The right given by the Qur’ān to the husbands to physically punish their wives in certain circumstances is an issue which has become a subject of hot debate. The issue needs to be understood in its true perspective. The Qur’ān says:
وَاللَّاتِي تَخَافُونَ نُشُوزَهُنَّ فَعِظُوهُنَّ وَاهْجُرُوهُنَّ فِي الْمَضَاجِعِ وَاضْرِبُوهُنَّ فَإِنْ أَطَعْنَكُمْ فَلَا تَبْغُوا عَلَيْهِنَّ سَبِيلًا إِنَّ اللَّهَ كَانَ عَلِيًّا كَبِيرًا(34:4)
And as for those from whom you fear rebellion, admonish them [first] and [next] refuse to share their beds and [even then if they do not listen] punish them. Then if they obey you, take no further action against them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted and Mighty. (4:34)
The following implications of this verse need to be understood in their proper perspective:
i. Firstly, this measure can only be resorted to when a wife starts to challenge the authority of the husband and threatens to disrupt the family set-up. It is in fact a last resort to protect the institution of family from breaking up. It must not be resorted to in anything less in severity than a rebellious attitude from the wife. This rebellious attitude is termed as نُشُوز(nushūz) by the Qur’ān. Ithas not used the word “disobedience”. Any difference of opinion or altercation is not to be resolved by this procedure. Disagreements and disputes must be settled mutually. It is only when the wife stands up against the authority of her husband that this procedure should be employed.
ii. Before resorting to physical chastisement, the two previous stages mentioned by the Qur’ān (4:34) must elapse. The husband should first of all admonish his wife and convince her to give up her defiant behaviour. He should exercise all the patience he can muster to urge and beseech her to change her stance. If, after repeated pleas and continuous admonition over a considerable span of time, the wife continues to persist in her rebellious attitude, he has the authority to go on to the second stage by avoiding marital contact with her. This detachment, it is clear, is a form of reproof, and a very strong appeal to the wife to correct herself. Again, this attitude should continue for a substantial period of time so that the point is driven home. It is highly unlikely that most wives would persist in their arrogance after these two initial stages. In all probability, patience, forbearance, and restraint would have conquered their hearts. However, even after this stage, if a wife refuses to accept the authority of her husband, the husband has the right to finally resort to gentle physical punishment.
iii. If the husband is left with no alternative but to physically punish his wife, he must be very careful in this regard and must not wound or injure her. He should remember that this physical chastisement is similar to the one a mother gives to a rebellious son or the one a teacher gives to an unruly student. He must be aware that in case he misuses this authority in any way, he will be held responsible before the Almighty on the Day of Judgement. In this world also, his wife has the right to report his behaviour to the authorities who can punish him for any misconduct in this regard.
iv. It finally needs to be considered that all rights must be exercised with prudence keeping in view the circumstances. Exercising one’s right is never obligatory. There can be circumstances in which a person chooses not to exercise this right.