Sunday, March 02, 2014

SISTERS TalkBack! "The Housewife's Lament"

Brooke Benoit voices her opinion about a previously published SISTERS article.
The original writer, Zainab bint Younus, provides her response. Welcome to Talk Back!

As the SISTERS’ team was getting ready to print the October issue I caught a glimpse of one of my favourite writers’, Zainab bint Younus, article, “Forgotten Heroines: The Housewife’s Lament.” In my usual state of feeling overwhelmed about my own housework, I quickly lapped up the article hoping for some pearls of wisdom, a boost of inspiration or maybe even some sort of camaraderie in similarly fatigued arms. What I got was mad. I spewed my irritation at my co-editors who told me to “write a response!” 
A few days later, Zainab bint Younus separately pointed out some other rhetoric in the September issue that she felt needed critique and correction. An ‘Ah-ha Moment’ happened and we realised that instead of quietly dismissing these bothersome things, we needed to open up this space - “Talk Back” - in which both readers and writers can discuss things published in SISTERS Magazine that they feel uncomfortable about or are downright wrong in some way. So let’s begin this feature with how I felt about the “The Housewife’s Lament” followed by Zainab’s response.

[Brooke Benoit]: When I got to the portion of your article about Fatima (radhiAllahu 'anha) where you quote the following hadith, I was disappointed and then upset that you used the story in the same way I so commonly see it used in other articles, advices, blogs and so on.

Here is a translation of the hadith:

“Narrated By Ali : Fatima went to the Prophet complaining about the bad effect of the stone hand-mill on her hand. She heard that the Prophet had received a few slave girls. But (when she came there) she did not find him, so she mentioned her problem to 'Aisha. When the Prophet came, 'Aisha informed him about that. 'Ali added, "So the Prophet came to us when we had gone to bed. We wanted to get up (on his arrival) but he said, 'Stay where you are." Then he came and sat between me and her and I felt the coldness of his feet on my abdomen. He said, "Shall I direct you to something better than what you have requested? When you go to bed say 'subhan Allah' thirty-three times, 'alhamdulillah' thirty three times and ‘Allahu akbar' thirty four times, for that is better for you than a servant." (Bukhari)

In “The Housewife’s Lament” you say that “… the Muslims had won a battle and, as a result, had captured several prisoners and other spoils of war,” you then go on to describe Fatima (radhiAllahu 'anha) as asking for a “maidservant” to provide her with some domestic relief. This is how I commonly see this hadith used to dissuade women from asking their husbands to hire domestic help when actually that is not what Fatima (radhiAllahu 'anha) was asking for.
Just as in the translation above, “slave” and“servant” are used interchangeably (as they were nearly the same during the time of the Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam)) even though they have very different meanings to us. She was asking for a slave, to own another human being who would - under kind treatment or not - work in Fatima’s home without a choice. That is something quite different from hiring someone and I think a much, much more important point than whether or not women are being lackadaisical with their approach to getting their own housework done.

I agree with you, of course, that Fatima (radhiAllahu 'anha) is an excellent example (if not The Example) of how a woman can earn her blessings via caring for her family, but I think a larger point to this particular hadith is overlooked. As an example to the Ummah (all of the Muslims) the Prophet (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), who was actively pushing for Muslims to manumit slaves, did not want his own daughter to hypocritically go against his activism. He did not want her to have a slave and oppress another human being for her own benefit. Patience is better than that kind of shortcut.

Something I worry about is the way this hadith is often used to support the Super Muslimah role - to make women feel like they are being whiny and unappreciative about how much work they have to do and how much help we do have (via modern appliances and other conveniences). But, in my experience, I don’t know any of these spoiled women we hear about who have a servant for each child and do nothing but watch serials in between trips to the mall and salon. I’m sure these women exist, but I don’t know any personally and I don’t think they are the average SISTERS reader.
Nearly all of the women I know earn an income in addition to caring for their home and balancing those responsibilities is a real burden on them and their marriages.

I think the average SISTERS reader is more likely to be someone who is already doing too much and feels guilty that she can’t do more and be like the respectfully endearing Fatima (radhiAllahu 'anha). I’m worried that while you may have meant to make true housewives feel better about their roles, which can be painfully monotonous and demanding, I think this common misrepresentation of this hadith contributes to inappropriate and damaging guilt. The message is that Fatima (radhiAllahu 'anha) of all people could have had a little help around the house, but she chose to help her husband save some dirhams instead and drudged on by herself - but that’s not entirely true. Sure, he would have had to feed a slave, but he would not have been paying wages. I really see this hadith being about not oppressing people more than being about humbly accepting household drudgery.

[Zainab bint Younus]: First of all, I’ve got to say that I love the idea of Talk Back! Hearing feedback and constructive criticism is great for any writer who is desperate to know what their readers are thinking. I love this opportunity to be able to discuss anything that my readers find disappointing, irritating or flat out terrible.

With regards to The Housewife’s Lament, it’s part of my series titled “Forgotten Heroines”, which aims to re-examine the lives of the sahabiyyaat and women of Islamic history through a different lens: one which is directly relatable and applicable to Muslim women in every situation of life. My first few articles have dealt with very dramatic themes so far – coming of age, women pioneers, true love and (my favourite) how a villainess became a heroine.

My own life is far from dramatic and, one day when I was struggling to write my next FH article, I thought about how I didn’t feel like my life matched up to the standards of the exciting women I’d written about so far. These women were all very inspiring, yes, but what about women like me – housebound mothers who, quite frankly, don’t have the luxury of pioneering anything or saving the world (yet)? I thought about which sahabiyyah best fit this role, as most of my reading and research has currently been focused on women who performed great feats and found the story of Fatima (radhiAllahu 'anha).
To be honest, I hadn’t bothered re-reading her story for a long time because it wasn’t as exciting as the others. And that’s when I had my aha! moment. Out of the four women promised Jannah (Asiyah, queen of Egypt; Maryam bint ‘Imran; Khadijah bint Khuwaylid and Fatimah bint Muhammad), only Fatimah’s adult life was, shall we say, unremarkable.

This was what really inspired me to write about Fatimah – the feeling of kinship with a woman who was surrounded by other women whose lives were, in comparison, full of derring-do. Thus, my usage of the commonly quoted hadith was to show that her life was as monotonous as that of the average housewife and that it was not shameful for her to feel sick of it all or ask for help. The fact that she took her father’s advice and resorted to tasbeeh instead of domestic help is merely an illustration of the type of inner strength (which is what I intended to be the focus) that caused her to be one of those who were guaranteed Jannah – what I personally found to be inspirational.

I also understand and agree with your frustration over how this particular hadith is often used to make women feel guilty or ashamed of themselves. My own raging feminist spirit loathes such tired and reinforced interpretations of ahadith. My intent in quoting this hadith was completely unrelated. Though, as I now re-read my article, I can see where I should have used stronger language to focus on my main point; that one doesn’t have to be a world-famous academic or infamous revolutionary in order to be considered strong or worthy in the Sight of Allah.

I found your take on the hadith to be extremely interesting and certainly a valid one. I appreciate you bringing it to my notice, as I’d never thought of it that way before (and I love learning about the deeper dimensions of ahadith and their meanings)! You never know, it could wind up featuring in another FH article in the future, without the typical interpretation attached to it!

Read the original article that inspired the talk back in SISTERS’ October issue!

Brooke Benoit has been working from home for nearly 15 years and recently took her own advice about outsourcing by hiring someone to cook a hot, delicious meal for her family several times a week.

Zainab bint Younus (AnonyMouse) is a young woman who finds constant inspiration in the lives of the sahabiyyat and other great women in Islamic history. She hopes that every Muslimah is able to
identify with the struggles of these inspirational women and follow in their footsteps to become a part of a new generation of powerful Muslim women. She blogs at


Handan said...

Salaams. Forgive me for irrelevant... but I just love your picture in the masthead! Just totally brilliant and cool. I like. :)

Anonymous said...

Heres one for you. If you so hate Canada and the western world, why are you here?, didn't you leave your homeland to better yourself, if not, go back where you came from. To deny that muslims aren't destroying this once proud country only illustrates your usual muslim arrogance.

Anonymous said...

Go back where you came from. Quebec isn't the only province whos had enough of your incessant whining and claims of "poor us, the world should kiss the Muslims masses feet" it won't happen. Keep it up, Canadians are finally waking up to what Islam is really all about.