Many Muslim young women living in the modern world are lost when it comes to the marriage versus career question. They wander along with no real guidance, following in the footsteps of their non-Muslim counterparts and falling face-first into the same disastrous outcomes.
Some of us parrot gimmicky feminist one-liners and then, years later, wonder why we are so alone and miserable. At that point, some even blame Muslim men for not “stepping up” and marrying sisters with big careers and accuse those men of being cowards who are “intimidated” by and “can’t handle” such “strong, empowered, independent Muslim women!”
This sad state needs to be addressed, especially as some Muslim female voices on social media spread confusion and bad ideas without much substantive push-back.
Note that this essay is not meant to demonize women who do have halal careers. My own mother was a practicing physician for many years and I myself graduated from Harvard University and planned to enter the workforce and “change the world” in those naive college days. I am not blaming my working sisters (some of whom really have no choice due to their financial situation), but I do blame an overarching system that puts women in these difficult positions of defining their self worth according to their careers or lack thereof.
I myself have struggled with this question: Is being a wife and a mother all that I’m good for? It took me years to realize that this question itself is toxic because what could be better than being a wife and mother? What could be more challenging? What could be more fulfilling? What could be more impactful than nurturing a strong, loving family and household which serves as the building block of a healthy Muslim community and Ummah?
It is feminism that has told us that women need to “be more,” that women need to “fulfill their potential,” implying that women somehow gain something by spending their precious hours, days, weeks, years pursuing money and titles and leadership rather than spending them on a husband and children. In actuality, women gain very little and lose much. It is the entire modernist system that has created this situation and this mindset. We are victims of it, but it is up to us to call it out for what it is and to not perpetuate it to future generations.
Unfortunately, some Muslims are doing exactly this: perpetuating this toxic mentality.
Why Doesn’t Anyone Want to Marry Me?!
Last week, a Muslim lawyer and activist, Zahra Billoo, wrote a Facebook post bemoaning the difficult time she’s had trying to find a husband due to her demanding career. Strangely, she put the blame for this squarely on the shoulders of Muslim men and secondarily on the shoulders of the entire Muslim community!
It is instructive to look at her post more closely as it is revealing of an attitude toward marriage and gender roles spreading throughout the Muslim community like a plague.
She shares a story about how, while eating at a restaurant, a Muslim father recognizes her and says that he wants his daughter to grow up to be just like Billoo. Billoo says that this is a common sentiment she hears, even from marriage suitors who have rejected her. One suitor in particular told her:
“I want my daughter to grow up to be like you but I don’t think I have what it takes to support your work as a spouse and I don’t want you to change for me.”
Billoo finds this extremely hypocritical. Frankly, I agree with her, but not for the same reason.
It is quite ignorant for a father to want his daughter to pursue a career path that will make it difficult for her to get married, difficult to form a stable family, difficult to live according to the Sunna. Why would any loving, competent father want his daughter to end up in the position of these female activists?
But Billoo and others suffering from the feminist mindset think that it is men’s fault for not wanting to marry a dedicated, overworked career woman. But why? Why can’t men prioritize what they want from a wife? Why is it surprising that the majority of men don’t want to share their wives with a demanding career? Why is it surprising that the majority of Muslim men want wives who will prioritize Islamic gender roles like motherhood?
Shouldn’t men have a choice in what they value in a wife? Women today certainly reserve the right to be choosy with whom they marry. No one criticizes women for this. No one shames women for not wanting to marry certain types of men (men who make less money, have less than glamorous jobs, etc.). No one is telling Muslim women to “Woman up!” and marry “economically disadvantaged” men, for example. No one is writing dramatic Facebook posts about raising their daughters to marry broke, penniless men.
The confusion is that, just because modern feminism values the empowered woman sacrificing her life for her career ambitions, that doesn’t mean the rest of us have to value it. In fact, we shouldn’t value this. And, as Billoo has discovered, Muslim men don’t value it either. And why should they?
Modern feminists (non-Muslim and increasingly Muslim) aggressively push women to pursue a life dedicated to career at the expense of all else. “Be empowered!” they chant. “Be independent!” Go to the Women’s March (wearing genitalia hats on your head) and become an outspoken activist to change the world! Slay the patriarchy! Men are evil (or at least toxic and selfish) and will enslave you, so don’t obey any husband–get a job where you can obey your boss instead! Become a wage slave. This is freedom. You will be happy. Anything a man can do, YOU can do! Why can a man get a job and a high-powered career but not you?
This is what feminism values, but it is not what Islam values. In fact, the opposite.
So what is wrong with wanting a wife who is dedicated to her husband, children, and domestic life more than her career?
The Value of a Home-Cooked Meal
Billoo further says:
“People are willing to support [female activists] from a distance, support it in concept, but not quite so eager to support it in their homes, at the expense of their comfort or a daily home cooked hot meal.”
Of course no one wants to support this!
Is it unreasonable for a husband to expect some comfort and a home-cooked hot meal at the end of a long day’s work? Is it bad or sexist or oppressive for him to have such a hope for marriage?
Even women themselves have to ask themselves: Is it worth it? Every day online we hear from another high-powered, executive careerwoman in her late 30s, 40s, and 50s who never got married, never had kids, expressing remorse for her feminist choices. “Why did I sacrifice the best years of my life for a job? Why did I squander time I could have spent nourishing a loving family? Now I physically can’t have children and men who do want children, who do want a big happy family, don’t want me. And who can blame them.”
Is this the sad future anyone wants for his or her daughter?
It is outrageous that one of the things that brings the most happiness and fulfillment to women in this life — namely, having children, nourishing them, loving them — is depicted as secondary at best. Women are told they are better off sacrificing their most fertile years of their youth pursuing anything other than being a wife and mother. This is disastrous and now Muslim figures are complicit in pushing this toxic message.
The Male Is Not Like the Female (No Matter How Much You Wish Otherwise)
The masculization of women is another prong of feminist thought. Billoo says:
“The path that Allah chose for me requires that I work long hours, putting my life and body on the line, to protect my community.”
We must ask ourselves: Is it a woman’s role in Islam to “work long hours” at a job outside her home and away from family, and to put her life and her body “on the line”? Where in Islam is a Muslim woman asked to do this? Where in Islam is this praiseworthy?
In Islam, men are in fact charged with both of these exact tasks: working to provide and protect. It is to men, not women, that the difficult task falls of putting their lives and their bodies on the line in the protection of their families, their communities, and the larger Ummah of Muslims. Women certainly should protect their children and family in dire situations and emergencies, but this is not the role in which Allah has placed Muslim women at large, in general. It IS the role in which Allah has placed Muslim men.
There are masculine virtues and feminine virtues (as well as masculine weaknesses and feminine weaknesses). Thanks to feminism, however, there is a strong, concerted effort to androgenize all attributes and qualities, and to deny the existence of uniquely masculine or feminine traits. We increasingly witness the erosion of gender, the war waged on masculinity (which is equated with toxicity) and on femininity (which is equated with weakness).
The Islamic system is in stark contrast to all this. Islam has a strong and healthy conception of gender differences and gender roles. Islam greatly values marriage and family, and outlines defined roles of the wife and of the husband therein. Each person has certain rights and responsibilities; these differ based on gender. The husband is the leader of the family, stewarding his wife and children in the best way toward piety, high morals and deen (he is responsible before Allah for this, which is a fearsome task).
The wife is his helpmate and devoted partner, respecting his authority and cooperating with him in their joint mission to raise a righteous Muslim family. The husband is a leader–but with that role comes heavy responsibilities: he must protect, fully provide for, religiously educate, attend to the needs of his wife and children without abusing them or neglecting them in any way. These are the responsibilities of a Muslim husband and the rights of the Muslim wife. The responsibilities of a Muslim wife–which are the rights of the husband–are being a cooperative mate who strives to please her husband and obey him and to protect his home, his children, and herself in his absence. This is an efficient and effective division of labor, in which each gender plays a specific set of roles that capitalize on that gender’s innate strengths.
The wisdom of the Islamic, Divinely-ordained system is clearly superior to the dysfunctional mess feminism has to offer, if only we reflect.
“I didn’t say this to the man at the restaurant, but I will say it here in hopes that others who are raising their daughters to be activists and leaders will read it. That’s not enough. You need to also raise your sons to amplify, celebrate, uplift, and support the women who are on the frontlines. We can’t do this work without our communities and families.”
Why is a collective ideal for the Muslim community to raise its daughters to be “activists and leaders”? What in Islam encourages women to be on the “front lines” of any battle? Does Islam encourage or condone the kind of activism and leadership in which a woman is hyper-focused on her career, that involves frequent traveling (without a mahram), not being home, being pulled away from her family, standing in front of and mixing with other male activists, shouting and marching in the streets, fighting like a warrior, etc? As much as others are willing to overlook these clear and, at times, egregious violations of Islamic modesty and gender values, we have to uphold our principles.
Spare Us the Inaccurate, Cliched References
One of the habits of Muslim activists these days is to try to justify these violations by appealing to the example of the Sahaba. Billoo notes:
“I am inspired by the mothers of the believers, the female companions of the Prophet (pbuh), generations of women Islamic movement leaders, and my sisters who fight alongside me. Supporting, protecting, uplifting, and even loving these women is part of our faith practice. We need to teach that to Muslim men and the sons they are raising.”
Please don’t bring the Sahabiyyat into this mess. Which Muslim man in the time of the Prophet, salla Allahu `alayhi wa sallam, married a woman who worked long hours, marched in the streets, and overall did not conform to Islamic gender roles in a marriage?
For a person to imply that the mothers of the believers and the female companions of the Prophet, salla Allahu `alayhi wa sallam, were “activists and leaders,” in the sense that Billoo refers to, is dishonest. It’s simply a projection of the values of our current time onto them, superimposing the modernist secular feminist ideals so popular today (like “women’s liberation,” “female empowerment,” being a “social justice activist,” etc.) onto the time of the Messenger and His blessed generation. To back-project such things into our Islamic history is irresponsible and misleading.
Were the mothers of the believers, may Allah be pleased with them all, leaving their homes and their families to travel and speak to crowds of men and women mixed together, while dressed as we are today? Did they travel without their mahram to do such things? Were they on any front line of any battle, in particular after the command of hijab was revealed?
The answer to all these questions is no.
We sometimes have this unfortunate tendency, as modern Western Muslims influenced by feminist talking points, to ignore the reality that the vast majority of Muslim women historically were primarily wives and mothers, not “leaders,” “activists,” and “social justice protesters.” Most of them also were not scholars and there was nowhere this push to fill some kind of quota for female scholars.
Frankly, I’m tired of hearing about how Khadijah, may Allah be pleased with her, was essentially a “Fortune 500 CEO,” and how Aisha, may Allah pleased with her, was a teacher of men.
Yes, Khadijah was a wealthy woman, but her wealth was inherited from her deceased husbands and she did not actually run the business or travel or trade herself–she employed men to do all of that. Furthermore, she dedicated herself fully and wholeheartedly to her blessed husband, salla Allahu `alayhi wa sallam, and bore him six children and raised a family. She was her husband’s helpmate and supporter, before and after nubuwwa. She was so careful of his needs and comfort that she cooked home-cooked meals and had them sent up to him while he was spending time reflecting inside Ghar Hira’. Not exactly the model of a high-powered business exec some today portray her as.
Yes, Aisha was a wealth of knowledge and she transmitted about one third of recorded ahadith, but she transmitted knowledge while being fully concealed behind a barrier to preserve her modesty.
Nothing these pious, upright Sahabiyyat did even slightly resembled the kinds of things that some activists and promoters of “Muslim women’s leadership” today may imagine or like for them to have done in their mental image of them as “strong, empowered, independent Muslimahs!” We need to stop back-projecting whims and desires.
Why don’t Muslim activists emphasize the other wives of the Prophet, salla Allahu `alayhi wa sallam, most of whom did not have much personal wealth, did not teach, and spent most of their outside of worship on cooking for the Prophet and his guests, taking care of his children, and maintaining his household? Are these not also the mothers of the believers? (Which is not to say Aisha didn’t also cook and take care of the household needs of the Prophet.)
Why don’t activists and feminists emphasize figures like Maryam?
Maryam, `alayha as-salam, the mother of Isa, `alayhi as-salam, is one of the most pious women ever created and the only woman ever to be mentioned by name in the Quran. In Surat Ali Imran, Allah says: “And when the angels said, “O Maryam, indeed Allah has chosen you and purified you and chosen you over all the women of the worlds.” She is a role model for all women; the role she is blessed with and honored through is her role as a mother. In Islam, the emphasis and weight is placed a woman’s role in motherhood and family, not on her roles as employed worker, businesswoman, soldier, or whatever we see today.
So, why is marrying female leaders “part of our faith practice” as Billoo and others assert?
These kinds of unsubstantiated claims distort reality and hinder the understanding of many Muslims.
In the End…
In the modern Western secular-feminist paradigm, all the above will elicit gasps of horror. Muslim feminists and social justice activists insist that men and women are the same and equal in every way and there are no roles for either gender, and come to think of it, gender itself is a made-up concoction of the patriarchy, nothing more than a delusion! Certainly, within feminism, marriage and family are seen as irrelevant at best, and as oppressive and tantamount to rape at worst. Being a wife and running a household is derisively called “domestic drudgery.” Motherhood is looked at with disdain or pity, nowhere near as important as “real work” that comes with a paycheck every two weeks.
What is alarming is how Muslim activist figures like Billoo and others push these feminist values as if they were Islamic, when in reality, they are anything but.