Whenever I listen to talks and lectures about women in Islam, or read books on the topic, there is one particular sentiment that is constantly mentioned and echoed - that women are somehow mystical creatures who are able to endure all of life's difficulties and calamities without complaint; that women are, by nature, not only capable of being mothers who happily suffer for the sake of their children and families, but *enjoy* this suffering; that they would prefer to give up their entire lives for the sake of their loved ones rather than pursue their own endeavours; that men could never have the strength or patience to endure these challenges.
On one hand, this sentiment is understandable - a recognition and acknowledgment of the difficulties that women go through, and of their contributions to society via raising their children.
On the other hand, however, I find it dangerous. The lauding of women tends to end with the phrase "I (a man) would never be able to do this!" The question is... why not? Pregnancy and breastfeeding aside, almost every other aspect of child-rearing could be undertaken by a man, from changing diapers to staying up with a baby at night to doing activities with older children.
There is literally nothing whatsoever preventing men from doing these things - and nothing at all to indicate that a man's "nature" renders him incapable. More and more, we hear stories of stay-at-home fathers who completely shred the stereotype of the hapless, bumbling father. Yet amongst Muslims in particular, there seems to be an aversion to the very idea that men can be capable fathers in a sense beyond that of financial contribution.
As well, the wifehood/ motherhood excuse is used all too often to marginalize women and prevent them from pursuing further studies or work - for the sake of this piece, Islamic studies and work in particular. How can we talk about female scholarship of the past when we do so little to encourage and facilitate it today?
That's not to say there *aren't* female scholars today, for they certainly exist and are of great benefit to this Ummah, but rather, that we do not see them and recognize them as female scholars of the past were. We complain that the only women who are publicly known as speakers and teachers today are 'liberal' or 'progressive' - but what are we doing to encourage and facilitate classically trained, orthodox female scholarship?
We mention female scholars of the past, but we neglect to mention that for many of them, their 'urf (societal custom) was to have extended family and a great deal of domestic help (whether from slaves or servants); we complain that women today aren't as pious or dedicated worshipers or dedicated students of knowledge, yet ignore the fact that according to some mathaahib, a wife is not obligated to even cook food for her husband - so how can we expect the average woman today, who doesn't have her family around to help raise four kids, or domestic help to take care of the daily humdrum of cooking and cleaning, to somehow spend her days in study and her nights in worship?
It's high time that we recognize the backhanded ways that we 'compliment' women, only to use those same phrases as a way of perpetuating the marginalization of women in spheres of Islamic knowledge and authority. It's high time that we stop acting so hypocritical and to go beyond mere lip service and praise of women's domestic efforts, to easing their daily burdens and facilitating opportunities for scholarship - whether teaching, writing books, or other such endeavours - and helping bring about an environment of Islamic learning that not only recognizes the role of women teachers in theory, but encourages it as a practical reality.
And for the record - no, women are not imbued with some magical 'patience' that makes them *want* to stay up nights with colicky babies and demanding toddlers; women are not, by nature, purely selfless beings who are overjoyed to sacrifice their entire lives for the sake of others. We are human beings with spiritual and intellectual needs - needs which all too often we compromise and sacrifice out of necessity, for the sheer fact that if we don't stay on the ball with the other responsibilities, there won't be anyone else around to ensure the survival and well-being of our own children.
Don't ever make the mistake of assuming that service to our families - which we do to some extent enjoy and are willing to do - is equivalent to how we want to spend the entirety of our lives.
Because we don't.
Because we don't.