“I just don’t think Muslim women should be working … I mean, as a Muslim woman, your duty is to look after your husband and children; it’s the man’s duty to provide, and the woman’s duty to take care of the household.”
“This is a modern day issue. Muslim women of the past knew their roles and responsibilities; they didn’t neglect their husbands and children by insisting on working.”
“I blame feminism. Nowadays Muslim women are chasing this Western dream of becoming just like men – doing things just because men can. But who’ll raise the kids if women are out working all day? What impact will that have on the marriage? On the children? We must reject this westernisation of Islam.”
The role of Muslim women in modern life is an issue that has persisted in the post-colonial era. Yet born largely as a reaction to the Western feminist movement, the conversation over women’s employment tends to swing between two extremes; either employment is portrayed as the sole means by which women are freed from the alleged drudgery of housewifery and make a contribution to the world, or it is presented as an abandonment of women’s “traditional” role as the homemaker that leads to the neglect of children and family life.
However, what is lost in these polemics is the fact that this choice between two exclusive options is itself rooted in modern Eurocentric worldviews and history.
The delineation of a “working woman” in the West was the product of a long socio-economic history that culminated in the first and second waves of feminism. Following the Industrial Revolution, factory work levelled the playing field between male and female labour, and World Wars I and II expanded the opportunities open to women as men left to fight. However, women’s lack of access to higher education and discriminatory legal status prevented them from pursuing higher-paid work. It was as late as 1947 before Cambridge University validated degrees for women, and even then in the face of strong opposition. Feminist movements subsequently campaigned for equal pay and treatment in the workplace, and pushed back against sexist stereotypes of “women’s work”. However, this inclusion unintentionally made men the benchmark for success and, to a large extent, disregarded the importance of the role women play as homemakers and caregivers to their children. To this day, women’s employment is almost always justified by policymakers in profit-maximising terms, citing the benefits to the economy over the potential costs to cohesive family life. Employment is presented as the route to empowerment, betraying a materialist assumption that selling one’s labour is by default beneficial, even if the work is unfulfilling or at the expense of other responsibilities.
The idea of a “housewife” as popularly envisaged today originates from a similar history. Born of 1950s America, where women were depicted as quite literally married to their homes and barred from employment by most companies, there was growing cultural emphasis on a woman’s innate domesticity. Yet, this was the result of a move away from the genuinely traditional extended family framework and the rise of the nuclear family. This also largely took root in white middle-class families; the reality for African American women was starkly different, with some 90% of Black southern women working as domestic help in the 1960s. The period between 1950 and 1965 in which this model became entrenched as a societal ideal was not the norm, but was enabled for a minority by a unique post-war period of broader socioeconomic stability. This proved unsustainable in the face of increasing individualism and the end of the Golden Age of Capitalism .
Yet, an ignorance of these histories has led to the bizarre erasure of the fact that, throughout history and across poorer countries today, women’s employment has been commonplace. In pre-modern societies, opting out of work was a choice largely given to middle- and upper-class women; those in agriculture, for example, had no such luxury. Weaving and cloth-making are traditional women’s crafts in many countries, and such trends have persisted in the modern period, with the feminisation of the global textile industry resulting from such cultural histories. Teaching and nursing are also professions in which female participation has a long legacy.
Consequently, the idea that a woman pursuing any other activity outside of direct homemaking duties is a new phenomenon is false. The pursuit of income-generating or voluntary work has never been seen as inherently neglectful of the family.
However, there is no denying that the nature of work has changed in the modern era. The establishment of the 9-5 working timetable has seen the human race work more annual hours than ever before, consequently keeping families apart for longer.The atomisation of the family unit and rising individualism has severed broader family support networks that supported young families — children are no longer ‘raised by a village’. Additionally, the decline of single-sex spaces and liberalisation of social norms can be problematic for Muslims to navigate.
Whilst these are charges frequently brought against women, these issues also apply to men. The structure of working life as we know has negative repercussions for families as a whole; placing the responsibility on women to compensate for these conditions is insufficient.
The complexity of this issue and the internalised assumptions of popular discourse highlights that Muslims should not feel the need to blindly pick one of the two sides presented earlier in this debate. In a somewhat defeatist manner, today we ask Muslim women to make a choice Islam does not request of them. The solution presented is to compromise and cage in half our society’s potential. The reality is that there is less focus on achieving a viable future rooted in Islamic ethics, and more on imposing a romanticised vision that for many is unattainable and restrictive.
Centring the spiritual
In defence of Muslim women pursuing employment, some point to the rise of poverty and insecurity which have made dual incomes a necessity for many families, even though the shari’a does not impose the responsibility on women to provide. Many also cite how women’s participation in numerous industries, such as medicine, is a societal need and could be construed as fardh kifayah (a communal obligation).
However, such justifications should not be based solely on material considerations. Rather, they should be rooted in an Islamic framework that also considers the spiritual.
As Muslims, our understanding of the role of a woman is, first and foremost, rooted in her status as an ‘aabida (slave) of Allah ﷻ. In the Qur’an, Allah affirms the spiritual equality of women and men:
إِنَّ الْمُسْلِمِينَ وَالْمُسْلِمَاتِ وَالْمُؤْمِنِينَ وَالْمُؤْمِنَاتِ وَالْقَانِتِينَ وَالْقَانِتَاتِ وَالصَّادِقِينَ وَالصَّادِقَاتِ وَالصَّابِرِينَ وَالصَّابِرَاتِ وَالْخَاشِعِينَ وَالْخَاشِعَاتِ وَالْمُتَصَدِّقِينَ وَالْمُتَصَدِّقَاتِ وَالصَّائِمِينَ وَالصَّائِمَاتِ وَالْحَافِظِينَ فُرُوجَهُمْ وَالْحَافِظَاتِ وَالذَّاكِرِينَ اللَّهَ كَثِيرًا وَالذَّاكِرَاتِ أَعَدَّ اللَّهُ لَهُم مَّغْفِرَةً وَأَجْرًا عَظِيمً
Surely, Muslim men and Muslim women, believing men and believing women, devout men and devout women, truthful men and truthful women, patient men and patient women, humble men and humble women, and the men who give Sadaqah (charity) and the women who give Sadaqah, and the men who fast and the women who fast, and the men who guard their private parts (against evil acts) and the women who guard (theirs), and the men who remember Allah much and the women who remember (Him) — for them, Allah has prepared forgiveness and a great reward.Al-Qur’an 33:35
Both men and women are also reminded of their status as viceregents (khulafaa) and stewards of this Earth:
وَهُوَ الَّذِي جَعَلَكُمْ خَلَائِفَ الْأَرْضِ وَرَفَعَ بَعْضَكُمْ فَوْقَ بَعْضٍ دَرَجَاتٍ لِّيَبْلُوَكُمْ فِي مَا آتَاكُمْ إِنَّ رَبَّكَ سَرِيعُ الْعِقَابِ وَإِنَّهُ لَغَفُورٌ رَّحِيم
“It is He who has appointed you vicegerent on the earth…”Al-Qur’an 6:165
Both men and women are also given the task of civic duty in upholding the truth against falsehood:
كُنتُمْ خَيْرَ أُمَّةٍ أُخْرِجَتْ لِلنَّاسِ تَأْمُرُونَ بِالْمَعْرُوفِ وَتَنْهَوْنَ عَنِ الْمُنكَرِ وَتُؤْمِنُونَ بِاللَّهِ وَلَوْ آمَنَ أَهْلُ الْكِتَابِ لَكَانَ خَيْرًا لَّهُم مِّنْهُمُ الْمُؤْمِنُونَ وَأَكْثَرُهُمُ الْفَاسِقُون
“You are the best nation produced [as an example] for mankind. You enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and believe in Allah”.Al-Qura’an 3:110
Consequently, the idea that a Muslim woman’s sole role is to be a wife and mother is unfounded. Without undermining the honour, importance and sacred status of these positions, they are by no means the only roles women will fulfil over the course of their lives — firstly as servants of God, but also sisters, daughters, friends, neighbours and citizens. To reduce anyone to a single role is not only exclusionary, but also contrary to the manifold responsibilities with which God has charged women.
The women praised by Allah ﷻ and the Prophet ﷺ further substantiates this. Asiya, the wife of Firaun, was honoured as a woman of jannah not because of her role as a wife; rather it was her staunch belief in Allah ﷻ against her husband’s will that warranted this honour. Similarly, Aisha (ra), the second most beloved wife of the Prophet ﷺ, was not a mother. Yet, this did not impact her status as a wife of the Messenger ﷻ who made immense contributions to Islam.
The sahabiyaat (female companions of the Prophet ﷻ) are also examples of the varied pursuits women engaged in, even in a society where most women were not active in the same spheres as men: the businesswoman Khadijah b. Khuwaylid (ra), the scholar Aisha b. Abu Bakr (ra), the warrior Nusaybah b. Kaab (ra), the financial regulators Shifaa b. Abdullah and Samra b. Nuhayk (ra), and the jurist Umm al Darda (ra). Compared to 7th century Arabia, the technological, educational and social developments of modern life makes women’s presence in these fields and others much more feasible.
The contributions of men as thinkers, scientists and entrepreneurs are encouraged for the progression of the Muslim Ummah, with little contradiction seen with their roles as husbands and fathers; on what basis do we then omit women from these opportunities? What does it say about our opinion of the female intellect when we lock it into foreign, two dimensional gender roles and a flawed dichotomy of career versus family, rather than building a system that allows for it to flourish?
From theory to practice
The question then becomes how Muslim women today can effectively balance their roles as wives and mothers with other commitments they may be pursuing. These solutions will differ for everyone depending on the profession and particular family arrangements.
However, in the long term, a broader communal conversation is needed to challenge the social and economic structures that disproportionately place responsibility on women that should be shared amongst society. Internalising the importance of building strong Muslim communities will aid the establishment of localised, family-friendly initiatives that will enable both men and women to balance their lives around faith and familial obligations, whilst also honouring and utilising the intellect Allah has endowed upon us. These could be centred around masaajid or community centres, but should embody the Prophetic spirit of community in which all Muslims are invested in protecting the family unit, supporting men and women, and raising the next generation.
But, first and foremost, we must recognise that reductive arguments on complex societal issues under the guise of ‘Islam says so’ are insufficient. Rather than creating narratives to blindly support the norms of today, we must root our approach in the rich and diverse Islamic tradition. In this way we can embody an Islam that is timelessly relevant.
Johnson, L., & Lloyd, J. (2004). Sentenced to everyday life: feminism and the housewife. Oxford ; New York: Berg.
Armstrong, T. E. (2012) “The hidden help: Black domestic workers in the Civil Rights Movement.” Electronic Theses and Dissertations. Paper 46