Women and Work in Islam
Datuk Haji Nik Aziz Nik Mat’s retrogressive comments on women, work and the family are causing much concern to us in the women’s movement.
Nine years after being the Menteri Besar (Chief Minister) of a state which prides itself in once being ruled by a woman and where its women are renowned for their independence, industry and entrepreneurship, we are disappointed that Datuk Nik Aziz’s views on women have yet to change to reflect the changing realities and circumstances of women’s lives today.
The Menteri Besar of Kelantan asserts that it is man’s nature and responsibility to support the family and therefore it is unfair and unnecessary for women to work. Moreover, he considers the home a woman’s responsibility and the nurturing of children and housework as naturally women’s work.
First, we would like to point out that there is nothing in the Qur’an or in the Hadith which prevents women from working outside the home.
In fact the Qur’an extols the leadership of Bilqis, the Queen of Sheba for her capacity to fulfil the requirements of the office, for her political skills, the purity of her faith and her independent judgement (Surah an-Naml, 27:23-44).
If a woman is qualified and the one best suited to fulfil a task, there is no Qur’anic injunction that prohibits her from any undertaking because of her sex.
Second, Hadith literature and recorded stories on the life of Prophet Muhammad saw is replete with women leaders, jurists and scholars, and women who participated fully in public life.
Khadija, the first wife of the Prophet, was a successful trader who helped the poor, freed slaves and spread the message of Islam. After her death, the Prophet saw married Aisyah Siddiqa, a formidable young woman who led a Muslim army into battle and taught multitudes of Muslim men and women from throughout the growing world of Islam.
Al-Shifa bint Abdullah was the chief inspector of the Medina market. Umm Waraqa bint Naulal was an imam appointed by the Prophet saw. At the battle of Uhud, women were on the battlefield not only as nurses, but also as fighters.
Third, Datuk Nik Aziz’s inclination to deny women the right to work is an unrealistic proposition in today’s world.
It is a fallacy to say women do not need work and that men have the primary responsibility to provide for their families. Such statements contradict reality. The 2
basic family structure and economic system in today’s society have changed. For most Malaysian families, both parents now have to work in order to provide a decent standard of living for the family.
Many women workers are also single, separated, divorced with small children, or neglected wives of polygamous husbands. It is rare that these women can afford the luxury of staying at home, secure in the comfort that some men in their lives, be it fathers, brothers, ex-husbands or polygamous husbands will be fully responsible for maintaining them. This is just not the reality.
Moreover, the right to work is an inalienable right of women. If this right is denied, it will, as a consequence, deprive women choice in many areas and affect other inter-related rights such as the right to education, the right to mobility, the right to decision making, and to political participation. Women will therefore remain devalued, disadvantaged and disempowered.
Fourth, while women’s roles and responsibilities outside the home have changed, working wives still bear almost all the responsibility of unpaid family work, such as child care, housework, and caring for elderly parents.
Women bear the double burden of having to earn a salary to help support the family without any lightening of their responsibilities in the home. The heavy weight of tradition, combined with socialisation, still work powerfully to reinforce the sexual division of labour in the family.
Fifth, to ascribe separate roles to women and men also undermines men’s parenting role and denies the social significance of child bearing and rearing.
The role of women in procreation should not be a basis for discrimination. What needs to be emphasised instead is the sharing of responsibility between women and men and society as a whole in the upbringing of children and maintaining a harmonious household.
There is nothing in a man’s biological make-up that prevents him from being a nurturer and care giver. The reason why men are not doing more housework and child care is because they do not want to. And they are able to enforce their will on women who are conditioned to believe that it is their sole responsibility to preserve the marital relationship and family peace at all cost.
While we agree with Datuk Nik Aziz that it is unfair and oppressive for women to bear the double burden of work and home responsibilities, we disagree with his analysis of this problem and his proposed solutions.
Malaysians live in a society that encourages women to work and excel academically. Malaysian girls are outperforming boys in almost all areas of education, reflecting similar world-wide trends. 3
The Malaysian statistics for 1998 show that:
- girls form 65.3 per cent of the enrolment for pre-university education.
- girls form 54.5 per cent of the 79,014 students enrolled in public sector institutions of higher learning.
- 58.7 percent of the students in pure and applied sciences and in medicine and allied health are female.
- 61.2 per cent of the students in law, economics, management and accountancy are female.
- In 1990, the female labour force participation was 45.8 percent and this rose to 47.1 per cent in 1995.
These statistics challenge the widespread belief of our patriarchal society that men are inherently superior to women and that women are best suited to be homemakers.
Women are high achievers and have much to contribute to society and to the development of the ummah. Is it realistic then to deny these talented young women the choice of a career and a marriage of equal partnership at the same time? To deny women their full role in society is to deprive the nation of the invaluable contributions of 50 percent of its citizens, thus leaving society socially and economically backward.
The solution in dealing with the conflict of work and home does not lie in denying women the right to work or to limit their choice to the teaching profession as suggested by the Menteri Besar.
The real solution lies in providing women with the support system needed to enable them to fully exercise the choice or the economic need to work. Such support facilities include affordable child care in the neighbourhood or at the workplace, flexible working hours, working from home, and extended no-pay leave without loss of seniority for nursing mothers or parents with young children.
These are steps that this Government should promote immediately if this country wants to benefit fully from the talents and resources of its female citizens.
Equally important is the need to educate men to be more responsible husbands and fathers by sharing equally the burden of child rearing and housework. Religious leaders like Datuk Nik Aziz play an important role in using their influence to promote the idea of shared parenting and to urge men to treat women as fellow human beings of equal worth.
To blame women for the ills of their children is to sanction the behaviour of men who abdicate their responsibility as fathers, carers and equal partners in a marriage. 4
In our experience as activists working with women at the grassroots, we are confronted daily with the stark reality that many men are not responsible for women and children.
Muslims record the highest divorce rates among the ethnic groups in Malaysia. Thousands of women are being divorced every year without getting their due share of the matrimonial property, maintenance or muta’ah (consolatory gift given to the divorced wife), rights granted to them under Islamic family law.
Many more thousands of children are abandoned by fathers who wilfully refuse to provide for child maintenance.
The 1997 statistics from the Selangor Shariah Court revealed that that out of 2,165 cases of divorce registered with the court, there were only:
- 29 cases of muta’ah (1.3%),
- 58 cases of division of matrimonial property (2.6%),
- 55 cases of wife maintenance (2.5%),
- 63 cases of child maintenance (2.9%) and
- 10 cases of iddah maintenance (0.4%).
This abysmal record from one of the most developed states in Malaysia is a tragic reflection of how far reality is from the Qur’anic ideal of the responsible Muslim male.
The experience of single mothers show that their standard of living plunge immediately or they fall into the poverty trap upon divorce or abandonment, while their ex-husbands enjoy no change in their economic or social status.
We in the women’s movement call on the government and all political parties as they prepare for the forthcoming general elections to seriously and urgently meet the demands of women’s groups to recognise the changing realities and circumstances of women’s lives today.
We urge the political parties to include in their party manifestos specific programmes to promote a woman’s inalienable right to work and to be financially independent, a man’s responsibility to equally sharing the burden of child rearing and housework, and a public support system that will assist both men and women to be effective workers and care givers at the same time.
Sisters in Islam
All Women’s Action Society
Pusat Khidmat Wanita Pertiwi
Women’s Aids Organisation
Women’s Crisis Centre
Women’s Development Collective
17 March 1999
This joint letter was published in The New Straits Times, The Sun and Utusan Malaysia.