Men are 'qawwam' of women by [right of] what Allah has given one over the other and what they spend [for maintenance] from their wealth. So righteous women are devoutly obedient, guarding in [the husband's] absence what Allah would have them guard. But those [wives] from whom you fear arrogance - [first] advise them; [then if they persist], forsake them in bed; and [finally], strike them. But if they obey you [once more], seek no means against them. Indeed, Allah is ever Exalted and Grand. (An Nisa 4:24)
Allah (SWT) says that men are qawwam of women. The word qawwam is derived from the Arabic verb qaama/uqeemu which means to stand. Qawwam is an exaggerated/excessive form which indicated constant standing. Just as a bodygaurd continuously stands gaurding a VIP, the man of the family is supposed to watch over and protect the women of the household. The verse above explains that he is given this function because of the fact that it is he who is required to spend his wealth on them for their maintenance. When one spends on someone continuously, it is natural that he will protect them from all dangers. He will empathize with them and will be inclined to manage their affairs with their best interest in mind.
The applied meaning of qawwam thus encompasses a range of responsibilities of the man which include financially providing for them, protecting them, empathizing with them, understanding them, managing their affairs, making decisions that affect them after proper consultation with them, providing the space and opportunities for the constant learning and growth as well as catering to their every physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual, educational and financial need. In short his role is that of an enabler of success of all members of the household. In order for him to successfully carry out all these responsibilities he has been granted the leadership role of an ameer of the family.
Abdullah bin Umar reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Every one of you is a shepherd and is responsible for his flock. The leader of the people is a guardian and is responsible for his subjects: a man is the guardian of his family and is responsible for his subjects, a woman is the guardian of her husband’s home and of his children and is responsible for them, and the slave of a man is a guardian of his master’s property and is responsible for it. Surely, everyone of you is a shepherd and responsible for his flock.” (Bukhari & Muslim)
It is apparent from the above hadith that every group of people should have a leader for its proper function. It is not possible for a group to have two leaders or else chaos will ensue. Thus for a family unit, Allah (SWT) in His infinite wisdom has chosen the men to lead. It does not matter how weak the man is or how less he earns with respect to the wife, he is supposed to be ultimately responsible for all family members.
This does not mean that the man of the house is a dictator and does make his decisions based on shoora (consultation) of all his family members. It does not mean that he is to be feared by those under him; nor that he is an enforcer of decadent cultural restrictions that have little to do with Islam. Rather, the husband should study the Prophet's (SWAS) Seerah deeply to help him improve his leadership skills. To help support the husband, wives are required to be obedient to the husband as stated in the above verse. It is worth noting here that their obedience is first to Allah (SWT), then to the Prophet (SWAS) and only then to the husband, so if the husband makes demands against the commands of Allah (SWT) and His Prophet (SWAS) she should decline to be obedient.
Part of the responsibility of the ameer is to engender leadership skills in those under him. The primary manner to do so is to first be good role models themselves. Children may be trained to accept more responsibilities at a young age, e.g. they can be asked to take care of their pets, or be the captain of their school cricket team or lead be the imam at home, leading their siblings and cousins in salaat or baby sitting their siblings while the parents are away. Leadership skills can be formally be learnt in a Boy Scouts / Girl Guides troop. The key element in making the next generation future ameers of their families and societies is to make them feel emphatic to others. This can be done by engaging them in charitable services for those less fortunate than them. Lastly, by providing them comprehensive Islamic knowledge, parents would help them understand the roles required for them to carry out as young adults. The guidance from the examples of the Prophet (SWAS) and his Companions (RA) are invaluable in this respect.
Men are made responsible for a gamut of needs for their family members and hence are given leadership roles by Islam. Like everyone under a leader, wives are required to help the leader by being obedient to him, provided nothing is being demanded against Islamic principles. The man of the family should consult with his family and do everything that is in their best interest. He should use his position responsibly to help all family members develop themselves. He should not misuse the privilege of leadership he is given. He is responsible to pass on good leadership skills to their offsprings so that they become exemplary ameers themselves in the future.