Muslim Career Women (And Their Husbands)

Note: The following is a guest post by Fathima.  You can find her here.  She’s lived in Toronto for nearly a decade but is still of no use to tourists, who she wishes would know better than to ask her impossible questions like, “Where is the nearest subway station.”

“If a woman has a child [and] she abandons that responsibility in pursuit of an empty career or the idea of making her mark on the world, she has completely misunderstood the great importance and the great responsibility that she has been given by God, in that the fruit of her womb is before her.”
“So if a woman brings children into this world and then dumps them in a daycare centre … and if she thinks somehow she is doing something more important by going out and working, I think there’s something very seriously wrong with her maternal instincts. Because abandonment in the animal kingdom, abandonment is alien to animals.”
“I am amazed that there’s children out there that are really struggling to find a purpose to their life in a world that is telling them constantly, including their parents by abandoning them, that that they are worthless.”
“If you don’t listen to your soul, you’ll end up on antidepressants.”

Interview with Hamza Yusuf, undated.

My father is a very forceful man and he looks it. In high school, my male friends tended to melt away from around me whenever my father appeared. He’s also, in many ways, very conservative: he wears a thobe on a regular basis; is an ardent supporter of the Tabligh Jamaat, which he credits with restoring his faith when he was young; and has often talked favorably about the niqab. He is a strong believer in following the sunnah, though I sometimes think that in emulating the prophet, he’s got him confused with god.

My mother was one of — if not the — first Muslim women in Gampola to become a doctor, this despite the rampant sexism and racism of the time. She excelled in her studies and later in her work, even when dealing with the rampant sexism and racism of Saudi Arabia, where she spent a decade as an Obstetrician and Gynaecologist. When she married my father she didn’t wear a hijab. It was after she’d become a mother of two and moved to study in England for a while on her own that she decided to adopt it, because she felt that it helped her keep the faith in what was then not the multicultural UK we know now. When we migrated to Canada nine years ago, because she was an International Medical Graduate, my mother had to do a series of requalifying exams. My parents made the joint decision then that it would be her — and not my father’s — income that would sustain our household. To that end, while she spent most of the day studying in university carrels, and later being a medical student, my father put aside his own career ambitions in engineering so that he could stay at home more often. He took on jobs with flexible hours; invariably these were jobs that paid little: tutoring or low-level engineering positions, the kinds that are physically taxing for old men and disheartening for someone who was capable of much more.

You need to imagine my father: he’s so dark-skinned that he’s been mistaken by Somalians for Somali; he has a beard, once black, now streaked white and grey; he is big and has a big voice. Once on a drive back to Toronto from Kitchener, he took me to a bridge he was helping construct. It was near a thoroughfare. He pointed out the specific things he did, standing in the concrete in his spotless white thobe. A woman drove by in a car, and then she circled back and she stopped on the other side of the road and proceeded to watched us. My father, explaining the function of various pieces of machinery to me, didn’t see her, but I did. And I knew why she stopped and why she was watching us. It was because my father fits the image of terrorist fundamentalist abusive Moslem to a T. Though perhaps his beard could have stood to gain a few dozen inches, there was no way he wasn’t there on that bridge because he wasn’t planning to bomb it.

No one who has ever met my father would dare question his masculinity. No one would question his sense of conviction, his force of character, and his sheer obstinance. If you know me, with my temper and stubbornness, then imagine my father in my image, except this time with more feeling and a different accent. “I could argue with god,” said a friend once, “and change his mind, but not your dad.”

Not once has my father ever regretted marrying a woman who has been, since the day he met her, committed to an “empty career.” Not once has he questioned my mother’s maternal instincts. Nor has he ever claimed to feel like less of man, even when my mother’s income was barely enough to get the family through the month and he was earning still less than that. When I got my law school acceptance letter a few months ago, my father got teary with relief and happiness for me, though it meant I was leaving for a city a 5-hour flight away. This is no mean feat for a man whose over-protectionism is the stuff of legend. With that letter, I began my slow ascent out of a long depression. “You look happy for the first time,” he said, and he kissed me. “You’ll do big things. I can see it.”

In my first year as an undergrad, I had a poem published in a student feminist literary magazine. One day, the male segment of the Muslim Students’ Association’s executive body that year — in effect, the entire MSA exec except me — cornered my father when he came to the musallah to pray Asr. They showed him the poem and demanded that he do something about my unMuslim ways. “Your daughter is creating fitna.” According to them, it did not befit a practising Muslim woman to write about marijuana in a publication that celebrated queerness. My father responded that they had no business telling him what I could and could not write. It wasn’t until many months later that my father told me about the encounter. That conversation quickly degenerated into a heated argument, both of us enraged, he at me for having been put into a position where he had to respond to accusations of fitna in his family — and nothing makes my father more anxious than the F word; and I at him for his not having so thoroughly routed them that they wouldn’t have continued, as they did for the rest of that academic year, to make me hate being Muslim at Queen’s.

“But it was a good poem,” he said, at the end. It actually wasn’t. It was just the kind of overwrought writing you’d expect from a desperately homesick 18-year-old. And he still has the copy the MSA boys thrust on him that afternoon. It’s stored in a briefcase in the bowels of his closet, along with my elementary school report cards and a dozen photocopies of my health card.

He recently told a Muslim friend of his about my getting into the University of British Columbia. The man, responded, appalled, “You’re letting her go?” My father turns 61 this October, but when he recounted that story to me that night, the baffled hurt on his face made him look 10. I was angry on my father’s behalf, that this man had the gall to question both my father’s observation of Islam and his parenting of me. And I was angry at my father for not having known better than to expect exactly that kind of a response from a man whose wife ended her university degree in her second year, when she married him. “What did you think he was going to do?” I demanded. “Congratulate you?”

My father is staunchly Muslim. His three sons are hafizes of the Quran, and his youngest daughter is on her way to becoming one, too. I am his first child. When he talks about my political engagement, he talks to me about doing good for and within the Muslim community. When he talks about my writing, he talks to me about writing for truth and for justice. He talks to me about wars that aren’t, technically, “Muslim wars,” in that Muslims do not constitute the greatest casualties. These are not wars, then, included in the litanies that end Friday sermons and Ramadan taraweeh. “But how,” he demands, when he talks about the thousands of Tamil civilians slaughtered in the space of days in Sri Lanka this May and about passive Muslim complicity in the Sri Lankan government’s violence, “can we as Muslims accept this?” He gesticulated widely with his hands. “How?”

So when my father talks to me about my purpose, as his daughter, in life, it is a staunchly Muslim vision: to fix the world. That we disagree, and sometimes deeply, about what needs fixing does not detract from the conviction I learned from him that public activism is part and parcel of Muslim practice. When my father says he sees me doing big things, I know he means the same things I do: the little, heartbreaking things, the tiny activisms that go unremarked in mainstream media.

What I also learned from my father was that the fact my mother worked hard — harder than men and women half her age — and came home exhausted in the evenings after leaving early in the mornings was part of her mothering of us. This was her love for us. It was not that she had a job in spite of loving us; it was that she worked because she loved us. Her career was not an indication of weak faith, but the measure of its strength. He taught this to me and I learned it as truth, unassailable fact. And it was true, unassailable: my mother has done more for this family, has sacrificed more of her heart and her life, than I can ever hope to. As I grow older and I begin to think about what kind of a family I might want to raise in the future, it is to her example that I turn for a practice of love that I can only hope to emulate. It is not easy being a “career woman” and a new immigrant, raising five children in a Toronto ghetto.

But I also know this: my mother is not a woman who could be a housewife. It would drive her, like it would me, to depression. Depression does not make for good parenting. For both her sake and mine, I would have our family past be no other way than with her working and away from home for long hours. When my parents decided that our first priority would be ensuring that my mother could be a doctor in Canada as she had been elsewhere, they didn’t do this only because it was an investment in our financial future, but because practising medicine is important to my mother. It’s a goal she’s worked towards her entire life and to take that away from her, even though she was now in her late 40s and would have to start all over in this new country, would have been cruel of us. It would have been selfish of us.

I’m not going to romanticise away the difficulties that ensued as a result of that decision. For many years, home was a claustrophobic apartment in a priority neighbourhood in Toronto. Whatever furniture we hadn’t brought with us from Jeddah we bought from Value Village. The only things the flat had in abundance were people and books. Life would have been different if my parents had accepted the supposedly natural order of things, and my father, against the dictates of his own common sense, had decided to be the primary breadwinner, and my mother, against the pull of her desires, had agreed to be a quiet immigrant housewife. They could have been like all the other aunties and uncles we knew. Then we might not have been as poor, or as strange. Life would have been different, yes. But I know, as my parents knew a decade ago, that it wouldn’t have been better.

Really, what would have happened if my mother had been at home 24/7, there to cook for us when we came from school and/or work; there to wake us up in the mornings so that we weren’t late for our appointments with the external world; there to make sure the clothes we’d bought from Zellers were clean enough to pass public muster? I’m not sure. What did happen was that we learned to cook for ourselves, we set our own alarm clocks, and we did our own laundry. Maybe if she hadn’t had a career, I would have gotten 90s in high school, instead of 80s, and I would have had better(-behaved) friends. Would having had her at home have averted all the drama that my siblings and I went through at school? I doubt it. For one thing, I was a teenager adamant in the pursuit of drama. For another, her presence could have guaranteed nothing. After all, I know so many stay-at-home mothers who stayed at home and still had difficulties with their children. So many women set aside their careers and/or their hopes for a career, because they’ve been told that their children would drop out of school, have babies in grade eight, and do drugs if they “abandoned” them. Yet many of those women who didn’t work, even if they wanted to, did after all end up having children who dropped out of school, had unprotected sex when they were teenagers, and became hooked on narcotics before they’d turned 18. And I’m talking about Muslim kids here, kids I know. But mothers stick it out, thinking this is a sacrifice that they must make, because it is their duty and their lot as women.

There is no utopia that is constructed overnight in household spaces when women stay indoors. I wonder how many of those dysfunctional household would have had an easier time of it if their mothers had been allowed, guilt-free, to pursue careers of their own choice. Perhaps that would have eased some measure of repressed angst in those mothers who did want to work. Perhaps they would have been happier, and better able to deal with the anxieties their children brought home. Maybe then I’d know fewer men who believe that domesticity is hardwired into female DNA and I’d know fewer women who, despite being terrified of turning into their mothers, succumbed to those same stories because of opposition to alternative futures.

I’m not saying that the model of parenting that my parents practiced works for everyone; certainly it doesn’t appear to work for most men I know. I’m not saying that working mothers necessarily raise well-adjusted children; certainly I know families in which that wasn’t the case. I’m not even saying that every woman does or should want what my mother wanted for herself. Yet as a community, we insist, time and again, that working mothers are failing mothers. I hear, from the same people who laud my mother for being a woman in a difficult profession and who laud her for providing medical services to women who are uncomfortable visiting male practitioners, that my mother abandoned me. The same imams who bemoan “their women” — their wives and their daughters and their sisters, literal and metaphoric — having to see male OBs, warn against the dangers of “empty careers.” The hypocrisy is galling; the lack of logic confounding. This is one part of the struggle that my mother encounters as a working Muslim mother. This, not merely the physical toll it takes on her, is what I hark to when I think of how furious my love for her is.

The binary we’ve constructed between good non-working mothers and failed working ones is not only false, it’s eating away at our homes and communities. Depression, among Muslim youth and among Muslim women, is rampant, but no one talks about it in any real way, because that would require admitting to disappointments and resentments that we’ve locked away and admit to no one, least of all to imams and self-appointed community leaders. It makes us sound selfish when we say: but this is what I, Muslim and female, want to do with my life. Men are not called on to defend their career goals to the extent that women are. Whereas for men, a career is seen as being essential to manhood, for women it’s trivial and even misguided, because it detracts attention away from their wombs. Yet the opportunity to operate in the public arena in self-determined ways is integral to anyone’s happiness, male or female. However, it is primarily women who are called on to be self-sacrificing of their hopes and aspirations, lest they be called selfish.

And the last, the very last word, I would ever use to describe my mother is “selfish.” I do not think I could ever write anything long enough that would entail my using that word to describe my mother’s decision to work, made before she had children, and sustained after she had them.

What will be said in response to this I already know. People will congratulate me on my parents, only so they can be dismissed as outliers, endearing but untenable examples. I will be told, as I often am, that my mother and my family are exceptions and that the world like doesn’t work like my household. But should I ever have my own family, this is an exception I intend to replicate. It’s a world I know to be true, and will make true. It’s the kind of family my brothers know, the kind of masculinity they’ve learned. It’s the love they know, and that I hope they will pass onto their sons, as my father did to them.

So Hamza Yusuf can keep for himself his chauvinist binaries, his world wherein the problem with daycares is not that the women who work there are underpaid, but that they exist at all. He can have all the sensationalised tabloids he wants and read up as much as he cares to about pathologies whose symptoms include dumping babies in trashcans and jogging in the streets. I know a different reality, and I pity him that his world-vision is so self-absorbed and all-consuming that he has never and perhaps never will encounter anything like mine. That does not, however, let him off the hook for foreclosing that opportunity for everyone else.

And no one, however much he may call himself a representative of an Islamic community, however many followers he may have, will ever be able to convince me that I should be “ashamed” of my father’s decision to support my mother, or that there is something “wrong” with her because she left an indelible mark on the world.

Others have written elsewhere about fatherhood in Islam. Though this article by Tariq Ramadan doesn’t strike me as particularly groundbreaking, that might be because I’ve never had reason to be invested in Yusuf’s beliefs on Muslim parenting:

“Muslims naturally feel inclined to place the mother at the centre of the process of raising children, unwittingly ignoring the father’s role. Islamic tradition does stress the role of the mother. For example, when asked who a Muslim should love most, the Prophet Muhammad said, “Your mother, your mother, your mother and then your father.” It is also said that paradise lies at the feet of the mother. As a result, we tend to focus on the father as an individual, not as someone who should and can play a central role within his family.

When we assess issues from an Islamic perspective, we categorise everything according to “rights” and “duties”. We speak of the rights of the man, the rights of the woman, the duties of the man, the duties of the woman. This mentality is dangerous. It reduces issues to black and white, right and wrong absolutes. This approach is more prevalent than we realise. We must take from all the human sciences that can deal with family problems.

Another problem in our approach is the idealism. We speak about an idealised past and idealised families which have nothing to do with reality, whether it be now or the history of our ancestors. Muslims must realise we may be Muslims but we live in Western societies and therefore, face the same problems as other families.”

Muslim Fatherhood workshop – Fathers Direct National Conference, 5 April 2005.

Author’s Note: Upon re-reading, I realise that this article has flattened out the complex experiences of mothers who work at home. In a more careful analysis, there’d have been discussions of how female household labour is configured within the economy. As well, I should have been more careful about my presentation of immigrant housewives — by no means are they all passive, or quiet. Nor are all their children invested in traditional gender roles.
I also want to note that my parents did not do everything on their own. Though their choices continue to be thought of as slightly bizarre by most people, they did have support, most notably from their relatives, most of whom were dirtpoor and live in villages in Sri Lanka. I make this explicit because I don’t want to hear that I or my parents are espousing some kind of “Western” feminism that is alien to rural/traditional/South Asian Islam. Additionally, I want to recognise that they could not have gone as far as they did without that familial support. Families who don’t have access to those kinds of networks are necessarily shunted into more constrictive formations.



  1. Amer-Jasmina says:

    Fathima, I really enjoyed reading your article. I’m a working mom, while my husband goes to school part time and takes care of the kids while I’m at work. I feel that our family really works well this way. There are times when I feel guilty, but then I think about all the quality time my kids and husband get together. It’s not often that this happens. I don’t think my husband’s family understands how our family works, and that’s ok. He’s Pakistani and the fact that our roles are sort of reversed in our family, can be quite confusing to his family. I wouldn’t have it any other way. We truly share all responsibilities in our household. There are no woman or man duties in our house. There are simply things I, or he, are better at. He mops the floor and washes the dishes, and I paint and put together furniture. It works for us! I do have to say that I wouldn’t feel this way if my children would have to be in childcare. This is just my personal opinion, but I feel that it’s our responsibility to raise our children. I don’t want to look back and think that someone else raised them. Of course I understand there are circumstances that make it a requirement to have your child in daycare…Sorry for the long post.

  2. Muslim Lawyer says:

    Salam Alaykum Sister Fatima,

    I highly enjoyed reading your article and can totally relate to your experience. My father was diagnosed with diabetes and heart disease more than a decade ago and my mother has been the sole breadwinner in our household since then. We too, have had to deal with comments, looks, and critiques from friends and family members. Even though the situation was imposed upon my parents and was not by choice, it still worked out fine for them and I can certainly say that none of us turned out to be delinquent! But I must point out that families like yours and mine were lucky in that we were still able to have our fathers care for us, and not some strangers in a daycare.
    That being said, I would just like to mention that I found it highly disrespectful the way you disparaged Sheikh Hamza Yusuf in your article. Whatever his opinions are, please keep in mind that he is nevertheless a very knowledgeable and successful imam, author and public leader. He has done so much good for Muslims in the US and thousands have learned through his speeches and lectures. The fact that someone may disagree with his views does not give an open license to insult and demean him. You say that his world vision is self-absorbed, but did you perhaps stop to think that his opinion actually derives from the realities he’s seen through being an imam and counsellor to hundreds of muslim families?

    I am not talking about the women that are forced to work one way or another, or even ones that choose to and can have family members look after their children. I am talking about women whose husbands make a decent income, and still chose to put children in daycare in order to pursue a higher lifestyle, forgetting that Islam is not at all about materialism and how many cars you own, or how many vacations you take. Or even some stay-at-home moms that I personally know of who still send their kids to daycare just so they can have free time to go out with friends and go to salons, while someone else takes care of their kids. These women are forgetting that being a parent is a choise that requires one to undertake a responsibility, and if one is not up to that responsibility, then they shouldn’t have them in the first place or at least post-pone them until they are done pursuing their careers. After all, we live in times where contraceptives are readily available, so there IS a choice. I insist again on the fact that I am not talking about women who for some reason or other need to out and support a family, only the ones that put children in daycare for no good reason whatsoever.

    I am not at all against working muslim women, I personally have 2 bachelor degrees, including a law degree, and am on my way to finishing the Bar. But I know that when I will choose to have children, I have to put some things on hold for a while until they are old enough to fend for themselves. That is because I am against the daycare system, having worked in many, I witnessed first-hand the slackness in cleanliness, the short-temperedness of teachers, and not to mention the daycare across my street which shut down due to a sexual harassment case.

    I know I went off on too many tangents, but all this to say that maybe Shekh Hamza Yusuf IS speaking out of his own personal experience, and we should not judge him for that. Just like you are speaking from your personal perspective, and no one has a right to judge your family for the choices they made. I think the Muslim Ummah would go a long way if we just address each other with respect and understanding, even when in disagreement or espousing different viewpoints.

    Good luck in your legal studies and may Allah grant you success! :)

    Salam Alaykum

  3. fathima says:

    Thank you for both your feedback, Amer-Jasmina and Muslim Lawyer. I wrote this post at a very different point in my life, and though much of its gist remains true to me, I’d probably write it differently now. It’s actually rather strange re-reading it.

    A few other people have also noted concerns around my characterisation of Hamza Yusuf. In truth, I have contradictory feelings about him. While recognising he’s done a lot of PR work, at least at an institutional level, for the perception of Muslims in the US, I still strongly dislike this particular interview. My focus, therefore, would be on reconciling his deeply patriarchal views with the softer image for which he’s well-known. I think an honest examination of him would handle both these things, and so my regrets if this article came across as a caricatured rather than a considered analysis of his more troubling aspects.

  4. Anon says:

    I enjoyed your article, but I think that you misinterpreted what Shaykh Hamza was referring to. It seems that oftentimes the slightest hint at the fact that men and women are different puts people up in arms, but it is a fact of life. We are different. We have different roles in this world, from a biological and islamic perspective. I do not understand why women insist on being “equal” to men in every way. To say you must be equal is to argue that men are some how some standard of measure—if they are doing it, it must be the thing to do. I am sorry, but it is not. I do not need to be a male clone to feel good about myself. The fact that we are the ones that give birth..WE are the mothers. And if we are going to take on that job, it must be done properly. You don’t apply to a job at firm X and then hire a lackey to show up for you while you go off an pursue other endeavors. You do the job yourself. And if you have other interests you’d like to pursue, you do those on the side and find a way to balance it all. Having a baby is opting into the job of motherhood—if a woman doesnt want the job, she can just not have kids. Yes, women can and should pursue things outside the home. Being a housewife is not the most fun thing to do. Every career is not an “empty career” but yes, some are. I am in law school as well, and I want a career. My husband wants me to have a career. My shaykh wants me to have a career. But does that mean that I should slave away in the corporate world–should I be working 100 hour weeks in biglaw, where, basically, the only draw is the 160k salary and the prestige? Nobody actually *enjoys* that work..people are miserable at these firms. But they do it for the money. I believe these are the “empty careers” Shaykh Hamza was talking about—I think to imply that he meant every career is an empty career is misleading. He is probably one of the last people to say women need to sit at home and be housewives. So, while I think your article has its positive points, I feel like you could have written about this without exploiting a statement that someone made that clearly was not in reference to what you are claiming.

Comments are closed.