Wednesday, July 23, 2014

The Price of Ambition

From doctors to lawyers, artists to writers, intellectuals and academics, Muslim women today are swiftly climbing the ladders of success and proving their excellence in their chosen fields. It is heartening to see the strength and perseverance of these women, especially those who fight to uphold their religious ethics in the midst of cut-throat industries that have no time for spirituality.

Yet, there are still those who often insinuate that women who work, who have careers, and who are involved in anything outside the home are somehow corrupted, unfit to be good wives or mothers, and are a source of "fitnah."

The example of Khadijah bint Khuwaylid (radhiAllahu 'anha) provides a direct contrast to this attitude - it is well known that she was a successful businesswoman, but in addition to her intellect and business acumen, she acquired another reputation - as "Tahirah" - the Chaste One.

Keep in mind that despite her previous marriages, Khadijah was reckoned to be a catch not only because of her wealth and social status, but because of her beauty.

It could have been extremely easy for her to exploit her attractiveness for various reasons... to sway a competitor, perhaps, or win over a rival, or to achieve the higher position in any business dealing. We see it often enough today, where successful career women utilize their physical appearance as much as they do other aspects of their business.

In the case of Khadijah, however, her prestige - in both this world and the Hereafter - grew because it took a formidable strength to refrain from giving into cheap marketing tactics that turned her beauty into a commodity.

What truly distinguished Khadijah from the rest, what really set her apart, was that unlike those who sought to achieve success by giving into the existing standards, she created her own model of success. Khadijah imposed her values on her others rather than allowing the pressure of society and "the industry" to wear her down.

It was her determination to practice her values, regardless of what consequences her choices may have had on her business, that ensured her success. Her ambition was not merely to excel on a shallow level, but to be such a powerful force as an ethical human being in addition to being a career woman, that she earned respect rather than merely seeking it.

Nor was Khadijah an isolated case; amongst the Sahabiyaat and the women of the Tabi'een were many who owned and managed their own businesses, or were otherwise engaged in forms of employment. However, they were always aware that just as Muslim men are obligated to behave with honour and dignity, so too were they bound by the same moral code.

For many Muslim women, it can be tempting to make compromises for the sake of career, to justify excuses for behavior that may not necessary be pleasing to Allah despite the worldly payoff. The price of ambition and success can be steep… but is it a price worth paying, if it means exchanging our values for the sake of the backhanded dealings and norms of a glass-ceiling corporation?

Allah warns us of the worst kind of business:
{Those are the ones who have purchased error [in exchange] for guidance, so their transaction has brought no profit, nor were they guided.} (Qur’an 2:16)

In contrast, He also reminds us of the most perfect example of success:

{Indeed, Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their properties [in exchange] for that they will have Paradise.} (9:111)

Ambition is a good thing, even – despite what others may say – for women. In fact, it is Islam which encourages us to foster the highest ambition of all, the taste for the ultimate success… that of Jannah, of Paradise. That otherworldly success, however, doesn’t mean that one has to sacrifice the accomplishments of this world. One of the great scholars of Islam, Sufyan ath-Thawri, aptly put it this way:

عليكم بعمل الأبطال: طلب الرزق من الحلال
Do the deed of heroes: Seek your rizq (provision) from the halaal. 

Muslim women are indeed true heroines of Islam – those who seek excellence in all that they do, whose success is based not merely upon worldly ambition or status, but upon the strength of their faith and their refusal to compromise the most precious of ethics.

Zainab bint Younus (AnonyMouse) is a young woman who finds constant inspiration in the lives of the Sahabiyaat and other great women in Islamic history. She hopes that every Muslimah is able to identify with the struggles of these inspirational women and follow in their footsteps to become a part of a new generation of powerful Muslim women. She blogs at 


Anonymous said...

This is great! My only quibble is that, while sexists wave this around a lot, women don't actually use their looks to get ahead, unless their appearances are their business, as for female and male models. Is that what you meant?

Anonymous said...

is there any proof that Khadija RA left her small children in daycare for a stranger to look after in order to pursue her career? contemporary women pursuing a career almost always have to resort to this, which is not ideal Islamically. Also, in this regard, anyone can have a career with a two income household (to pay for "quality" childcare, housekeeping etc.) and only one or two kids - not the Islamic ideal either.

AnonyMouse said...

Anonymous 1: I am adamantly against daycare and firmly believe that mothers should, if able to, remain at home to care for their children - but there are plenty of women in the world who do *not* have children, or whose children are grown up, who can still pursue their (halal) careers. Please note that the situation of working women isn't black and white, and that the emphasis in this article is that for those women who *do* work and have careers, that they always place Islamic ethics above and beyond anything else.

Anonymous 2: There are numerous studies that prove that in the corporate world (actually, in pretty much every working environment), attractiveness of women does play some kind of role in what goes on. It's an unfortunate hard fact, but once again, this is why I'm emphasizing the importance of Islamic ethics in the work field.

I have also increasingly found Muslim women (esp in Malaysia/ Indonesia) in the modeling career, which I find extremely alarming considering the many, many pitfalls of the field.

Anonymous said...

Salam, sister. Thanks for responding and engaging. I was the one who commented on appearances.

I prefer direct links when people discuss studies or "facts." (I'm not being sarcastic; I'm only putting that in quotes because many people posit their views, common misconceptions, stereotypes, etc. as facts.) Can you point to these studies, if you happen to have them on hand? I am skeptical that those studies established a gender-specific trend. I've always heard that "attractiveness" in general influences people. I have my doubts that this is strong enough to trump the values of an applicant's skills or other qualifications in a measurable way in hiring, and I definitely doubt that women are exploiting this intentionally. Certainly we're conditioned to value women based on their appearances, and we should work on this root. But again, I would caution against suggesting or lending any credence to suspicions that women are getting ahead based on their looks. Women are regularly accused of sleeping their way to the top or getting a job only because of their looks, etc. as a ways of discrediting them. Women much more often face discrimination and harassment as a result of their sex, rather than favoritism. I can provide you many articles and studies to support this. Suspicions of women result not only from common, historical notions of women as temptresses or rigid notions of femininity, but also a changed workforce following WWII, when men returned to female competition. As for modeling, I don't see much cause for concern based on what I've seen. Women with means are looking to follow trends, particularly in collectivist societies. But other values are still upheld in that society, AFAIK. As I'm not Malaysian, however, I won't speak for them.

I also can't agree on the other points in these comments. What is ideal is a matter of interpretation, and I find it curious that it's so alarming when women are not at home while there is no such alarm about "working fathers." I've always found it strange that this is framed as a choice for women and not men, as if they have nothing to offer as fathers. It seems to me that we are still clinging to the notion that caregiving is the natural role and sole provenance of women. I think we only hurt ourselves by this and deprive our children of their fathers.


AnonyMouse said...

Wa 'alaikumus-salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh,

To begin with, I want to clarify that I absolutely do not believe that women are "temptresses" in any way, shape, or form, whether in the workplace or outside of it... and I firmly believe that men need to take responsibility for themselves and conduct themselves appropriately, with modesty, and respect towards women at all times. (I have other posts about mixed gender interaction in Islam.)

I also strongly believe that men *should* be present fathers, and that they too need to balance their careers with families and give priority to both their wives and children (I have a couple posts on that too - see "The Fatherhood Crisis" and "Where Are the Fathers" series :) ).

Some links about attractiveness in the workplace:

Granted, this applies to both men and as well as women. However, from numerous other studies relating to the demands on women to conform to societal standards of beauty (check out the documentary Miss Representation and websites like Everyday Feminism), women are much more pressured to dress "attractively" and so on.
In addition to reading various studies and articles discussing this phenomenon, I've spoken to numerous women (Muslim and non) who work in various fields (advertising, corporate work, even medicine, etc.) and they all confirm that there is a very non-subtle pressure on women to look a certain way and act a certain way because promotions depend on it.

It's a cold, hard reality that is found all over the world. I absolutely do not support it, and I believe it's extremely wrong that women are targeted in this way - hence my emphasis in this article on women who fight the current and stand up for their spiritual ethics (and in areas outside of just attractiveness).

I hope that helped clarify my stance, inshaAllah :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you very much for clarifying, sister, and for the links. I had no idea that discrimination based on appearance is actually illegal in some places. That is very interesting. I see what you mean; I completely agree with you that we must change the currents in society that value women on their beauty. I think it needs to be system-wide, including work by men and women of all ages. In our communities, I'm glad that we value character so highly, but even so, I notice the first question aunties ask when matchmaking is about a girl's appearance. Even my male cousins complained about this. So we all together have work to do, I agree.

I will definitely take a look at the fatherhood series! It sounds very interesting! Thank you for the great conversation, sister. :)