“Can women work in Islam?” was the first question a smartly-dressed older lady asked me at a wedding once, soon after I came and sat at the same table as she.
It was clear that she directed the question at me because of my attire.
This question is a very generalized one and, truth be told, the answer is not a simple yes or no.
Notwithstanding the legal rulings and jurisprudential verdicts regarding the issue of Muslim women working outside the home, the fact remains that a combination of social, economic, demographic and cultural factors are bringing about a global revolution of sorts: there are more and more women now gaining a good education and joining the workforce, despite there being a considerable populace of men eligible and available for the job.
The question is now less about “Can she?” and more about, “Should she?”
What is Work?
Islam and Women's Work
When you think of the term “working woman”, the picture that came to mind in the eighties and nineties was that of a no-nonsense, brusque, self-confident, and slightly bossy woman. A compulsive go-getter who, up at the crack of dawn every day, gets dressed in serious business attire with attaché case in hand, and hurriedly leaves her home while it’s still very early, to return well after sundown - haggard, cranky and tired.
En route, she drops her tots, if any, to school, daycare or at a relative’s home, either with or without a nanny. Judgmental housewives love to hate on her; call her a negligent mother, and accuse her of making her children grow up without her loving attention and care.
True, two decades ago, jobs and careers had different implications for women than they do now. Except for careers in primary education, there were fewer, if any, part-time career arrangements available for women that didn’t involve a tall corporate office building, a cubicle, a computer and a rigid 9-to-5 schedule with inflexible working hours.
Then, too, even if the women who worked as teachers came home from school earlier, usually along with their children, they would have to bring along piles of homework journals to check, stacks of test papers to grade, and lesson planners to fill for the next day.
Home: The New Workplace
|Now work can entail “telecommuting”, or working from a remote location|
Now, “work” has gained a different connotation altogether. Technology advances have facilitated instant global communication and digital transfer of data, disintegrating the traditional brick and mortar office building. Now work can entail “telecommuting”, or working from a remote location that is not on site in the office building. For many professionals, this location is a home office or desk.
As the digital age allows corporations to cut down operational costs including office space rentals, more and more professionals are now working ‘on the go’ using laptops, smart phones and tablets to perform most traditional managerial and clerical tasks: coordinating teams, writing and generating reports and presentations, managing international operations, convening ‘virtual’ meetings and interviews, and sharing hefty data files across geographical borders, all within seconds.Nowadays, it is not uncommon for a company to operate exclusively in the digital realm, with an internationally diverse and culturally eclectic team of employees conjunctively working online from different locations across the globe. Many such online startups have gone on to sell for billions.
A part of this digital ‘diaspora’ of sorts, is the working-online-from-home female professional. She is a dutiful wife; a diligent mother of younglings with yet another baby on the way, and she is clicking and typing away on her laptop, curled up in sweatpants, as her toddler naps in the crib nearby, the laundry spins in the dryer, and the one-pot dinner simmers on the stove.
The New Implications of ‘Work’
All the above factors imply that, now, more and more women are working, not just as professionals employed by companies, but as entrepreneurs and sole-proprietors running their own businesses, and as freelancers.
Since working from home has become very common, it has allowed many women to keep busy doing productive work in their spare time. Once they’ve tackled their household responsibilities, and by mastering the modern-day ‘juggling act’ known as multitasking, they are able to not just be there for their families 24/7, run their homes smoothly, but to also bring in a second, and much welcome, income.
To top it off, most of them have burgeoning families too, i.e. they work their way through pregnancies, births and child-rearing, even without professional help, because now it has become more of a necessity for the household to get by - on a very basic, hand-to-mouth, non-luxurious level - on two incomes.
Bills, taxes, school fees, rents and prices are higher than ever, and whatever the cause behind it, the growing trend is that, despite their sincere intentions combined with hard work and consistent effort, many married men are just not making enough to make ends meet, as well as to collect leftover savings over time.
Therefore, many contemporary Muslim husbands welcome their wife’s income, and appreciate her giving them a shoulder in heaving the household responsibility.
Islamic Obligation upon Men to Provide
Men have been given the Islamic responsibility of providing for women, who are by default financially dependent on them. Fathers, husbands, brothers have to provide for their women on a reasonable, non-extravagant basis.
This provision includes basic food, shelter, clothing and medical aides. In particular, the husband’s obligation to provide for his wife, even if she is wealthy, is binding according to Islam.
The question that arises is: What should be done in cases where the husband is genuinely trying his best to earn a sufficient living, but is not able to provide adequately for his wife and children in a manner that will enable them to get by comfortably (not lavishly)?In such cases, when the wife is not motivated by greed or a desire to live luxuriously, she can try to work in order to supplement her husband’s income.
The Cons of Always Staying at Home
|As an example of the ill effects of women having little to fill up their spare time, is the family misunderstandings...|
My personal opinion based upon a decade or so of observation, is that some women - primarily adult, married women in their thirties and forties, - can use their idle time, time which is left over after they have amply fulfilled their responsibilities as wives, mothers and homemakers, rather unwisely.
They either watch addictive, sensationalized drama serials, talk shows, or films on television, go shopping to lift their mood (now known as “retail therapy”) which inevitably makes them spend more money, read glossy ‘chick-lit’ or fashion magazines, excessively socialize with other housewives to kill time, or if nothing else, go to sleep for long hours, thus ending up living a slothful lifestyle that hampers mental and physical health.
Whereas many Muslim men, including modern muftis and scholars, openly condemn women working outside the home, they ignore or undermine the negative repercussions of idleness, ignorance, gossip, a mundane routine, engagement in trivialities, indulgence in time-wasting pastimes, and the resultant frustration and crankiness that women suffer whilst they remain cooped up inside their homes.
As an example of the ill effects of women having little to fill up their spare time, is the family misunderstandings and fights that are caused due to their idleness. Because they have nothing productive to do, they start to direct their attention towards others’ homes. Inquisitive about their close relatives, they start calling them up or visiting too often, just to enquire about their goings-on and giving unasked-for advice. This causes a gradual souring of relationships because of unnecessary interference, prying, and gossip.Feeling depressed due to staying cooped up in the home also affects women’s marriages, because they end up feeling useless and unproductive, and take out their pent up anger on their husbands when the latter return home from work in the evenings. The depression and lethargy experienced by such women is further exacerbated in those geographical regions of the world, which have long, dreary winters in which daylight hours are short, and going out is hampered by heavy snow and the need to don numerous layers of thick clothing.
In all such cases, if women find beneficial work that doesn’t involve any disobedience of God; doesn’t adversely affect their motherhood or household responsibilities, nor displeases their husbands, it is actually a win-win situation for everyone - primarily themselves.
Maintaining the Balance
Women belonging to any culture, ethnicity, religion or geographical location find it challenging to balance their household and maternity responsibilities with work. This is even truer in cases where they work only because they have to, or have a job / occupation that they do not enjoy.
In order to maintain an optimum balance, a woman should always fear God and check her intention often and repeatedly, to align it to completely focus on gaining God’s pleasure through her work. This will automatically keep her steadfast upon the right path and help her avoid neglecting any area in the holistic realm of her Shar’i obligations and responsibilities.
If the woman fears God, she will not allow her work to affect her Islamic obligations, such as offering the daily 5 prayers on time, fasting Ramadan annually, gaining Islamic knowledge, reciting Quran, and observing hijab from men - which, besides her clothing, also includes an invisible but palpable barrier that effectively impedes frank verbal communication and suggestive body language.
If she fears God, she will ensure that her work doesn’t allow her to undermine the dues of her own self, such as spirituality, sleep, health and nutrition. It will ensure that she remains wary of neglecting her husband’s rights, if she is married, especially in guarding herself at all times behind his back from anything he dislikes, solely out of fear of God (not fear of him).
It will also ensure that she, not only earns money through means that are 100% lawful, but also that she spends it frugally and wisely, in a manner that does not anger God, and that she saves some of it, diligently pays her yearly zakat (if it becomes due) and gives regular charity.
Sadly, we are witnessing a gradual disintegration of the institution of marriage around the world, even among the Muslim ummah. Combined with the skyrocketing cost of living and high numbers of young women reverting to Islam who dwell mostly in the West, and who, despite their sincere intentions to get married and desperate search for a spouse, remain single - the coming years will witness more and more working women to financially support themselves.
So instead of wondering whether Islam lets women work or not, our primary concern as a global ummah should be whether our women are being provided for and supported the way they should be?
Related Links:On Female Role Models and ‘Islamic Feminism’ (Conference Overview)
Tips for New Muslims to Overcome Isolation
Muslim Women Education: Look at the Wider Picture
Prophet Muhammad: The Verdant Shade of Mercy
The Wise Leader (Peace be upon him)