Qur'an 4:34 (Surah Nisa, aya't 4) gives some guidance as to how to deal with marriage difficulties when husbands feel that their wives are being deliberately nasty to them. The Holy Qur'an also gives guidance for cases when it is the wife who thinks that she is being mistreated and feels unhappy about it.
In this connection it must, first of all, be clearly understood by all Muslims that the Holy Qur'an unequivocally prohibits keeping women in wedlock against their will. In Surah al-Baqarah, verse 231, it is said: "And do not retain them (i.e. women) in wedlock against their will in order to hurt them. He who does such a thing indeed sins against himself. And do not take the signs of God lightly..."
And in Surah an-Nisa verse 19 we read: "O YOU who have attained to faith! It is not lawful for you to [try to] become heirs of your wives [by holding onto them] against their will."
These verses appear in some particular contexts but they clearly contain the principle (also found in Hadith) that women can be brought into the marriage relationship and kept in that relationship only if they want to do so.
In some cultures, including parts of the Muslim world, women are sometimes beaten by their relatives into marrying men of the relatives' own choice or beaten to stay in the marriage bond. Those who do that commit a sin and unless forgiven by the women concerned will be punished by hell-fire in the hereafter.
It is true, as we have seen in another article, that husbands can lightly beat their wives when they show prolonged and deliberately nasty behaviour but such beating can be done only when the intention to stay in the marriage bond is intact on the part of both the husband and the wife. The moment the wife makes up her mind that she does not wish to remain in the marriage bond and she clearly expresses this decision on her part, the husband ceases to have any justification in the sight of God to beat her.
It is not only by physical force that women are sometimes kept in marriage against their will. More often it is social or economic pressures that are used, consciously or unconsciously, to keep them tied in the unwanted relationship. In Surah an-Nisa' the Book of God combats such social and economic pressures:
"If a woman fears ill-treatment (mushuz) or indifference (i'radh) from her husband, it is not wrong if (at her initiative) the two set things peacefully to right between themselves; for, peace is best, and selfishness is ever present in human souls. But if you do good and are conscious of Him, behold, God is aware of all that you do... If the two break up, God provides everyone out of His abundance, for God is resourceful, wise." (4:128-130)
In many cultures, including the Muslim culture, it is considered taboo on the part of a woman, especially if she is of "noble" (sharif) descent, to express unhappiness with marriage and to try to do something about it (except in cases of extreme cruelty on the part of the husband). This type of attitude is part of the social pressure which is used to keep women suppressed. The Qur'an says that if a woman feels that her husband is too indifferent to her, i.e. does not give enough love to her or mistreats her and she is therefore unhappy, there is nothing wrong if she initiates steps to change the situation.
It should be noted that whenever the Qur'an says "there is nothing wrong" or "it is not wrong" (la junaha), it means to fight certain social taboos and established psychological attitudes. In the above passage it is fighting the attitude which expects women to continue in the marriage bond as the husbands keep them regardless of whether the wife is reasonably happy or not.
The first step that a woman should take to change her marriage situation, if she is unhappy with it, is, of course, to "talk it out" with her husband. This may lead to one of two things: a greater understanding between the two resulting in a satisfactory change in the husband's attitude or a mutual decision to dissolve the marriage bond (with the wife possibly returning par of the dowry (2:229)). Such peaceful settling of matters is beautifully encouraged in the words
"peace is best, and selfishness is ever present in human soul. But if you do good and are conscious of God, behold, God is aware of all that you do."
Selfishness is accepted here as an inevitable condition of the human soul, so we are not expected to altogether get rid of it. What we are expected to do is to balance our selfishness with God consciousness and consideration for others. This means that we should pursue our self-interests within the limits set by God for our own good and also do something for others instead of being all the time concerned with ourselves.
It is in such a spirit that the husband and wife should discuss their marriage difficulties. Both have the right to expect happiness from the marriage relationship but each of them should seek happiness with consciousness of God and some concern for the happiness of the other partner in marriage. If the husband is not inclined to discuss things in this spirit and continues to mistreat the wife, then the wife can go to an Islamic court which must then impose a settlement on the husband on just terms. This is because it is the duty of Islamic courts to enforce the law of God and deal with all forms of zulm (injustice).
The Holy Qur'an wishes to make it socially acceptable for a wife to seek a change in her marriage situation if she feels that her husband mistreats her or is indifferent to her. But social acceptability alone is not enough; for, as noted earlier, tied with social taboos are economic considerations that often pressure the woman to accept her unhappy marriage situation. The Qur'an says that this should not be the case. It reminds all the concerned persons - the wife, the husband and relatives that:
"God provides everyone out of His abundance, for God is resourceful, wise" (4:130)
If all attempts on the part of the wife to establish a reasonably happy and dignified relationship with her husband fail and breakup of the marriage is the only option, then this option should not be rejected only for economic reasons. Let the wife and her relatives trust in God who is the real provider of all. Marriage should be viewed primarily as a love relationship (30:21) and not as an economic relationship.
The reminder that God is the provider of all is also meant for the husband. It tells him that he should not be too stingily and try to get back every penny that he might have spent on the wife but rather settle on equitable, if not generous, terms. God, who provided him all that he spent on his wife, may provide him yet more out of His infinite abundance.
It is instructive to note a couple of differences between the passage considered above and verse 34 of the same Surah an-Nisa' dealing with the case when it is the husband who is unhappy with the wife. In the latter case it is simply said: "If you (i.e. husbands) part" whereas in the above passage it is said "If a woman fears nushuz or i'radh on her husbands part." The addition of i'radh meaning turning away or becoming indifferent in case of a husband and its omission in the case of a wife is significant. This is a recognition that in love and sex relationship man's role is a more active one in the sense that he is the one who makes most of the first moves and therefore as a rule he alone can do i'radh: she can, as a rule, only refuse to respond (which if done willfully and too often would come under nushuz and would be dealt with as such).
Another difference between the two cases is that when the husband fears nushuz on the part of the wife he can, after due admonition and talking, separate the wife in bed and then lightly beat her while such measures are not suggested to the wife if she is the one who fears nushuz or i'drah from the husband. This is, of course, not because the Qur'an sees anything wrong in principle with the wife separating herself in bed from the ill-treating husband or even beating him. The reason rather is that the Qur'an recognizes the well-observed fact that as a rule women are physically weaker than men and therefore it would be difficult for her to implement such measures against the husband. Unlike the sentimental feminists, the Qur'an is wise enough and realistic enough to first admit that in general women are indeed physically weaker than men and then to realize that it would be totally unhelpful to ask a weaker partner to use forceful methods against a stronger one, especially if that stronger partner is already mistreating her.
But this does not mean that Islam leaves women at the mercy of their husbands. If despite being a Muslim a husband fails to respect the principles outlined in the Qur'an and instead of peacefully settling matters with the wife shows neither the inclination to treat her as a husband should treat a wife nor lets her go in a maruf (just and public) way, then it is the collective duty of the Muslim society to step in and, through a suitable legal system, enforce the law of God by imposing a settlement on the husband on terms judged equitable by an impartial court. It is regrettable that Muslim societies have not yet evolved such a suitable legal system to give women adequate protection against their stronger marriage partners should these stronger partners abandon love and tenderness and turn nasty.