire, but never look at what we may improve.

For all the discussions on what Islam says about marriage, etc The Qur’an describes the relationship very clearly, with such a simple, yet such a dense statement. We fail to even recognize this, we never mention this ayah, we ignore it, to our detriment.

So any discussion of any ayah regarding anything related to the roles and responsibilities of a husband and wife must be checked back to other portions of The Qur’an, and this ayah, is the most clear and firm explication of how The Qur’an understands the relationship.

We are garments for each other.

I pray this reaches you and your families in the best of health and Iman, insha Allah.

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