Growing up in the Arab world (a Western education and 8-year furlough in Canada, notwithstanding), I heard an oft-repeated phrase about women and marriage and motherhood. It loosely translates to “It is the wife who makes a home and keeps a family together…” or something along those lines. Being the only girl among three brothers, I’ve always secretly resented the practice of “son” worship, widely practiced in our culture. Despite the important contributions by women and the arrival of the 21st century, it remains very much a male-centric and deeply patriarchal society.
When I got married, I counted my blessings because I was in a solid, loving relationship. But cue in the baby and motherhood and sleepless nights and the whole mess of it, and I suddenly found myself adrift, trying to dodge the curve-balls I was being thrown a mile a minute. I had, heretofore, completely ignored any warnings that life after a baby would change drastically. I thought it would go on the same as it had before, except that we would now have a child.
How naïve and criminally stupid of me.
Navigating this new and unfamiliar terrain by attempting to strike a happy medium between marriage and motherhood became what my life was about. Sometimes I got it right, sometimes I missed. I was alright with that. After all, I loved my husband and my child and they were my world.
But my nerves were understandably taut and I found myself thinking about that old adage. It infuriated me to no end with its inference that the onus is always on the woman to keep the whole damn universe together, while getting down to business of endless cooking, cleaning, child-rearing etc (and years of it) that lay ahead of her with a complacent smile on her face, because as I have been told ad nauseum, it is the man who goes out into the world and workplace to do battle. If he loses his cool once in a while, it is the woman’s job to grin and bear it. And if things fall apart, well, guess who’s to blame?
Of course, the saying is a vast oversimplification of situations that are as diverse as they are complex. It struck me to the core because I was now living it but it also struck me as false and archaic. After all, women also go out into the world to do battle of a different and more intense kind in the workplace for they have to fight against the status quo, and years of tradition. I felt it was another misogynist attempt to transfer the burden of responsibility to women, thereby absolving men of any obligation, indeed, giving them carte blanche to do anything they wanted. I will skip over the other insinuation that men are child-like creatures who are not to be trusted with the joint task of keeping a marriage together and therefore must be steered by a more mature hand.
Now while I had a modern upbringing, it was circumscribed by religious norms. Islam was a big part of my life and so I have often observed a deep chasm between cultural and religious beliefs. Unfortunately, in some cases (not all), male-dominated cultural traditions were prioritized over a religion that elevated women and placed them on a pedestal.
A few weeks ago, I was talking to my mother about how a woman, more often than not, has to give so much of herself in the quest for perfect domesticity and she is not even allowed to complain, lest she be seen as a nagging shrew by her husband. My mother, who is religious and is therefore, a treasure trove of stories, anecdotes and sage advice from the Quran and life and teachings of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) life told me a gem of a story. It is about one of the companions of the Prophet, and the second Caliph of the muslims, Umar Ibn Al Khattab. (Men should start taking notes right about now). It goes something like this:
“A man was once walking to the companion’s home to seek advice about his wife’s ill temper. As he reached the door, he heard Umar Ibn Al Khattab’s wife shouting at him from within. Shocked at the Caliph’s silence, a man, otherwise known for his unyielding character, fierceness in the battlefield, and toughness, he decided to leave, dismayed that if the respected companion was being scolded by his wife with no reaction, then he could not possibly help him with his spousal troubles.
As he was walking away, Umar Ibn Al Khattab opened the door and called out to him, asking him the purpose of his visit. The man responded that he came to complain about his own wife’s nagging but when he heard shouting from within, decided not to. After all, what hope could there be for him? He then questioned him on his silence at his wife’s raising her voice at him.
Umar Ibn Al Khattab smiled and said, “My wife cooks for me, cleans my house, washes my clothes, bears my children, breastfeeds them and cares for them. On top of that, she is also a comfort to me. She does all this without any obligation or complaint, sparing me the expense of hiring a cook, a cleaning lady, a wet nurse. She has certain rights over me. So what if I tolerate her scolding?”
The man responded with “It is the same with me, leader of the believers.”
This story made me gleefully clap my hands as I immediately started plotting a scenario where I could yell at my husband (kidding…). It did highlight a few things for me, though: a woman’s work tends to be grossly undervalued. But it is the truly great man who understands that sometime he is the one who must take it on the chin while she lets off some steam.