Should Muslim women be discouraged from work?

Should Muslim women be discouraged from work?


Assalmalaikum. I was having a discussing with my mother where we were discussing how women in many Muslim countries are discouraged to work etc. My mom understands that that is wrong, but also pointed out that “women and men were created for different purposes – it is the man’s responsibility to provide for the family”. I argued that in this day and age that is becoming less true, and how women and men should share that responsibility. What is the “Islamic” opinion on this matter? Jzk! 🙂

Wa alykum as-salaam,

To be quite frank, there is no “Islamic” opinion on the matter, because it really depends on the situation.

If we talk in generalities (I say this with all respect, if you do not understand what I mean when I say these two bolded words, then please do not message me), most of the time, men are the ones who have provided financial support for their families. This expectation that men provide is not unique to Muslim societies, so I don’t understand why people like to pretend that only Muslims hold such a view.

As a man, I’m not sure how such an expectation limits women’s achievement or even addresses women’s earning power, for that matter. When we are young, boys are taught about honor, about respect, about how they should be protectors of their family, both the one they are born into and the one they start with their wife. The desire to provide for one’s family is something that is deeply ingrained into the male psyche, born out of this idea of the duty to “protect,” whether this is good or not, should be decided by men themselves.

As far as whether women are discouraged to work in Muslim countries, I’m not sure if that’s exactly true. As someone who has worked, extensively, throughout the developing world, the idea of a woman not working is a luxury. Women work and have continued to be part of the labor force, especially in agrarian societies, but in my country, Egypt, while some forces have recently, and quite famously, attempted to tell women not to work, that is simply rhetoric, because the average Egyptian family does not have ability to afford one spouse not working.

Most families in Egypt push both genders to work, and the crushing weight of durus khususaya (private lessons), soaring food costs (especially meat), and artificially low wages makes this a necessity. Even if a few random public figures may argue that women shouldn’t work, everyday Egyptians cannot afford to adhere to this rhetoric, even if they were so inclined.

There is an employment problem in many Muslim countries, and while I’m sure there are issues for women in this regard, the fact that 82% of Egyptian college graduates are unemployed speaks to the larger systemic problem, and to try and make this about gender, when you have such staggering statics, to me, is rather pointless, because it ignores the much larger issue.

In fact, even in America, the idea of a “one-income” household is also a luxury. More and more families are not able to meet their needs by having one parent stay at home, and so, from a point of practicality, these roles change and are fluid.

However, I think on some level, since men are more “limited” in their ability to contribute to a home, whether this is a constructed or inherent state I do not know, but whatever the reasons are, I think men take on this idea of providing quite seriously, because it is linked directly to their masculinity and their self-worth. I mean, all societies expect a man to provide, you don’t need to go to Muslim countries, just watch an episode of Maury when the male guest is asked if he’ll provide for the child. So, this expectation is not some “evil Muslim male plot,” it’s just an expectation that most societies have.

Granted the maintenance of a woman is routinely found in historical Islamic scholarship. This should not be surprising because of the immense difficulty a woman (historically) had in being able to provide for herself. The onus, therefore, would be upon the man to do this, as he would be the person who had the access to work. Thus, the financial requirements on the man, historically speaking, were quite tough, which is something we do not discuss much and is routinely side-stepped, which I find to be quite funny.

This is just an idea, but perhaps this strain of having “a man provide” is of particular concern among Muslims in the West, because as immigrants, the fear that immigrant parents have is whether their children will be provided for, especially daughters, even if they (the daughters), themselves, are doctors and engineers. I think this immigrant mentality, which seeks out as much certainty as possible, contributes to this discourse being pervasive. That is why Muslim men in the West are continuously herded towards engineering, the sciences, medicine, and other professions that maximize their earning power, and thus, guarantee financial stability.

It does not help, either, that many Muslim women have encouraged this mindset by placing premiums on Muslim men who are doctors and engineers over other professions, or that some Muslim women have allowed if not accepted this idea that they simply have to “marry well” as their “end game.” This has stunted the growth of many Muslim women, giving them self-imposed ceilings onto their achievement, which is something I find to be quite saddening.

So there is a confluence of factors that leads to this process of thinking, that is far more complicated than the simplistic notions that are thrown around on this website.

However, in my personal opinion, while I would like to, personally, provide for my family, as I feel that would give me pride as a man, a father, and a husband; I also think that the relationship between The Prophet and his wife Khadijah illustrates a rather important reality. Khadijah, like The Prophet, was a merchant, and she was actually The Prophet’s employer, and it was through their business dealings that Khadijah came to know of The Prophet’s character, and it was Khadijah’s wealth that sustained The Prophet and afforded him the ability to help the less fortunate, to free slaves, and to feed the hungry.

So, I do not think that Islam says one thing, it really matters about the situation. Regardless of who is the “bread-winner” there should be mutual respect, there should be honor shown to the other partner, and there should be sharing of household duties. The Prophet is recorded to have mended his clothes, fixed his own shoes, served his wives and himself (found in the collections of Ahmad and Bukhari).

So, how far women want to share in that responsibility, is up to them, to be honest. In the historical scholarship, men are required to provide for their spouses as best as they can, and women are not expected to do this, but as financial situations change, the cost of living changes, and so on and so forth, obviously pragmatism must come into play. However, as I said earlier, many immigrant communities do not factor in this practical element and continuously frame their males and females into a culturalparadigm of the ideal which ignores The Prophet’s example.

At the same time, we also have a discourse that equates masculinity with the ability to provide. What confuses me, beyond belief, is observing critiques of this idea, where the only comment on that paradigm is to ridicule it. This does nothing. If we expect men to see themselves differently, when a major pillar of their masculinity is connected directly to their ability to provide, and our only solution is to ridicule such a position, what have we achieved?

In sum, what roles a man and a woman should have depends on the situation and the goals of the people in the marriage. This will vary from marriage to marriage, and whatever “Islamic ideal” we can ascertain from The Prophet’s marriage is limited, because peoples’ marriages will probably be quite different to The Prophet’s marriage, but, what is sad, is that even if we were to say “the Islamic ideal marriage is The Prophet’s” it would be quite obvious that Muslim men and women, especially in the West (as they have greater access to education and social mobility than other Muslims), have failed to live up to any of these expectations.

I would argue that any perception of gender roles that does not take into account the other, is an incomplete conception and one that will devalue the other, and thus perpetuate the disharmony that we seem to enjoy, unfortunately. I think Muslims, particularly in the West, have the opportunity to provide a rather shining example towards an alternative to the adversarial model which pervades Western discourses on gender relations.

I hope this answers your question, insha Allah.

I pray this reaches you and your families in the best of health and Iman, insha Allah.

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