By Anjuman Ara Begum, TwoCircles.net,
Today is International Women’s Day. Every year since 1911 March 8 has been observed as the day to highlight issues, rights and problems of women across the globe. To mark the special day, Anjuman Ara Begum of TwoCircles.net has written this story highlighting one of the most important issues before Muslim women: Should they work to earn? Is it permissible in Islam and acceptable to Muslim society? –Editor
‘Islamic’ customs practiced over Muslim women all over the world hardly reflect the spirit of Quranic guidelines or the traditions of Prophet Muhammad – the two source of Islamic Shariah. For example, it has been accepted by many scholars of Islam that women in Islam have more property rights than any other religion or belief. But in reality women rights to property and inheritance are heavily restricted or nonexistent in many parts of the world including the Muslim majority countries. Economic development for Muslim women too is a much neglected area and much controlled by the patriarchal values prevalent in the Muslim customs all over the world.
Islamic Shariah or Islamic laws failed to influence or correct the customs practiced over women at the very family or social level. Dissemination of Islamic laws is not a formal phenomenon in most of the cases and is not carried out by the scholars but by the grassroot level incompetent religious leaders and is mainly a charity work. Such dissemination is mainly aimed in reinforcing women’s subordination at the excuse of Islamic guidelines under the Holy Quran and the Hadith.
Women’s right to work in Islam
In Islamic Shariah women are permitted to work under ‘Islamic conditions’. These conditions are: Firstly the work performed by women should not violate Islamic law. This condition is applicable to men as well because Muslim men are also not permitted to work against Islam. And secondly women must maintain her ‘modesty’ at the workplace. This is also applicable to men as Islam never prescribed that men don’t require to be modest. Hence the conditions prescribed for work and participation in economic development for both men and women are same under Islamic Shariah.
John Esposito, professor of International Affairs and Islamic Studies at Georgetown University, has argued that these restrictions originate from cultural customs and not Islam. There is hardly any Muslim community that has no restriction over women’s mobility, travel, dress code, work and participation in economic development although no limitation or prohibition against women’s travelling alone or work participation is mentioned in Quran. Economic development alters the status of women in different ways across nations and classes. Unfortunately due to cultural customs women’s right to work is very limited and heavily restricted though conditions prescribed for work is same as that of men. Patriarchal values prevalent have affected women’s education, job opportunities because women are still expected to put their role in the family first. This norm has impacted women’s lives and is one of the main reasons behind the miserable economic condition of the Muslims all over the world.
Women desire to work but ‘Islamic’ customs are in conflict in many practices. Women working outside home are seen as an invasion to the Islamic norms and a violation of the Quranic guidelines. In most of the culture, wives or female members are required to inform their spouses or male family members before leaving home, and the consent of their husbands or male family members are mandatory.
Views of working Muslim women
Nazma Phumdrei Maiyum is the founder of Organisation for Development (OFD), an organization working on the issues of violence against women and women empowerment in Santhal Namung Leikai, Thoubal district of Manipur. She is working on women’s rights since 2001 and this passion became her profession in 2003. ‘For me working on the issues of women is challenging both personally and professionally’. Nazma became the target of the religious leaders because of her visible contribution towards gender rights. In her own words, ‘the mind set of Muslim community in Thoubal district is very conservative and religious fanatics imposed dictum on women often and controls women’s social behavior. When I started working people looked at me differently’. Usually targeting a woman means character assassination. Nazma was branded as someone who doesn’t respect her husband or obey his ‘commands’ which is supposed to be considered as duty for the women in Muslim society and spread the bad name that she earns money through illicit means. When things went beyond the control Nazma took help of police. She said, ‘I complained to police as it was unbearable to me. I also consulted some good NGOs that extended solidarity with me. These are All Manipur Students Union, United Manipur Muslim Women Development Organisation etc. The Maulavis made false allegations against me and collected signature from the villagers. I protested and asked them to remove the false words. They also called a meeting in the mosque and caused spilt in the community over my issue. All Manipur Jamiat e Ulema, a religious body in Manipur was informed about these developments and called me and the Maulavis for a hearing. I attended and the Maulavis too attended the hearing. I informed the Ulema that the SHG is for women’s financial independence and not for earning interests. I produced all the documents in my support. The Ulema personnels rebuked the Maulavis and asked them not to disturb me in future for my work. The hearing continued for four hours. I was allowed to continue my work. The conflict was clear and a declaration was done that women can work. Right now I have no problem but the Maulavis fear that I may become a big leader in future’.
Vocational training center run by Salem’s Muslim Women’s Aid Society [TCN photo]
38 years old Suraiya is a tailor from Hatta, Imphal, Manipur. She is single by choice and earns her livelihood at her own and also helps family consisting of her mother and siblings. Suraiya said, ‘I am working at my own and earn. I am not doing anything wrong and this is not against Islam. Several times ‘learned scholars’ from outside will visit our village and preach that women should remain at home and shouldn’t work. In Manipur, Muslim women work equally along with men in market. It’s our tradition. How can today the so called scholars preach such a thing and hamper women’s right to work?’
55 years old Niyetan Biwi of Mahendraganj, West Garo hills worked as domestic help in her village and earns about 700 rupees per month. ‘When my husband was alive I never saw the notes I earned. All my earnings will go to his pocket and I will be left with nothing to spend after the family. My husband died three years back and I could look after my children and myself and take care of our stomach’.
What Muslim men say
‘It is very ‘problematic’ if my wife works. If she goes to her work place I am unable to control her. This affects family ‘peace’, said 42-year-old Aforz who is a businessman. Muslim men appreciate if their wives sacrifice their career and become home maker full time. 25 years old Nurjahan (name changed on request), an MBA was working in a reputed company in Guwahati city till she got married. Her husband forced her to resign and imposed strict instruction that Nurjahan should concentrate on ‘family matters’ only. ‘I have three children now and I spent whole day either at kitchen or at the dining table or looking after the home work of my children. My husband appreciates my sacrifice but I will never forgive him from my heart’.
Islam prescribes that women remain individuals even after their marriage. Their right to work should not be taken away at any cost as it is completely Islamic for women to work and pursue a livelihood.