“Why are you majoring in that field?” I asked a sister in college. She sighed, “To be honest, I just want to get married. I don’t really care about what I’m studying right now. I’m just waiting to get hitched so I can be a wife and a mother.”
“It’s awesome that she wants to be a wife and a mother, but why would she put her life on hold?” I wondered. Why would a skilled, passionate young woman create barriers to striving for self-improvement and her ability to be socially transformative when she doesn’t yet have the responsibilities of wifehood or motherhood? Being a wife and a mom are great blessings, but before it actually happens, why exchange tangible opportunities, just waiting for marriage to simply come along—if it came along? I didn’t have to look far to find out.
“I’m already twenty-six,” another sister lamented. “I’m expired. My parents are going crazy. They think I’m never going to get married and they pressure me about it daily. My mom’s friends keep calling her and telling her I’m not getting any younger. She keeps crying over it and says she’ll never be a grandma. It’s not like I don’t want to get married; I’ve been ready since college! I just can’t find the right guy,” she cried.
Why, as a general community, are we not putting the same pressure on women to encourage them to continue to seek Islamic knowledge? Higher education? To make objectives in their lives which will carry over and aid them in their future familial lives, if such is what is meant for them? Perhaps it’s because we’re obsessed with the idea that women need to get married and become mothers and that if they don’t, they have not reached true success.
We all know the honorable and weighty status of wifehood and motherhood in Islam. We all know that marriage completes half your deen1 and that the Prophet (peace be upon him) has told us about the mother, “[…] Paradise is at her feet.”2
But getting married and becoming a mother is not the only way to get into Paradise. And not every grown woman is a wife and/or mother, nor will ever be. Some women will eventually become wives and/or mothers, if Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) blesses them with such, but for others, Allah (swt) has blessed them with other opportunities.
Allah (swt) did not create women for the sake of wifehood or motherhood. This is not our first goal, nor our end goal. Our creation was to fulfill our first and most important role—to be His SLAVE. As He tells us in Surah Dhaariyat (Chapter of the Winnowing Winds), “And I did not create the jinn and humankind except to worship Me.”3
Worship comes in such a variety of forms. Being a housewife (a.k.a. domestic engineer!) can be a form of worship. Being a stay-at-home-mom can be a form of worship. Being a working wife and mother can be a form of worship. Being an unmarried female student can be a form of worship. Being a divorced female doctor, a female journalist, Islamic scholar, film director, pastry chef, teacher, veterinarian, engineer, personal trainer, lawyer, artist, nurse, Qur’an teacher, psychologist, pharmacist or salon artist can each be a form of worship. Just being an awesome daughter or house-fixer upper can be forms of worship. We can worship Allah (swt) in a variety of ways, as long as we have a sincere intention, and what we do is done within the guidelines He has set for us.
Unfortunately, however, that is not the message our community is sending to single sisters – both those who have never been married, and those who are now divorced. When I speak to many women and ask them about the ways they want to contribute to society and the ways they want to use their time and abilities, a number of them will tell me that they have no idea and that they’re only going through the motions of school or work while they’re waiting for Prince Muslim to come along and with whom they can establish parenthood.
However, Prince Muslim is not coming along quickly or easily for many awesome, eligible Muslim women. And for some, he has come along, and he or the institution of their relationship turned out to be more villainous than harmonious. Single and never married or divorced — very capable and intelligent Muslim women constantly have to deal with the pressure of being asked, “So…when are you getting married? You aren’t getting any younger. It’s harder to have kids when you’re older.”
The amount of tears, pain, stress, anger and frustration which these awesome women are constantly dealing with because of a social pressure to get married (especially when many already want to, but are just not finding the right person!) and have children is not from our religion.
Islam gave women scholarship. Our history is filled with women who have dedicated their lives to teaching Islamic sciences. Have you ever heard of Fatimah Sa`d al Khayr? She was a scholar who was born around the year 522. Her father, Sa`d al Khayr, was also a scholar. He held several classes and was “most particular about [his daughters] attending hadith classes, traveling with them extensively and repeatedly to different teachers. He also taught them himself.”4 Fatimah studied the works of the great al-Tabarani with the lead narrator of his works in her time. You know who that lead narrator was? The lead narrator of Fatimah’s time was not named Abu someone (the father of someone, indicating that he was a male). The leading scholar of her time was a woman. Her name was Fatimah al-Juzadniyyah and she is the scholar who men and women alike would study under because in that era, she was the greatest and most knowledgeable in some of the classical texts.5 Fatimah Sa`d al Khayr eventually married and moved to Damascus and eventually to Cairo and she continued to teach. Many scholars travelled specifically to her city so they could study under her.6
Fatimah was brought up in a family that valued the education and knowledge of a woman to the point that her father was the one who would ensure she studied with scholars from a young age. Before marriage, she was not told to sit around and be inactive in the community out of fear that some men would find an educated woman unattractive or intimidating and would not want to marry her. She was not going through the motions of studying random things in college because she was stalling until she got married. She sought scholarship and Allah (swt) blessed her with a husband who was of her ranking, who understood her qualifications and drive, and who supported her efforts to continue teaching this religion even after marriage. She left a legacy we unfortunately have most likely never heard about because we rarely hear about the over eight thousand female scholars of hadith who are part of our history.7
Why do we never hear about Fatimah Sa`d al Khayr and the thousands of female scholars who were like her? I think that one of the reasons—and it’s just a personal theory—that as a community, we are so focused on grooming our women to be wives and mothers that we lose sight of the fact that this is not even our number one role.
Servitude to Allah (swt) is our number one role. We need to use what He has given us, the means that we have at the moment we have, to worship Him in the best of ways.
Islamic history is filled with examples of women who were wives and mothers, who focused completely on their tasks of being wives and/or mothers, and produced the likes of Imam Ahmed rahimahu allah (may God have mercy on him).8 We take those examples as a community and we reiterate the noble status of such incredible women.
But we also have examples of people who were not only wives and not only mothers, but those who were both of those, one of those, or none of those, and still were able to use the passions, talents and skills Allah (swt) blessed them with to worship Him through serving His creation, through calling His creation back to His Deen and leaving legacies for the generations to come. Some of these women were wives and mothers and dedicated their lives to focusing on their families completely and some of them continued to serve the greater society at large.
Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi mentions in his introduction to his Dictionary of women hadith scholars, Al Muhadithaat, “Not one [of the 8000 female hadith scholars he researched] is reported to have considered the domain of family life inferior, or neglected duties therein, or considered being a woman undesirable or inferior to being a man, or considered that, given aptitude and opportunity, she had no duties to the wider society, outside of the domain of family life.”9
Female scholars in our history were focused on being family women when they had families to whom they held responsibilities, and when able, they also had goals and objectives in life which extended beyond the roles of wifehood and motherhood. So what about someone who is not yet married? Many single women are using their time to the utmost, focusing on improving their skills and abilities to contribute back to the ummah (community) and society at large. They are loving worshipping Allah (swt) through investing in their abilities and using those for the greater good. Perhaps we can all take from their example.
God, in His Wisdom, has created each one of us differently and in different circumstances. Some recognize this, love any stage they are in, and develop their abilities to the fullest. Let us, too, use the time and abilities God has given us to maximize our worship to Him and work for the betterment of society and humanity as a whole. If wifehood or motherhood comes in the process, then at least we were using all of our ability to worship Him before it came and can continue to use the training and stamina we gained before marriage to worship Him with excellence once it comes along.
If there are parents, families and communities that are pressuring women to get married and have kids: Be grateful Allah (swt) has blessed you with daughters, married or unmarried, mothers or not, as the Prophet SAW has said, “Do not be averse to daughters, for they are precious treasures that comfort your heart.”10 We are putting more pressure on our sisters than they can emotionally and psychologically handle. Let us give them space, let them find themselves and establish their relationships with Allah (swt).
Allah (swt) created us to worship Him. That is our number one role. Now, let us do our part and figure out how best we can fulfill the purpose for which we’ve been created.