Mothers at work – where are the Muslim women?
Thursday, May 19th, 2016
Much public and media debate has recently centred upon the roles of women in the home and the workplace. Following International Women’s Day, swathes of articles and radio debates have discussed stay-at-home mothers, employment figures and childcare, including a House of Lords debate on the issue of maternal care for children in the early years. Further, Muslim women have been seemingly singled out in discussions on women and employment, with higher unemployment figures than their Christian counterparts. What, then, could be the cause of such discrepancies, and how can Muslim women weigh in on these wider debates surrounding work and family issues?
Evidently, there is increasing dissatisfaction in the general populace with the current state of affairs. More and more women are speaking out on the difficulties they face as working women and as mothers choosing to stay home, highlighting the value of their unpaid, emotional and physical labour and society’s devaluation of work done to care for others. Highly educated, qualified and experienced professional women with young families are caught between a rock and a hard place, with little financial incentive to return to work given the excruciating costs of childcare, which almost, if not completely, cancel out their earnings, as stated in the article from Manchester Evening News: “With full-time childcare for two preschoolers averaging just short of £370 a week something clearly needs to change.”
Many such women, with external pressures to return to work, and often an internal drive to fulfil a sense of purpose given their education and talents, simply end up paying for someone else to take care of their children, with little financial gain for themselves or their families. If, however, women wish to stay at home to take care of their families themselves, they are often looked down upon by our society which values an individual by as simplistic a measure as economic contribution. Such attitudes are self-evident, with the rhetoric of governmental policies geared towards supporting “hardworking families” and extending childcare hours to facilitate working mothers: toddlers may spend up to a gruelling 10 hours a day in care. Recently published research also demonstrates that families face penalties in the tax system for a parent choosing to stay at home. Indeed, such a decision by a mother not only withholds her contribution to the economy in her caring years, but also the potential childcare provider’s salary.
Whilst the choice of each individual woman is very personal, and there are as many different personal circumstances and preferences as there are women, it is clear that pushing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ model of family life is destructive. Women who work provide many greatly needed services to our society, as well as pushing forward the female voice and contribution in many fields. However, as mentioned quite succinctly by Ann Widdecomb, “[i]f mothers choose to work, that is one thing but for the state to make it impossible to do anything else is quite another”. Societal attitudes are changing at such break-neck speed that many are asking, “wait a second, since when has it become a luxury to look after your own children?”
As for Muslim women, well, it seems we are always doing something wrong. Each week, a new uproar envelops news and social media, whether it be the way we dress, the languages we speak, the way we dress when we are swimming, our apparently “submissive” attitudes, our perceived barriers to contributing to the economy, and, of course, the way we dress.
Leaving the issue of attire to one side, the figures do show higher rates of unemployment among Muslim women. A recent National Labour Force survey showed that this rate was 18% compared to only 4% for white, Christian women. The picture, however, is a complex one. Analysis of the above survey by Dr Nabil Khattab from the University of Bristol showed that workplace discrimination against Muslim women plays a significant role. Further, studies suggest that the young age demographic of the Muslim population explains how Muslim women may have more caring responsibilities: 33% of British Muslims are aged 15 and under, and Muslim households are much more likely to have dependent children. Muslim families may also be more likely to adopt a ‘traditional’ family structure with a male breadwinner and female homemaking figure, though attitudes are varied and Muslims are not some homogenous clan, as much as the ‘othering’ of the tabloids and right-wing organisations might suggest.
The question that begs to be asked, however, is “so what?” Why the infatuation with employment figures, as if this is the defining measure of the success of society? Normative Islam promotes equality of the sexes, but an equality that is not based on ‘sameness’, rather on an equal respect for differing rights, roles and responsibilities. Males bear the financial burden of their families, and whilst females are free to work (and if they choose to do so, can earn whilst bearing no financial obligations) they are biologically quite clearly connected to birthing and nursing their children. The attachment of a child to their mother is an irreplaceable bond, and the value of her emotional input and providing a stable home environment for children is not to be underestimated. To raise the next generation is no trivial matter, something to be squeezed in sometime between “more important things”. It is a shame, then, that in a world of social media and big money, seemingly only the external sphere is deemed to be of value. In Islam, heaven lies under the feet of your mother.
However, attitudes are changing. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently published data to show that the unpaid “Home Production” economy is worth £1 trillion – who would have guessed? (Well, perhaps the linguists who appreciate that the word “economy” itself is derived from the Greek meaning “managing a household”). Organisations such as Mothers at Home Matter are campaigning for recognition of the value of maternal care, and for changes in governmental policy to support this. An emerging maternal feminism is filling the gaping holes left by a movement that, despite its best efforts, has not allowed women to “have it all”. Instead, an obsessive societal focus on economic activity sees to it that children are shipped to day-care so that it can be paid and measured. Infirm parents are shipped to elderly care homes so that it can be paid and measured. Those of working age are left free to be employed, so that it can be paid and measured. They then spend most of that salary on those outlets of care, all so that they can prove to others that they are doing something ‘valuable’, and so the government can spout these measurements to convince the public they are better than the previous government.
Surely there is a better way? The Islamic model of family and societal organisation provides a blueprint in which the work of caring is valued. This doesn’t mean that homemaking mothers are confined to the walls of their house. In fact, mothers who “stay at home” are often doing nothing of the sort, rather they are visiting friends and relatives, doing the shopping, visiting libraries, volunteering and taking children outside to the park (something to be encouraged given that three quarters of UK children spend less time outdoors than prison inmates). And yes they are often home, giving children the time and emotional connection they so desperately need, nursing them when they are sick and cannot go to school, doing hours of unpaid domestic work and bearing the unseen emotional labour of family management.
Women make the choices that they need to make for their own circumstances, for their unique achievements and goals and for the way they choose the live their lives and manage their families. Perhaps the government, instead of pushing a childcare agenda and trying to convince the public that this is what all women want, and instead of penalising those women who choose to stay at home to take care of their families, should focus on more problematic evasions of contribution to the economy, like tax havens. Meanwhile, the rest of us should be champions of women’s choice. Together we can build a society based on families, homes and communities, on shared culture, shared lives and values, rather than one based on shared employers, capitalist targets and superficial media-dictated interests that pacify the masses. Families should be supported if they choose to have a parent at home during the day, much to the relief of postal workers everywhere.