Just enough authority

By stripping husbands of authority — complains the new leader of opinion — modernist discourse renders the husband an unappreciated servant to his family, making him little more than a cash machine. He goes on:

According to this, the husband must provide income to support the family and the wife has no such responsibility. Insofar as the wife earns money, her family and certainly her husband are not entitled to a penny of it. But ALL of what a husband earns belongs to his family.

It sounds rather like a parody, with its hyperbolic representations of feminism, modernity and Muslim discourse, but the author is absolutely serious. 

And if the husband fancies that his financial contributions — that he has earned through his sweat and tears, through back-breaking labor — entitle him to some veto power or a modicum of authority, he is grossly mistaken. Nope! Gender egalitarianism means women have at least as much authority as men if not more so.

Of course the Qur’an speaks of this ideal: husbands should take good care of their wives, with the bounties God has given to some more than others, and with what they spend out of their own wealth. But what of the imperfect situation? What of the husband who loses his job during a period of economic recession; the long-term unemployed; the husband who is sick or disabled; the husband on a low income in a time of high inflation; or the family that simply cannot make ends meet on a single income? Where do such scenarios figure in the simplistic renderings of modernity that constitute informed opinion today?

I wonder if this leader of opinion — whose own back-breaking job is speaking in public and writing opinion pieces — is dangerously out of touch with the societal realities he critiques. For if we look at studies of labour markets worldwide, and the preponderance of low paid, manual work undertaken by women, we find women making huge financial and non-monetary contributions to their households, likewise earned through sweat, tears and back-breaking labour.

The men and women making your iPhone on cramped production lines in a Foxconn factory know about back-breaking labour. The rows and rows of women stitching your cheap underwear in hot and crowded sweatshops know about sweat and tears. Visit the agricultural lands of Turkey, and witness that it is largely women working in the fields, under the beating sun, toiling hard picking fruit and nuts, turning over the soil, engaged in real back-breaking labour, while their husbands work in offices and shops or drive vehicles for a living. Visit impoverished communities in many a developing country and note that it is largely the women that walk great distances to bring water and firewood home, who work, unpaid, cooking and washing clothes by hand. Visit any local hospital ward and count how many nurses are female; count how many male social workers you know; how many male primary school teachers. Women, all over the world, are engaged in hard toil, bringing money home to support their families.

Of course it is true that many men work in manual, back-breaking industries, building homes, constructing roads, fixing cars and fighting wars. But to pretend that women are not similarly engaged in labour-intensive work, or that they do not contribute to household incomes, is simply dishonest. Indeed, in many major cities, where the cost of living is extremely high, it is simply not possible to make ends meet on a single income. That is why we see whole families pooling their incomes together across generations in developing nations, and couples joining their income elsewhere. And we have not even touched on the situation for divorcees, widows and refugees bringing up children alone in difficult circumstances. For most couples around the world, the division of labour is not based on ideology, creed or political theory, but on the cold, hard, physical realities of life.

The truth is that educated men in employment in developed nations often work in well-remunerated service industries, typing on keyboards, answering the phone, doing sums, managing projects and pushing paper around — boring jobs, certainly, but hardly back-breaking work — while their partners often supplement the household income by taking on lower paid manual work. So in fact a complete reversal of the roles imagined by our professional thinkers. Lower income families often see both partners going out to work: husbands taking jobs driving taxis or vans, working in warehouses or hospitality, and wives working as nurses, cleaners and on factory production lines, and frequently taking care of children, cleaning the house and cooking meals on their return home from work.

The division of labour we encounter in the relationships between husbands and wives, and their families, is not black and white: there are a lots of shades in between. There is nothing wrong with a woman serving her husband and children. Similarly there is nothing wrong with a man serving his wife and children. The late Sheikh Asharawi of Egypt used to cook for all his family until his old age. Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Yakoobi of Damascus had his own recipes for food. Sheikh Mohammad ben Abdel Kader Rahou of Algeria used to fetch firewood from the forest and do the cooking.

Away from the manufactured controversies of our leaders of opinion, enjoying lucrative careers tellings us about a crisis of masculinity and the suffocating feminist worldview which is apparently killing us, there are the realities of life. Study the autobiographies of some of the great men of the past, and you will learn that our romanticised histories are mere fantasies. Some of those we nowadays consider legends had very hard wives, but their dealing with them in a good way propelled them to amazing heights. That some women desire riches and status has nothing to do with modernity: such women can be found throughout history.

Rujula may well signify bravery and leadership and authority. It also signifies humbleness, patience, endurance and forbearance. To serve your parents, your wife and family is manliness. And no true man sees himself above anyone else, even if it were on a battle field — so how many of us are truly men?

The servants of the Lord of Mercy are those who walk humbly on the earth, and who, when the foolish address them, reply, ‘Peace’ — Qur’an 25:63

Real men disregard their own existence in front of their Lord. Against such men, we are but children. See how we lack ihsan in dispensing advice, talking down to others instead of treating them with respect. Where is our generosity of spirit that rujula would connote?

If there is any truth in the author’s claims, I suggest that the remedy lies in us modelling our lives on the advice Luqman gave his son:

‘My son, if even the weight of a mustard seed were hidden in a rock or anywhere in the heavens or earth, God would bring it to light, for He is all subtle and all aware. Keep up the prayer, my son; command what is right; forbid what is wrong; bear anything that happens to you steadfastly: these are things to be aspired to. Do not turn your nose up at people, nor walk about the place arrogantly, for God does not love arrogant or boastful people. Go at a moderate pace and lower your voice, for the ugliest of all voices is the braying of asses.’ — Qur’an 31:16-19

There you have it: just enough authority, leadership, bravery, patience and humility to satisfy all, be it your wife, your husband, your parents, your children, your next-door neighbour, or the latest leader of opinion in our midst.

One thought on “Just enough authority

  1. Mohammad

    Assalamu alykum,
    “qawwamun” in Quran 4:34, is in essence about “diligently taking care” without the time factor. The male who does that earns then the title “rajul” i.e. a man.
    Thinking of the family as a ‘military’ unit is just wrong.


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