Must you be married to be an ideal Muslimah? Fatimah Jackson-Best discusses how narrow views of Muslim womanhood do us all a disservice.
A few days ago I received a flyer for a women’s lecture taking place here in Barbados. At the very top, it listed some of the qualities of “The Ideal Muslim Woman”, which included adhering to the orders of Allah, the teachings of His Messenger (peace be upon him), is “an obedient wife”, a “good mother and role model”, and is a “loving and sincere sister in society”.
Aside from noticing that this was a lot to live up to, I also took note of the flyer’s emphasis on the things many Muslim women have been taught to aspire to. Of course, as a community and as human beings, both men and women should work towards many of these attributes, but I am always uncomfortable with the immediate association of Muslim womanhood with wifehood.
To be clear, I am a Muslim woman who is married, but for a while this wasn’t always so. I took the plunge into marriage just this year at 30 years old, an age that for some Muslims is past the point for a woman to hope for a decent spouse or even a spouse at all. But there I was, 30 years old and marrying a great man surrounded by our families and friends.
Never once did I think that I didn’t deserve it, or that I grabbed the first man who showed some interest in me. I was selective and maybe even a bit picky. And I never believed that marriage would be the defining moment of my womanhood or religious identity.
Even though I never felt pressured by my parents to get married, like many Muslim women I was regularly subjected to social pressure from friends, acquaintances and Islamic discourses similar to the stuff printed on the flyer. I was urged not to wait too long otherwise I would be “set in my ways” and unable to be flexible enough to live with someone. I was also told that marriage is half of a person’s deen or religion, so I should hop to it before I became a spinster.
Despite this, I knew I would get married, but on my own terms which would allow me to fulfil some of my dreams and aspirations. So I got a degree, then I got a Masters and then I started a PhD. It wasn’t so that I could use education as an excuse for curious older women who enquired why I wasn’t married yet, but because I actually wanted to. I went to concerts, I travelled, I moved to Barbados, I made meaningful friendships, I spoke my mind and I lived. I lived because although I knew marriage was something I wanted to do, I wouldn’t allow other people’s expectations to decide when I would do it.
Marriage doesn’t make you a woman. Being a woman makes you a woman
One of my personal Islamic heroines is Khadijah al Kubra, and not just because she was the companion of one of the greatest men in Islamic history. This was a businesswoman who actually hired the Prophet (pbuh) as her employee. She then asked him to marry her when she was 40 and he was about 25 years old.
Khadijah was also the first person to convert to Islam, defying social norms and religious expectations of the time. How fearless and empowered must she have been to do all those things? This is the kind of Muslim woman that I look to as an ideal – a woman who balanced her professional and personal lives and who did things on her own time and in her own way.
This is not meant to paint two polarising images of Muslim women, with no middle ground or exceptions to the rule. But flyers like the one I received make me realise that Muslims often reinforce a woman’s femininity and womanhood through her marital status.
Nigerian feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie makes this important point in her TEDx talk about feminism. She states that while women may be encouraged to be successful and ambitious, marriage is always the end-goal that symbolises our most important triumph.[i]
Amongst Muslims, if you don’t have a man, can’t keep a man or don’t want a man, you may not be considered a real woman. This is completely unfair to women who fall into any of the above categories. The reality is that marriage doesn’t make you a woman. Being a woman makes you a woman.
There isn’t anything wrong with being married or wanting to be married, but if that is the only goal we are teaching Muslim women, then we are doing a huge disservice to them. Instead, let us reinforce that a woman should make her own path, be fearless, opinionated, and rebellious enough to start a revolution if she chooses to.
If she decides to get married in between all of that then good for her, and what a lucky partner she’ll have.