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The Myth of the Ideal Muslimah

by in Culture & Lifestyle on 7th October, 2021

It seems that every Muslim you meet today has something to say on how a Muslim woman should act and the kind of person she should be.  From recurrent online discourses, to popular lectures by shuyookh across the globe, and even a book entitled the ‘The Ideal Muslimah’ (written by a man, no less) which instructs Muslim women on how to be “true to [their] nature, not confused by alien and morally bankrupt ideas”, a common theme is that of subservience, whether that be to a particular ideology or to another individual, or both. What is missing from this discourse is an understanding of the shifting power dynamics at hand and how Muslim women are rewriting the rules of a game that has been rigged against them for far too long.

The “ideal Muslimah” is the mythical yardstick that Muslim women are measured against. She is pious, subservient and sacrificial, but most often to men, rather than to God, and that is because the parameters of what makes up the lines of who gets to be lauded as the “ideal Muslimah” is informed by what men want and need from her.

We have misconstrued the ideal Muslimah to mean one that has to serve men in order to serve Allah. This is not to say that a woman cannot choose to sacrifice of her own accord, rather this piece is specifically focuses on those women who are forced to, often at the hands of men. The “ideal Muslimah”, in the context of this article, is asked to serve the needs and wants of others, often the men in her life, under the guise of piety. If she decides not to, she is bombarded  with hadiths and ayahs, taken out of context, damning her to the fiery pits of hell. 

The “ideal Muslimah” is often framed as being ideal in service to her husband and, by extension in some cultures,  to her in-laws, rather than actually in worship to Allah. Her toil, her emotional and physical labour is her form of worship. It doesn’t matter that in Ramadan, for example, she is cooking and cleaning excessively for her in-laws and others around her at the expense of filling her own spiritual cup. And yes, we can make the argument that she will get the reward from Allah if her intention is correct, and this is of course true. However, the point here is that this is often presented as the only or the main pathway through which she can achieve a connection with God and gain His pleasure, and if she doesn’t choose this path, then she is simply not pious. If she was to say, “I’m not doing the three-course meal because I actually want to just focus on my own Ramadan,” she is considered selfish. If she doesn’t push her physical and emotional boundaries, and abandon her own spiritual development, she is not pious enough. 

The “ideal Muslimah” is asked to be in servitude to her husband to the point of physical, spiritual and emotional damage. The greater the sacrifice and damage, the more she is praised; she cannot look too rested or like she has had too much free time to get dressed up. But she must somehow also look good enough to satiate his desires and needs, because she must also do the job of saving him from fitnah. At the crux of it, the “ideal Muslimah”, is about being self-sacrificial to her own detriment, enduring any and all hardships, without any complaints.

The “ideal Muslimah” is the fictitious being that justifies the hardship a woman is expected to endure at the hands of the patriarchy. She is essentially seen as free or very cheap labour for some families and cultures. She is there to do the things that no one else is bothered to do or cannot pay for – it is not worth their time, but it should be prioritised by her. This is not to say the work she does is not important; often she is the backbone of homes and families, she is the reason the children of the home are nourished in all ways. This is also not to say that she should not look after her husband or her in-laws. But as is often the case in this dynamic, the husband’s parents are prioritised for care and that is because we have a culture that feels entitled to women’s labour, both physical and emotional, labour which if not freely offered by her, brings he womanhood into question. If she decides that she is unable to do all of those things, she is a bad person. Yet the son of these parents is never questioned about his contribution, because his job was finding the person to do the job. At most he is questioned on the type of wife he has chosen. Perhaps he is chastised for failing to choose a “good woman”, because the good woman is a self-sacrificing one, even when it is at a cost to herself and her own parents. He owes nothing to her parents, because by marrying her, he has already done his job. This mentality stems from a historical context in some cultures where women are seen as less than, as a financial burden due to not being able to be economic actors for their families – they are to be provided for rather than being providers. Therefore, she is seen as another liability, one that needs to be married off to be someone else’s responsibility.

It is important that we do not exceptionalise this problem to Muslims, because this culture goes far beyond the one observed in some Muslim communities; it is a global culture and it is one that is in and outside of homes, it is in workplaces, charities, institutions and so on. Some saw this culture play out in their own homes during the pandemic. Though both husband and wife were working from home, it was expected that the woman should still carry the brunt of household chores. This culture has also created the concept of “the mental load” (also sometimes referred to as “worry work” or “cognitive labor”)-  “it is a term for the invisible labour involved in managing a household and family, which typically falls on women’s shoulders. The mental load is about not the physical tasks but rather the overseeing of those tasks.”

This dynamic and this measure of loyalty to in-laws first and foremost before your own parents has also meant that countless Muslim women cannot recall the last time they got to spend Eid with their parents and relatives because Eid becomes a time to work for her husband’s family.

It would be a great pity to enter a marriage solely based on asserting what rights and responsibilities a wife and husband have over one another, but this is what this dynamic sets up to do so. This is not marriage. The rights are there to ensure that transgressions do not happen, and to understand when they are, rather than a rule book from which a marriage should exist upon. A marriage should exist upon mutuality and a belief in Allah.  The emphasis on mercy and compassion being the key building blocks that sustain a marriage is also highlighted in the Qur’an: 

“And one of His signs is that He created for you spouses from among yourselves so that you may find comfort in them. And He has placed between you compassion and mercy. Surely in this are signs for people who reflect.” (Qur’an 30:21)”

Some Muslim men entering into a marriage tend to gloss over the verse above in favour of others verses which they manipulate the meaning of to supposedly portray the man as the one who should exercise ultimate control in a relationship, and that his wife must be in servitude to him and his needs:

“Husbands should take good care of their wives, with [the bounties] God has given to some more than others and with what they spend out of their own money.” (Qur’an 4:34) 

To say that this verse has been repeatedly taken out of context would be an understatement. As Shaykh Younus Kathrada explains,  When speaking of the qiwamah of a man over his wife (ie, his “authority” over her) as highlighted in the verse above, we need to realise that this is a burden and a responsibility, not an honour and favour. The man’s responsibility is not restricted to maintaining his wife financially i.e. housing, feeding her etc. He is also responsible for looking after her emotional, spiritual and physical needs and wellbeing.

Allah’s command is to treat wives kindly, with care, and on a footing of equity of what is acceptable. Al-qiwamah is in no way meant to turn the husband into some sort of dictator who thinks he is a master who orders and forbids and should be obeyed unrestrictedly.

There are so many nuances to look at when we look at these issues. One such nuance is that Allah did not say that males are qawwam over women; rather, He said “men” are qawwam. This is something we need to think about and ponder; for how many males are not really “men”?” If you truly believe in Allah, as he has ordained, then a woman does not need to please, and be abused by a man in order to reach God.

I find myself surrounded by Muslim women dismayed at what options they have when it comes to finding “a good Muslim man” and it is in part due to the fact that many Muslim women are no longer willing to give themselves away as free and cheap labour to men and their households. They have opted out of the oppressive power dynamic and find that leaves them with little to pick from or at risk of being named “too fussy”. This has no doubt resulted in the tyrannical approach and mindset we see in the Muslim incel (Mincel). Men are losing the power dynamics they once had, that my parents’ generations had. In the book, ’Hood Feminism’, the author Mikki Kendall talks about this loss of power and the need to seek respect within communities from women. Kendall says, “Because of the lack of respect elsewhere, the men in these scenarios value a measure of subservience and submission from women that is intended to make up for what they can’t receive in the wider world.” She also attributes such toxicity to economic factors in that “The toxic elements of Black and Brown cultures of hyper-masculinity are born in part out of the impact of low wages, where the option of a woman not needing to supplement the household income was never on the table.”

Rather than acknowledge the change in circumstances and re-negotiate this power dynamic, they have tried to maintain the status quo by adopting a very tyrannical approach to maintain their power and control. This is also not solely a Muslim problem – incels all over the world over engage in exactly the same behaviour, the main difference being that Mincels try to coerce women and shame them into submission using scripture which they have manipulated the meaning of to justify their tyrannical approach.

Some try to keep this dynamic by “marrying back home” assuming that she is less “westernised, poisoned and brainwashed by new-age feminism”, she is not heretical like the women here, she will be submissive and grateful and so they think they can use this to control, as control is their ultimate goal to evade a sense of emasculation that they have concocted in their minds. 

Many women however, particularly here in the UK, are now able to see an option to pay their own way out of this path; they are able to pay their own rent, and they are able to move out of their parent’s home. Cultural attitudes to women living alone or with others before marrying are changing drastically. For some, they are also the first generation of women in their households to earn a living by working outside of the home. Let us be clear: all these women are working women.

But many are realising that the path that was laid out for their mothers is not one they would like to walk. There is a new path that they can pave for themselves, paycheck by paycheck.

Yes, there might be cultural reasons why a woman wouldn’t choose such a path, and it may also be financially difficult, but culturally, many British Muslim women are in a different landscape, one where they have more options to make money, where there is a normalisation of them being the breadwinners and having financial independence. In ’Hood Feminism’, Kendall highlights this phenomenon in relation to Black women whereby “…other women have rejected the idea of needing anyone, and of course that’s seen as a rejection of traditional family life inside and outside of the community. But being a single woman for longer or being a single parent isn’t a failure on the part of women in these communities.”

This is not to say that a Muslim women’s options of making money cannot be precarious and exploitative.

Being a ‘Girl Boss’ will not save us. This is not also a solution to the root of this issue, it is a mere reality of where many are headed. Muslim women’s emancipation is not going to come from us paying our way out of an oppressive system that will remain long after we stop paying into it.

Such “solutions” also place the burden on women, once more, to improve their own circumstances rather than demanding change from men. Whether it be inside the home or in the wider world, exploitation is at the root of this issue and survival for Muslim women in this system has often meant escaping the reality that Mincels are trying to reinforce through unattainable fantasies like the “ideal Muslimah”.

Nafisa Bakkar

Nafisa Bakkar

Co-founder and CEO at Amaliah Find her @nafisabakkar on IG and Twitter