Working Muslim women have several things to think about when they're trying to juggle between their career, home and children. Here are some of the thoughts, I gathered from a few of the women on Muslim Matters to better understand their unique situations and gauge the issues faced by Muslim women in balancing school, work, and family.
Mehzabeen Ibrahim – a high-achieving academic
I am a hardcore academic. I've worked full time before, but always on a summer holiday basis. Otherwise, I've been a university student for almost 10 years. Part of the reason I chose to move into my field – away from lab-based work – is that I felt it would be more 'family-friendly', inshā'Allāh. I've experienced the research world, and if you want to achieve any kind of success you have to pretty much sacrifice most of your time, including evenings and weekends, which is likely why most senior academics are male. My projects started in January, and alḥamdulillāh, I have been working from home most of the time. I only really go into campus to meet my supervisor or group members, or clients. Plus, as I am in a field that is a growing, multi-disciplinary sector, I pray that possessing an in-demand skill-set will allow me some more flexibility when I eventually want to move over to part-time work – a virtual impossibility in this particular sector.
My decision to alter my career path was largely because I've witnessed how friends and family who try to have it all are usually very stressed and unhappy. This includes sisters I studied with who are now married with kids, and mortgages. Alternatively, sisters who completely abandoned work to become full-time housewives after studying to post-graduate level also have problems, especially those who are socially isolated or those whose husbands work away from home. They don't have access to the mental stimulation that they were used to.
That's why I suspect part-time work is the ideal for me, inshā'Allāh - especially that which I can essentially do anywhere, as long as I have my laptop. Of course, I'm not married, and I do think raising kids is not just full-time – it's ALL your time. So I wonder whether part-time work will even be possible in the early years of motherhood. But at least I have a 'Plan B' in place, to give me some options, inshā'Allāh.
Ultimately, Allāh is the best of planners, so as much as I try to control my life's direction, the best way to ensure personal contentment is to keep an open mind!
Ify Okoye – in school full-time, usually working full-time, and trying to have fun all the time
I've worked part-time since I was about nine years old with a paper route I shared with my older siblings and later while babysitting. After high school, I transitioned into several areas of full-time work and put my studies on the backburner for a few years until I returned to school full-time while maintaining my full-time job. Would it be easier not to work or not to go to school, sure, but I really enjoy both, and see both as critical to my future educational, career, and personal goals.
When people ask me if I am married, I say with confidence, “no, alḥamdulillāh!” not because I'm not interested in marriage but rather because so many sisters view singledom as a death sentence but I am content with where I am. I have a deliciously full-plate as it is with taking care of my spiritual needs, joining ties with my family, school, work, volunteering, and enjoying the perks and advantages that come with the single without kids life. Yet, were I to have kids, I'd want to stay home and homeschool them.
My intended career path provides for a greater degree of both flexibility and financial security, inshā'Allāh, irrespective of my family life situation. I have a passion for education and many diverse interests and could, in the right circumstances, see myself in school for many years, and definitely always hope to be a lifelong learner and perhaps, an educator as well. I enjoy my work, it stimulates me mentally and challenges me emotionally. There's a real sense of satisfaction and accomplishment at having worked a long day and helped others or made progress on whatever task I'm working on.
I'm not a big fan of long commutes, I've been there, done that and ideally, I'd like to work close to home. But even during my long commutes, I did memorize a lot of adkhar and Qurʾān, and have learned to be a more patient driver. Among the things I have loved about my work over the years is the sheer number of different people I've had the opportunity to come into contact with, work with, and learn from their knowledge and experience.
Ameera Khan – a final year medical student
I'm a medical student in my final year and this whole issue of working/not-working is so relevant to me. Graduation is only about 8 months away now and people ask me what I'll be specialising in or where I'm going to do my internship/house job (a one year on-the-job training after medical school). The truth is – I just don't know yet. Having seen how tough doctors have it, especially female doctors because of their primary roles as wives and later mothers, I feel as if the zeal for the medical profession has largely left me. The working hours and the job stresses just do not appeal to me.
It's true there are many options within the medical profession, with shorter working hours or even jobs which are academic and not hospital-based. However, the initial years are still going to be marked by long hours at work, especially if it's a hospital-based job. And that's the time women are getting married, starting new lives and adjusting to their new roles. All too often, I see female doctors juggling their new roles with their career ambitions, dropping off kids at the grandparents', working non-stop during night-duties and going home famished. Being a person who loves children and looks forward to the joys of motherhood (yeah, I know it's not at all easy either) as well as feeling strongly about having a stable, strong foundation in the home with a family environment, I cannot imagine myself ever feeling really happy and satisfied with a strenuous job at work.
This is just me though. I know there are women who are, perhaps, more passionate about their career ambitions and, willingly or unwillingly, compromise on their others roles for that purpose. But that's their life and if they're willing to live with that, I do not blame them. It's only when people make me out to be some sort of lazy, unambitious person that it hurts me. I've heard countless female and male doctors scoff at many young female medical students, “You all just want to be housewives!” And they make it sound as if it's no job at all, despite knowing that a female doctor will nevertheless go home and have to take care of her children the household chores, even after the strenuous work hours. And even with trying to manage all these roles (which isn't humanly possible), the satisfaction just isn't there. My mother's friend - a gynaecologist working in Saudi Arabia – often lamented on how she missed out on her kids' growing-up and wished she'd opted for an easier career option.
As for me, I'm going to look into the many options within the medical field, such as Islamic bioethics combining my passion for Islam, ethical issues and biology/medicine or an MPhil, etc. to go into academics. The other possibility is that I take several years off to focus on my family and then plan a return to the medical field – which is what many women decide to do and successfully, by Allāh's Will, manage it. Of course, it requires a lot of extra hard work to return to the medical profession after a long gap but then, if you're committed and have the will, Allāh makes ease. Whatever I do, I realize it has to be for the sake of Allāh, knowing my roles and priorities in life inshā'Allāh. I am confident that if I have that in mind, Allāh will make the best way out, through His Grace and Mercy.
Bushra – an IT professional
Although I'm not in a demanding career yet, I foresee some trouble with regards to working from home as IT jobs are a rarity as it is and even rarer when working from home and I am wondering whether to go freelance, but I need to explore my options prior to making any big decisions (such as setting up my own company). I'm working from home one day a week right now, but I know that any other job will not be like that as this is a contracting job. I've suffered the corporate lifestyle – the glamorous job in the city, working a minimum of 45 hours a week, and commuting 1.5 hrs each way, whilst going through life as a newlywed and living with (alḥamdulillāh, very nice and understanding) in- laws. Those from London will know what it means to live, work and commute here. It's crazy. Believe me, I've got it out of my system and that took me only a year!
A sister I know, a medical doctor by profession, faced the same turmoil in the US with their ridiculous residency scheme and she missed out on 3 years of her elder daughter's life and had to keep a nanny. She also went through her second pregnancy there, where they only provide 6 weeks maternity leave. She somehow wangled 9 months worth of leave, but then had to make up for the extra 7.5 months, which extended her residency further. Post-residency, she's decided to focus on her kids and her deen. She went on Hajj and she's come out a better person on the other side, alḥamdulillāh. She's not going to stop working altogether as now things are somewhat flexible because the hard bit is over, but the initial stages of your medical career means that you are practically married to medicine which strains your relationship with everyone, including your husband and children.
Amatullah – community social work
I think a majority of sisters who are not married work or have worked part-time or full-time, at least to pay for their school/university.
I've worked at the American Red Cross, at a nursing home as an assistant coordinator, as a teacher/tutor and in the pathology lab of a hospital – I loved all of these jobs and alḥamdulillāh, they were pretty rewarding but as for the idea of working, I don't think it's my kind of atmosphere. In my ideal world, I would just be a Qur'an and Arabic teacher for life.
I'm in the social work field now so inshā'Allāh, I will definitely be doing things for my community and working but it won't really be because I want to work but rather to fulfill certain needs for the community – inshā'Allāh.
All the more power to those sisters who are able to go out there and work.
Sadaf Farooqi – a freelancer
I work from home. Since marriage and motherhood, that is. Before marriage, I worked every day of the week at an Islamic foundation as content developer and teacher. So after I started staying at home post-marriage, I can't tell you how tough it was for me to deal with taunts about “not doing anything” when I was pregnant and sick, vomiting all the time in my first trimester(s). People would say, “You were always so involved” and “You are so talented and you are doing nothing…” etc.
Since the last few years, because of my age bracket, my social circle of female friends has mostly come to include mothers of one, two, or three children. Despite trying admirably to juggle the demands of home and family with an academic and professional life, subhan'Allāh, from hearing their candid thoughts, I know that it is definitely not easy. Also, I know many single young women, or those who are married but do not have children yet, and they have openly admitted to me that they prefer staying at, or working from, home, but society pressures them to get out of the house and pursue a job.
The kind of stresses I have known working women to endure; the way they switch from one job to another for one reason or the other; the way they say, “I haven't yet found what makes me happy”, despite earning a fat paycheck and being provided a car from their office, sometimes makes me wonder whether full-time work is really for every woman out there, Muslim or not. Also, when I recall my classmates' attitudes in final year of college I remember how gung-ho they all were to jump into the job market as soon as they graduated. It was when marriage and motherhood came along that most of the female ones reassessed their priorities and made some changes in life. Some switched careers eagerly, tired of the stressful 9-to-5 office routine. Others decided to stay at home full-time. Very few were able to go on with a 9-to-5 job after the birth of their babies, even if they wanted to.
Whenever any sister asks me for advice – whoever she may be – I always, always encourage her to somehow pursue some kind of work even if she is married with little children, but especially so if she is unmarried. There is so much opportunity for Muslim girls and women to contribute to society in permissible ways.
I have come to conclude, with some time, experience, and observation of many sisters' predicaments after marriage under my belt, that perhaps entrepreneurship or business might suit married women more as a choice of work, as it allows flexibility and also enables them to build a name for themselves by pursuing their innate talents and skills. For example, a childhood friend of mine pursued a successful 9-to-5 finance career until her daughter's birth. When she started staying at home, she got the time to delve into a hobby: baking gourmet cakes. Within 2 years, she was running her own successful baking business from home, and she is not even thirty!
My Final Thoughts
It seems from the above viewpoints that being a working woman can have its drawbacks, as well as its advantages. Even some of the most organised women find that something has to give, whether it's the housework, sleep or attention to their husbands. How these women make their choices is truly dependent on what is important to them.
However, one truth must universally be made known – it is not possible to have it all, compromises will have to be made. There is no such thing as Super Woman.