Does it mean for men to control women? Does it mean they must be dominated, because that's what Allah wants? I want this to be an alternate explanation as to what it means by men being the "protectors and maintainers of women", because unfortunately right wing/conservative/hardline Muslims will go well beyond what this verse says and say all kinds of illogical and nonsensical things.
I think what we first need to get out of the way is when the verse speaks of "obedience" a little later on, it refers to ALLAH, not the husband. A scholar clarifies this: http://www.irfi.org/articles/articles_251_300/does_the_quran_allow_beating_of.htm
Secondly, I now hold the view of Tahir Ul Qadri (Pakistani scholar) and Laila Bakhtiar (American scholar) who have translated the verse as to separate, instead of beat (not that I previously held the view it was okay to beat women, but it was just a light tap (which is the consensus among scholars, its not an actual "beating")). To me, its easier to explain and understand Islam.
Thirdly, we know there is no Quran verse or hadith where it says women are to be housewives and need to cook and clean and raise children. These are culturally constructed gender roles which have no place in Islam. There is that verse where it speaks of women needing to stay at home, however this verse was for the Prophet's wives ONLY. All tafseer confirms this. There's another verse where it says the Prophet's wives are not like any other women. So we need to differentiate between regular Muslim women and the wives of the Prophet.
Let me give a little background info. I live in Canada, where gender equality is highly valued. Those of us who live here are know that women excel in the same areas men excel. We see this, its an undeniable fact. We see them as scholars, as lawyers, as judges, as politicians, as directors of big companies, as athletes, and so on. In some countries like Saudi and Pakistan, women are discouraged from working because its against their "nature". And for those whom worship Islam QA (a salafist website which is unfortunately popular among (third world) Muslims), then you know they quote this verse to show men are the breadwinners whereas women are to be housewives. Islam QA also says men are wiser than women, so they outdo women in all scientific fields. This again is a cultural construction. There is no IQ difference between men and women. Had it been so, Allah would have mentioned it in the Quran, but HE DIDN'T.
There's numerous pro-women, pro-gender equality, and marriage (the Quran speaks of both husbands and wives being a comfort for each other and both NEEDING to live happily and peacefully) verses in the Quran (4:19, 2:231, 65:6, 4:35, 4:128, 30:21, 2:187, 7:189, 49:13, 16:97, 33:35, 9:71, 9:72, 42:38, 2:233, 2:228, 4:135, 28:9, and 28:26). We also know there's many pro-women and pro-gender equality hadiths ("The Apostle of Allah (peace be upon him) said 'None but a noble man treats women in an honorable manner, and none but an ignorant treats women disgracefully.' (Sunan At-Tirmidhî); "When a husband and wife look at each other with Love, Allah looks at both with Mercy" [Bukhari 6:19 & Tirmidhi 14:79]; "God enjoins you to treat women well, for they are your mothers, daughters, aunts."; "Seeking knowledge is an obligation upon every Muslim, male and female"; "Assuredly, women are the twin halves of men."; "Paradise lies at the feet of the mother. ").
So it annoys me that many of the rights and freedoms we have in the west are islamically haraam according to third world Muslims. Both of my sisters play sports, go out with friends, and work. In Saudi, Afghanistan, Somalia, Yemen, Iraq, and Pakistan, this is not the reality.
Anyways, here are 6 translations of verse 4:34 (taken from Quran.com/4/34). I'm only giving the first few lines as that is what I want to concentrate on.
"Men are in charge of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth."
"Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has made one of them to excel the other, and because they spend (to support them) from their means."
"Men are in charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to excel the other, and because they spend of their property (for the support of women)."
"Men are the protectors and maintainers of women, because Allah has given the one more (strength) than the other, and because they support them from their means."
"Men are the maintainers of women because Allah has made some of them to excel others and because they spend out of their property;"
"Men are the ever upright (managers) (of the affairs) of women for what Allah has graced some of them over (some) others and for what they have expended of their riches."
Aright so, lets go back and conclude what we know so far:
1) Gender roles are not mentioned for women in Islam
2) Gender roles are culturally constructed and interpreted as religion by some Muslim countries
3) There's no difference between men and women, as we see women excel in many things along side men (but remember these are branded as "unnatural" by some Muslim "scholars" and their blind worshippers).
4) There's many pro-women and gender neutral Quran verses and hadiths
5) Women are very independent today. They don't need a man's assistance, as they can assist themselves.
So what exactly does it mean when men are to protect/maintain/manage/ be in charge of women? Keep in mind we need to keep the above three points into consideration when explaining and understanding the verse. We need to ignore the perspectives of Saudi and other extreme or culturally based scholars because they cannot differentiate between their culture/screwed up views and Islam.
There is only TWO THINGS I can think of why God put 4:34 in the Quran. Firstly, what's one thing women are affected by, whereas men are not? Pregnancy. Pregnant women have a tough time both physically and psychologically. Men are not hindered by this. Many pregnant women have trouble walking in their own homes, so how can they be expected to work outside the home and deal with all that stressful shit? It makes no sense. There's a reason why developed countries like Canada try to make it easier for women by giving them leaves from work, because its way too damn difficult having another human inside you and still trying to act as if everything is A-Okay. Lets face it, the troubles pregnant women get are pretty hard. Men are not affected by this, so there's no reason for them NOT TO WORK. It is during this time where women are pretty weak, in many ways. Again, men are not affected by this. It is during this time men can excel women, both psychologically and physically and emotionally. We know nowadays women are independent. And that's fine. But during this time, a woman will need help. She may need financial support even after giving birth, as its just as hard taking care of a new born. God is just trying to make life easier for women by having their husbands still work while the wife rests. The cash still needs to come in, right? The husband has no excuse for NOT WORKING. If you ask around, many women would not like it if their husbands stayed at home. Many would actually laugh at the concept of men staying at home and being house husbands.
The other idea that I have is this verse was revealed at a time where women were not protected by the society and there were numerous injustice acts against them. Most likely, it was by men. This verse is telling that they must be protected. Islam honors women (remember the verses above) and targeting them, harassing them, insulting and degrading them is totally CONTRADICTORY to the notion they must be protected. Even if we look today, Muslim countries rank among the worst places for women. They're not protected by the law or society. Any sane Muslim knows there's many acts of injustice against women (we have gone back to the pre-islam era of the treatment of women) today. I mentioned a verse above (4:135) where it calls upon Muslims to establish justice against any violator of human rights and freedoms. If we look, there's a correlation between 4:135 and 4:34. Protecting and maintain women also means their rights and freedoms are also protected. We definitely need to act on those two verses today. Men should not let their wives, daughters, sisters be harmed in ANY way. We have to understand this is an order from the Almighty, because at the time wives and daughters and sisters were not treated well.
Many men, whether Muslim or not, naturally are protective of their wives, daughters, and sisters. But they shouldn't be DOMINATING and CONTROLLING and should not restrict their rights and freedoms. This verse shouldn't give men a license to obsess how their wives, sisters, or daughters dress or whom they talk to. In othet words, men should not become jealous or suspicious and then try to justify it with this verse.
What we have above challenges the dominant discourse of Muslim countries and their way of thinking about gender roles.
Do you all get it now? This verse has NOTHING to do with dominating women or controlling them. Some clerics in Saudi and Pakistan, and other shithole countries even try to say this verse means men are suppose to be leaders and women are suppose to silently remain submissive to the husbands sexual needs. I have no idea how the hell these tools make connections like this. They also say this verse means men must protect their wives from doing wrong and immoral things. Really? Women can't think for themselves? They can't stop themselves from doing haraam things and need a husband to keep them in line? If you all know about the site Islam QA, this is how they feel about verse 4:34.
I'm sure many of you have also heard that Muslim men need to protect women from dangers (like creepy men). Well this makes no sense because those creepy men who catcall women on the streets are going to do it if she is alone OR with her husband. Is there any evidence that suggests these creepy men are suddenly going to stop harassing random women if their husbands are around? No. Go back to what I said about Canada. I see women here walking alone, going to work alone, living alone, and so on. And I'm telling you they are not in danger. They are perfectly fine. This is why so many Muslim women are taking advantage of this and going about their lives, without close mehram men, and without being bothered by anyone. Societies who respect women as equals do not produce creepy men (or controlling men either). Yes in some areas, especially in poorer ghettos, women are not safe, even when they are with close male relatives with them, because as I said, creepy perverted men will go after women regardless if she is with someone or not. They will go after women if she is in a hijab or in tight revealing clothes. All the blame falls on the creepy men, and not on women.
Let's hope and pray that third word Muslims (and even Muslims in the West who still possess third world mentalities) start accepting modern day, sane, civilized, and gender neutral interpretations of Islam. This is the only cure for an Ummah which is so backwards, corrupt, and disunited.