WoodTurtle is a Canadian Muslim feminist currently using her extended maternity leave to explore developments of Islamic feminism in the Western and Muslim world. As a woman who wears the hijab (owns several abayas and a niqab monogrammed with her initials in pink, sparkly sequins), she writes frequently on genderized Islamophobia. She also works toward dispelling myths and stereotypes about women in Islam for both Muslims and non.
It doesn’t take long for me to regain my commuting feet. Everyone is tired, cold and jaded. But I have a spring in my step and navigate the crowd like a pro — pushing through to get to my stop. It’s been over a year since I’ve made the trek to the downtown core for work, and I’m exhilarated. It’s time for the annual office Christmas party.
New mothers who are slated to return to work within the new year are invited and expected to attend. It’s good office politics to meet old and new colleagues, get caught up on office gossip, and schmooze. But it’s impossible not to feel like you’re just there to be judged and observed. Is your mind a mashup of children’s rhymes? Have you forgotten how to write policy or code? Have you even kept up on business developments?
Within minutes of arriving I have two people ask me if I’m pregnant, and it’s not because of my body shape. When I push through to meet the CEO, I have my witty retort ready: “Oh K, it’s wonderful to see you! What’s new? Pregnant yet?” “Yes. With twins.”
My deadpan response elicits an appropriate level of polite laughter. But there’s so much left unsaid by my colleagues. I spend the rest of the night playing the good and intelligent office worker — yet no one seems interested that I’m writing and thinking critically while I’m owning mommyhood. I’m obviously not on the same level, or even worth assessing by those in a position of authority. I’m just a mommy and no longer a sharp, career-driven, Bay Street worker. I’m completely defined by what may or may not be in my womb.
When I return to work, I have a basic right by my equal opportunity employer who shouldn’t (hopefully) overlook me for advancements, training opportunities or projects because I might get pregnant again. But what may look great on paper, may not necessarily happen in practice. I left the party knowing that no one has any expectations of my work capabilities. Whatever credit I built up during the three years before pregnancy is gone.
Instances like this are often used by conservative Muslims to illustrate weakness in the Western feminist push for equality and to highlight the wisdom and integrity of equality in Islam. Hijab liberates women from maintaining and buying into a Media-enforced standard of beauty — people will judge you by your words and actions and not your body! God-fearing men will protect, maintain and support you — no need to deal with unequal pay or sexual harassment at work! Women keep their own name, property, assets and can work if they choose — there’s no need to sacrifice your career! Motherhood is an elevated and respected position — so there’s no need to sacrifice your family either!
These are indeed guaranteed rights in Islam, the most important being spiritual equality, where the deeds and good works of both sexes are weighed with equal measure. But indeed, what may look great on paper, may not necessarily happen in practice.
When I got married, one of my wedding presents was a book called A Gift for Muslim Bride. In it were legal rulings, cultural expectations, case studies, prophetic traditions and verses out of the Qur’an, all advising on how one can be the best wife and mother: A Muslim woman is encouraged to speak softly to her husband upon his return home from work. Rub his head and feet with scented oils. Avoid cooking close to his arrival time to keep the house smelling clean — but don’t delay too long in having dinner served. Your man will be hungry. Don’t pester him with your daily concerns or stresses. Keep conversation light and if you can sing, do so sweetly. Preferably about the glories of God or the Prophet. Present your husband with clean and happy children. Dress yourself in fine clothing and wear gold to beautify yourself. Minimize your smell by cleaning yourself with fresh water. Fast and restrain yourself during eating so that you may maintain a pleasant figure. If your husband is returning from a long trip, don’t ask him where he’s been. Don’t ask him for presents, and if he gifts you with something you don’t like, don’t criticize the gift’s colour, size or contents. You will hurt his feelings.
Assuming only that women will stay at home, the book includes further gems of advice on how to run the household, preparing for coitus, living peacefully with the in-laws, living peacefully as a co-wife, and being an overall good muslimah. Conveniently written by a man, this book and literature like it is prolific in the Muslim world — all helping create a fantasy-like, idealized worldview of what it means to be equal in Islam. Which, according to these authors, really means that the onus is placed upon women to bend over backwards, work triple time and self-abase to keep everything Stepford-wife-perfect. I have yet to come across a book dedicated to men requesting them to maintain their figures, not to smell, to sing sweetly, to ignore marital stress, to self-sacrifice and to stay at home with the world’s most perfect children.
When this type of literature is coupled with the belief that men are active public players who maintain and sustain women, it sets up situations for women to be incapable of self-actualization and for men to aid in their subjugation. Forced seclusion, maintenance by male guardians, polluted feminine bodies — none of this is compatible with the right to work, own property, to have access to education or even the right to spiritual equality.
No one needs to be guilted by the decision to stay at home, or convinced by way of constructed duty. A family’s context and support needs vary, and it’s for this reason that the Qur’an doesn’t define exclusive gendered roles, but places the onus upon the best person for the job. Sometimes it’s better if both partners work; if the father stays at home; if the mother stays at home; if day care is used to help a single parent; or if both partners take turns working or not. Sometimes children aren’t in the picture, and never will be. Marriage too. Sometimes career is the key and sometimes it’s family.
I may very well decide to one day stay at home and raise our family, but at the moment, my return to work is necessitated by our financial needs.
I’ve very much enjoyed my time at home with Eryn. Who wants to sit in a cubicle and code all day long when I’ve spent a year loving writing, volunteering, creating, and playing? And while I’ve occasionally managed to keep her happy and clean, and dressed myself up in stellar fashion for the Hubby, 99% of the time I have food smeared all over me and Eryn is hyper the second he comes home. It would be nice for the Hubby to come home and rub my feet with scented oils — but I do tend to use this blissful time when he takes over, to regroup and unwind from my own constructed duty.