Despite ingrained beliefs about the husband’s responsibilities as a provider, circumstances mean some Muslim couples switch traditional gender roles. By Nasya Bahfen.
By the age of 23, Belal Chami had packed a lot into his life.
The Sydney-based man had successfully finished an honours degree in immunopathology and was running his own tutoring business.
Financially stable, well educated and happily married to Maryam, Belal decided to pursue research in his field, which required doing his PhD at the University of Sydney.
‘It meant leaving my business for the next four years, thus making my wife our breadwinner,’ he explains.
For her part, Maryam didn’t see it as a problem to support her husband through his postgraduate studies.
‘I was working at the time anyway, and so I wasn’t doing more at work than I usually do,’ she explains.
But she says it was quite overwhelming at times, ‘particularly from a cultural point of view where there is an already heavily placed burden on a woman to be a homemaker.’
Belal’s and Maryam’s situation isn’t common.
Like people of many cultures, Muslims believe that one of a married man’s responsibilities is to provide for his family.
But sometimes that just isn’t possible.
On a popular Facebook page for Sydney Muslims, my request for stay-at-home dads to talk to Aquila Style was met with doubtful responses.
One poster suggested the idea of a ‘Muslim stay at home (dad) doesn’t make sense, since it’s the man’s role to work and provide for the family’.
That seemed to be a very idealistic view of reality – what if you as a Muslim wife had to be the main breadwinner, because circumstances dictated it?
In an age of economic ups and downs, it isn’t a stretch to imagine a situation where a Muslim husband’s field or industry goes into a downturn and his source of income vanishes – but his wife’s industry blossoms.
In countries like Australia there is a social security net in the form of unemployment benefits, but in pure financial terms, the gap between living on those meagre benefits and a full time income is significant.
In such circumstances, should the wife be made to feel bad for stepping up while the husband looks for other work?
Chicago-based blogger and community worker Saqib Saab, who lost his job just before the birth of his first son, describes this tendency to judge the situation of the Muslim stay-at-home dad within a narrow frame of understanding.
‘There are many personal situations that our community is largely unfamiliar with,’ he writes in a post at MuslimMatters.org.
‘Some examples are divorce, poverty, unemploy-ment and baggage from before accepting Islam. Because of our unfamiliarity, we sometimes look down on people in situations that we don’t understand.’
Saqib writes of the social stigma he encountered as an American Muslim with an Indian background, whose Pakistani-American wife Ayesha was going out and working while he looked after their newborn baby.
‘The thought of a father staying at home was unacceptable,’ he wrote on The Good, the Dad and the Baby website, about the disapproval from some members of his and Ayesha’s communities.
‘They must have felt, based on cultural norms, that it wasn’t appropriate for me to stay at home “doing nothing”. But I wasn’t doing nothing. I was taking care of my son. And maybe that’s something that people from my culture have a tough time understanding.’
Those cultural norms extend beyond the desi (Indian subcontinent) community in the US.
Tarek Shawky, a former lawyer based in California, has also written of the challenges of being a stay-at-home dad. On the Altmuslimah website he says that members of his Egyptian-American community remind him that ‘it’s the man’s responsibility to bring home the proverbial bacon’ (his response is that ‘bacon’ tastes better when your wife brings it home).
And similarly, Belal and Maryam faced a challenging time while she was the family’s main source of income.
‘Two years into our marriage and my PhD, my wife fell pregnant with our daughter, Fatima Zahra, and because she did not have a permanent position, she returned to work three months later,’ Belal says.
‘To cope, I alternated my days at university and home to look after my daughter during my writing periods, and needless to say it made concentrating very difficult.’
Not only was there a practical struggle in juggling the raising of a young child with Maryam’s work and Belal’s studies, but the couple also bore the brunt of some subtle judgement from fellow Muslims.
‘I did have to put up with questions from people who didn’t understand why I was playing that role (of breadwinner),’ Maryam says.
‘However, my family and my in-laws were extremely supportive, so I cannot say that I did it on my own. My biggest fear was judgement, but like I mentioned, the people that actually mattered were helpful and understanding.’
Belal agrees that the support from his and Maryam’s parents and families helped them get through.
‘A silent sense of judgement often accompanied the sympathy,’ he says of the reaction to his being a stay-at-home dad.
‘Although most people understood our situation, not all were comfortable with the idea that my wife was the breadwinner. This was evident when almost everybody kept stressing “Sooo when are you finishing and when will you work?” ’
For Belal and Maryam, the sacrifices each made were worth it in the long run.
‘I have finished my PhD and currently am working in my field of research and for the first time, I can happily say that I earn more than my wife,’ Belal laughs.
‘We currently both work, while our child alternates between grandparents.’
This article originally appeared in the June 2013 Family issue of Aquila Style magazine. For a superior and interactive reading experience, you can get the entire issue, free of charge, on your iPad or iPhone at the Apple Newsstand, or on your Android tablet or smartphone at Google Play