Women: At work and the pressures of society

Q675 :In some countries, particularly those experiencing high inflation, women find themselves obliged to go out to work. It is often the case, however, that such Muslim women find it difficult to observe Islamic requirements in dress because of pressures from different sources. How should a woman behave in such circumstances? Could you suggest the type of professions which are most suitable for Muslim women when going out to work is their only option? Is it not better for a Muslim housewife to economize as much as she can rather than work in these circumstances? How about working abroad?

A675 : This letter raises one of the real problems which affect many Muslim countries. Inflation has grossly aggravated the economic difficulties prevailing in several countries, particularly where it continues to rise unchecked, and wages do not rise in similar proportion. A head of the family, who has been earning enough to ensure a decent standard of living for his family a few years ago, has helplessly watched his income dwindle in real terms to the extent that he is unable to meet the basic needs of his wife and children. His wife, who has been fulfilling the most important role of looking after their children, has gradually come to the conclusion that she must go out to work in order to add some extra income. This state of affairs plays havoc with the lives of people. It does not affect a single family or a small section of society; it affects all. Most importantly, it affects the poor who soon find themselves in a desperate situation, unable to earn enough to feed their children. My reader asks whether it is preferable that women should economize as hard as they can rather than go out to work. In many cases the choice does not exist. First of all we are assuming that employment is available for women who want to work and they can have it if they want it. We are also assuming that most, if not all, women are in situations that allow them to work. I realize that this does not apply in many cases. Some women cannot find work even if they most eagerly want it, while others cannot go out to work because they have to look after their young children. When a woman is able to work, and she has an offer of employment, should she consider the alternative of economizing hard? I say that the alternative may not exist. Inflation can soon deny her that choice. She realizes that unless she goes out to work, her family will sink further and further down the social ladder. For many people, this is not easy to accept if it can be prevented at all. The ideal solution is that which provides a well considered economic policy which tries to make use of all resources of the country and make use of the talents and skills of all people in society as to increase the productivity of the country and make basic commodities available in abundance. This is by no means an idealistic solution. It is a real one, although governments are rarely willing to consider it, because it takes a great deal of effort to implement. Moreover, where corruption exists, it is sure to block it. The point is that most of the economic problems of the world are the result of mal-distribution of wealth at the local, national and international levels. In those societies where inflation has more or less ruined the economy of the country, you will still find that a small minority of people are enjoying the benefits of the greater share of the country's wealth. Their wealth increases more and more and they get fatter and fatter because they can easily exploit the situation to their own interest, in total disregard to the interest of the community. Moreover, powerful nations, like American and Western European nations, are not willing to provide more than derisory aid, while they watch the gap between themselves and the rest of the world continue to increase. The Islamic system is geared to reduce this mal-distribution of wealth wherever it exists. When Islam is the way of life in a country, the community will soon benefit by its implementation in ensuring that there will be no section of society which endures a standard of living below the line of subsistence. If there is such a section in a particular society, then that society does not implement Islam properly. When Islam has been implemented for a longer period, it ensures a decent standard of living for all. When Islam is implemented over a wide area, i.e. in a number of countries, its benefits will be apparent to all. If all humanity were to follow the Islamic way of life, it will enjoy a high standard of living and poverty will be non-existent. That is because Islam ensures fair distribution of wealth. However, in the present world, we have real problems like the one our reader has raised. Women must go out to work in order to help with the finances of the family and they endure social pressures which force them to abandon certain Islamic practices. The appearances of certain working women is perhaps one of the most immediate problems working women have to face. It is important to realize that social pressure can be very hard on women. When a woman is desperate to work in order to help her family and when she is told that she has to work in uniform or appear in a certain way which does not observe Islamic standards, she finds herself in an unenviable situation. The pressures may be too hard. Once again, I say that it is the responsibility of the governments to ensure that those women of their population who want to work can do so observing Islamic values. Many governments do not do so. The responsibility remains that of the individual. It is not possible for me or any human being to tell a woman in such a situation that she is allowed to forego her Islamic dress. No human being can change a requirement made by Islam because requirements have the authority of Allah. We must state to individuals, men and women, that "no creature may be obeyed in what constitutes disobedience to Allah." Therefore, if the employer of a Muslim woman requires her to dress like a Western woman, she should not obey him. It is indeed wrong for the employer to make such a request. Those women who succumb to the pressure should always seek Allah's forgiveness. I counsel them to maintain their Islamic values and continue to offer their Islamic duties in the same way as good Muslim women throughout the world. Let them remember the Qur'anic verse which tells every Muslim: "Be God fearing as much as you can." This means that when circumstances force a Muslim to be in breach of Islamic standards and values, he should try his best to limit his breach to the narrowest possible area and the shortest possible time. In practical terms, woman [in such a situation] should first of all, try to find alternative work where she can observe Islamic standards without any pressure. Secondly, if she cannot find such alternate employment, she should consider leaving work altogether. However, if she cannot, because she has children to feed and there is no other wage earner in the family, or if she is in similar difficult circumstances, she should declare her objection to being forced to violate Islamic values. Moreover, the fact that she has to dress in a certain fashion at her place of work should not give her a license to carry on with that violation elsewhere. In other words, she should confine the requirements of work to her workplace. If she is obliged to dress in a certain fashion while working, once she finishes her work, she should wear her Islamic dress. She must not carry the violation home or to the rest of her social life. If a woman wants to travel abroad to work, she must also observe Islamic standards and requirements. For example, Islam requires that a woman does not travel alone, or stay in a foreign place alone. Therefore, when a woman wants to go to work abroad, she must be accompanied by her husband or a close relative whom she cannot marry. If she is certain that she can do that, there is no objection to her travel abroad to work.

Our Dialogue ( Source : Arab News - Jeddah )