On Friday I went downtown to participate in the Veiled Constellations conference on hijab play in the park with Eryn. But it was also a chance for me to pop into work to find out about my maternity leave.

Alhamdulillah, I am blessed. Truly. I live in Ontario, Canada, where women are afforded the right to have a year of maternity and to have 65% of their pay covered by Employment Insurance (not including whatever “top up” your employer may give you) for the entire year. On top of that, you need only to work 12 weeks to be covered AGAIN for maternity leave once you return to work (Provincial standards. Employers may require more time).

I have an additional blessing of working for an employer who has just granted me a 6 month leave of absence (unpaid). This means I don’t have to return to work until Eryn is 18 months old.

No child care worries. No day care fees. No career advancements.

Oh. Right. That.

I suppose this is what many woman face when they make the decision to have children. “Where do my reproductive rights fit in with my career goals?”

That is, if the privilege is there to ask that question. Many have to return to work after 6 weeks because they are an only parent; a high school student; in a controlling relationship where working isn’t an option, etc.

I’m not worried per se. My job should remain the same. Policies and office politics may change, and even if my job becomes obsolete, they have to provide me a space, and once I return to work, I’ll have to fight tooth and nail to prove myself. But I’ll be off for a year and a half. When I first joined the company, it took me a year and a half to move up two levels from from an entry-level position. But I chose (and am so glad I did!!) to have a child. I can’t help to think about what’s going on in my absence. What happened to my projects? Is there some superstar showing the boss that I am indeed obsolete? What happens if I just decide to stay at home permanently?

Regardless, my position (whatever state it will be in later) will be safe and thankfully, I have a job. And what am I complaining about anyway? I’m home with my bebe!

I think about these things and can’t help but wonder about the oft-repeated Islamic saying that “men are the maintainers of women (4:34)*.” This notion comes from one of the many Qur’anic verses that have been translated, interpreted, reinterpreted, problematized, modernized, traditionalized, institutionalized and likely abused by people in places of power.

More often than not, the verse is used to argue that women are restricted to the private sphere of home life, while men are free agents of the public sphere. And some women also use this to their advantage, arguing an Islamic right to stay and maintain the home, forcing their husbands to work more than one job and excluding them from the home life. Public and private become stiff and polarized — excluding both agents from participation in the world of the other.

Mission Islam claims:

… men are held liable for handling the affairs of women and are responsible for the women under their care. A husband, therefore, has the responsibility of taking care of his wife, protecting her, defending her honor, and fulfilling her needs regarding her religion and her worldly life. It does not mean – as all too many people have falsely assumed – that he has the right to behave obstinately towards her, compel her, subject her to his will, suppress her individuality, and thus heinously negate her identity.

And why are men the maintainers, and not say, equal partners?

Is [the verse] indicating that there is some inherent preference of men over women, something that is built into their very natures? The scholars of Qur’anic commentary have taken two approaches to this matter. The first approach is to refer the matter of the verse back to the natural makeup of men and women, with respect to their intellects, their different manners of thinking, and their natural strengths. They found that men, by nature, are more hot-blooded, tending more towards strength and severity, while women’s natures are cooler, tending more towards gentleness and weakness.

Uh huh. My husband would most likely argue against that. In fact, Islamic history is rife with hot blooded and strong women. The Prophet’s first wife Khadija, was a brilliant and affluent business woman. The rough and tough Caliph ‘Umar was actually afraid of his wife and refused to go home when she was mad at him. Muslim women joined the men in battle against the Pagan Arabs. I’m not going to go on, as the quotes from Mission Islam are only examples of myriad interpretations of this verse. Besides, you can’t reduce to reasons to, “well, guys are stronger and women are weaker.”

The second approach is to look at it from a legal angle – that Allah has imposed upon men to pay dowries to the women they wish to marry and has made men liable to spend on women and provide for them. This is the preference that men have over them. Likewise, Allah has placed prophecy with men only, as there has never been a woman prophet. In the same way, Allah has made the offices of supreme political authority and the obligations of jihad the exclusive domain of men.

This interpretation is not modern or pulled out of thin air. It originates with a stream of scholarship from the 12th Century — namely from Ibn Taymiyyah and his student Ibn Kathir who followed the Hanbali legal school of thought (Sunni Islam NOW has 4 major schools of thought. In the old timey days, there were over 300 different schools. Essentially… politics, geography, the fall of kingdoms and the rule of the orthodoxy helped whittle them down. But the number differences goes to show you just how varied opinions were back then.) This interpretation carries with it the weight of tradition and is highly influential on the thinking of Muslims today.  Let’s just look at four points:

  • Ibn Taymiyyah hated women. He even wrote about how he hated women. His first teacher was a woman. Hated her.
  • Islamic marriages require a “gift” of money, or a token present from the husband to the wife. She may do whatever she wants with it. This money is not a “bride price” and should NOT be held over the heads of women as saying, “I paid you. I own you.”
  • Prophesy. From a religious, faith based standpoint, I would certainly argue that the Mother Mary is a prophetess. According to Christianity and Islam, she carried the “Word” of God. The proof of prohethood in Islam is that the prophet brings a message. Mary gave birth to JC. She carried him, she gave birth. He had a message. That makes her a prophet in my book.
  • The Prophet’s last wife, ‘Aisha, was the political leader of Medina after his death. Some argue that he was actually grooming her to become the Khalipha (supreme political authority) of the budding Islamic community.

My issue with these interpretations is the lack of context. The Qur’anic scholars are well respected and have a vast tradition that can’t be ignored. But people cut and paste a 12th Century treatise, digitalize it according to their agenda and help proliferate a narrow world-view. Another issue is the focus on viewing men as controlling every facet of a woman’s public life — at the very least, these interpretations opens the door for this control. It’s no wonder then, how easily the verse can be taken out of context and applied to reinforce purdah (keeping women indoors), the burqa, or refusing women access to employment, education or even medical care.

The verse “suggests” that men have to take care of women. The scholars ask why. Oh, it must be because they are weaker, not politically motivated, not the prominent sex chosen for prophecy… therefore men are preferred. They make more money. They therefore have to take care of women. And that’s just too big of a conflation of reasons to make any sense to me.

Qur’anic verses have to be seen in their full contexts. Traditional scholarship should be labeled and understood. If you pull your argument from a scholar who hated women, yeah, you’re going to produce a text that is actually confusing to the overall message of Islam that men and women are supposed to be equal.

You may have noticed my new Islam and Feminism section. In it, I share one of my new favourite quotes from Farhat Naz Rahman:

What is interesting is that [God] has not specified any particular role for all men or all women. The Qur’an does not propose or support a singular role or single definition of a set of roles, exclusively, for each gender across every culture. This thus allows individuals the freedom to decide on their functions and roles best suited to their contexts.

This is an important, particularly because many believe that Muslim women should “stay at home.” It becomes translated as Muslim women being refused access to the outside world — and some are not given the choice to work if they wanted to.  Islamically, women are allowed to work and are encouraged to obtain higher education.  The only difference between a man working and a woman working is that religious law permits women the right to hold on to whatever money they earn or property they own.

When seen in the entire context, I believe that the verse is simply making a suggestion:

…do not covet the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on some of you than on others. Men shall have a benefit from what they earn, and women shall have a benefit from what they earn…

Men shall take full care of women with the bounties which God has bestowed more abundantly on the former than on the latter, and with what they may spend out of their possessions. [Qur’an 4:32-33*]

The scripture isn’t saying here, “men MUST” take care of women. The scripture is always pretty clear when it comes to other laws. God doesn’t really mince language with the important stuff.  In light of what we know about the rights of women in Islam (the right to work, earn money, have education, free agency, etc), I read this as saying, “Some people are better at cardiac surgery than others. Some earn more than others. Some people make great cookies. Everyone benefits in some way. If you happen to be a man who “earns” more, then it’s up to you to take greater charge of caring for your family.”

What I don’t think this verse is saying is that men receive more from God than women. The words, “more abundantly on the former than on the latter” I think refers back to the previous verse. Meaning: some PEOPLE receive more (or differently) than others.  Unfortunately, what I would have liked to actually see here is a line saying, “Men shall take care of women and women shall take care of men.”  There are other verses in the Qur’an that state this… however, they’re not the ones used to keep women house bound. The space here, the ambiguity,  opens the door for varied interpretations and implementation.

We made the decision that I would stay home. I could have split my mat leave with the Hubby — but with the extended nursing and the fact that I have a 2.5 hour daily commute while his is only 20 minutes… it made more sense just for me to stay home.

And I’m really glad I did. Eryn is an extremely happy baby. I am an extremely happy and attached mother. Baba (daddy) comes home and takes care of Eryn while I cook. He cleans while I bathe her. He plays, reads and give a massage while I start laundry. He finishes the laundry while I nurse and sing lullabys and put her down for the night. She coos, laughs, and gives us love in return.

The three of us are maintaining each other.

*First of all, I am not a scholar. I am offering a particular reading of this verse in light of what I have heard from modern scholars, my own studies and belief system. This post is not about interpreting the entire verse. I’d need a very lengthy discussion for that. I’m just talking about “maintenance” here.

There are many translations of the Qur’an. I prefer the Muhammad Asad translation.