The framing of this question has two underlying assumptions. One is that work is related only to the economic role in terms of earning and financial provisions and second and most importantly, exclusivity of the roles assigned to women after marriage i.e. of wife and mother.
And the third dimension of the question is its class base, the question of choice, whether they should work or not is very middle and upper class. In Indian Muslim context which can be extended to most of the Asian and African Muslim population, women’s work and earning is not a matter of choice, it is a matter of survival and sustenance, whether they are part of traditional agriculture or small scale village or urban industries.
With regard to the section who faces the question of choice, the economic aspect may not be that important due to the man’s assumed role as a bread winner and provider for the family. But this is the section from where most of the educated and professional women come from.
Being at work means utilizing the knowledge and skills one has acquired, shaping the personal dreams and aspirations and also fulfilling the larger social and political roles. It is not Islam that endorses these divisions, but the Muslim societies which are patriarchal. There are enough evidences from Quran, Sunnah and early Muslim history which emphasizes greater participation of women in economic, social and political spheres.
Each time a woman decides to ‘opt out’ of these traditional roles, she is making a political decision that reinforces an already ingrained social inequality wherein she is held solely responsible for child rearing and household tasks. The traditional marriage through the centuries had been a economic partnership (it was a partnership where women’s work was not acknowledged and valued in terms of monetary paid labour) based on mutual dependency, modern marriage demands greater self sufficiency and companionship based on mutual respect.
This transition from traditional family to the modern one, like any other transition, brings strain and challenges. But there is also an increasing understanding of the changes that an educated, professional, working mother and wife can bring to the family. There is an evidence that households are organised and better managed when both the partners are working and children tend to become independent and self sufficient. Mothers who are exposed to the outside world are in better position to guide and manage any crisis situations that arise in family e.g. critical illness of the spouse or untimely death or any big social or political upheavals. One of the realities that struck many individuals and NGOs who worked with the Muslim community after the Mumbai riots was the ignorance of the community and particularly of women even in very small matters such as their familiarity with the physical surroundings, to other important civic and political issues.
So being part of the workforce is not merely an individual choice for Muslim women, but it is a need of the community. We need a class of educated, professional and socio- politically active women not only to lead their own families and children, but the society towards more humane and just future.
Shabana Warne has done M.Sc (Social Work) from Tata Institute of Social Sciences. She has worked for NGO’s like Samarthan and Child relief and You (CRY).
Dr. Farheen Khan
In the traditional interpretation of Islam amongst Indian middle class Muslims, people usually believe that a pious woman is obedient, stays at home, and does not rock the boat; meaning she does not instigate change. But where did this attitude come from?
Some of the old attitudes towards working women remain; that is, the more pious a woman is, the more she stays at home. The moderate view is more often than not missed, in that women can be active in the community and still maintain their interest in their houses. The two do not necessarily have to be contradictory.
Before marriage I was working in the hospital, but immediately after marriage I resigned. Even after 17 years of marriage I have not resumed work, as I firmly believe that any relationship needs nurturing and it needs investment of time and emotions. I believe that immediately after marriage a woman’s focus should be to strengthen her relationship with her husband and other members of the in-laws family.
Even if one has to sacrifice certain material comforts, as income flow decreases, one should give priority to relationship. Child birth is the most important part of a woman’s identity. Child needs 100 % attention of the mother. It will be very difficult to do justice to motherhood if a woman is working.
As a doctor I have seen many cases of children suffering from psychological problems as they don’t get enough attention, affection and time from their working mother. Every woman has to take a personal decision whether to give importance to professional career and get all the benefits associated with it, including monetary and material, or sacrifice their career and strengthen the emotional bonding with husband and children. It is the individual’s choice.
I know people argue that I have wasted a precious medical seat by not practising. That’s not true. Though I may not be earning money by not practising, but I ensure that my family members and poor people residing in the neighborhood get my services whenever required.
The time I am able to save by not working, I have invested in giving personal attention to my children’s upbringing, imparting them moral and ethical values, taking care of their religious and worldly education. The result is that my three children are doing well in their education as well as have enough knowledge about their religion.
I have not wasted my education as I am active in the social sphere, of course not at the cost of my family. I pray that Allah guides us always and particularly when we have to take crucial decisions in our life, and remove our ignorance and pride and replace it with true knowledge, humility and sincerity to serve Him, to serve mankind.
Dr Farheen Khan has done MBBS from Grand Medical College in Mumbai. She has worked for the J J group of hospitals.
(As told to M. Hanif Lakdawala)