Monday, July 5, 2010

The Liberated Muslim Wife

And imagine if I didn't have any help. Such was my thought as I escaped from mothering for a quick shower. My two year old is sick with a fever, and the baby also has a cold. But at least I have help with cooking, cleaning, and the laundry.

I love it here in Kuala Lumpur because the idea of a middle-class woman having help managing her household is not a radical one.

And yes, this topic brings out the Islamic feminist in me. Western women think that we are more liberated than women in Muslim societies. But when it comes to women's work, I do not consider it liberating that women have similar work responsibilities as men but also assume the larger part of parenting, cooking, and cleaning. This sentiment relates to a common complaint I've heard from African and Asian immigrant women in the U.S., that is, that "back home we had lots of help."

In KL, the full-time maid functions as a nanny, cook, and cleaner. I won't pretend that this arrangement is perfect. I've heard that sometimes maids are too busy with their nanny duties to complete other tasks. Or they are too busy with cooking that they don't mind the children as they should. Hmm....makes me wonder if expectations for the maid are unrealistic.

My musings have led me to the surprising conclusion that I prefer the term "helper," another way to refer to the maids in KL, because it is this aspect that I find empowering and worth blogging about. I celebrate the awareness that women cannot do it alone. It is the widespread cultural understanding that women need help that I find liberating.

On my first day in KL, I was offered part-time help. Mama Sarina, originally from the Philippines, helps twice a week. My husband's agreeing to pay for this service has partly to do with the fact that it is more affordable here than in the U.S.  But affordability isn't the only issue. It's also an issue of mindset. Many American men imagine that the wife should be able to handle all of the household duties, especially if she stays at home.  

Luckily I have a husband who, even before life in KL, was coming to understand that I needed help even when I was not going outside to work. He would occasionally pay for housekeeping services, or for a part-time nanny 2-4 days out of the month. 

Mama Sarina is more than a helper. She has become family away from home. She calls me Mama so I call her Mama. She spoils Yahya like any grandma would. Yesterday we drove around in our host's SUV with Mama Sarina and her two Filipino friends helping us find a condo to rent. When we stopped by a mosque to pray, my husband and I went in while Mama and the others watched the children.

Before leaving for KL, my mother's dear friend Sister Khayriyyah made a prayerful comment that Allah would bless me with the support I was accustomed to from my mother and aunt in Atlanta. I never imagined that it would come from these kind Filipino women.


  1. Fabulous! I will posting an excerpt on my fb page tomorrow. I'm a little jealous of Mama Serena and the other 'helper' who are receiving all of Yahya's love :-)!

  2. Salaams Dear,

    I really enjoyed this entry. I was just speaking with a friend about the importance of having a "helper" I grew up in a household were my mother had help and it was liberating for her because it gave her the time to be with herself and perfect her artistic craft. It did not in the least take away her quality time with us but in turn allowed her to be at peace and more relaxed when we were together. May Allah bless you. I look forward to our friendship

  3. Beautiful and thought provoking post. I just recently sent finished a book looking at the meaning of marriage for women. One of the issues that was discussed was the importance of women helping one another in the context of wifehood and motherhood, and the means of empowerment this creates for women in their marriages. Dr. Mattson also referenced this issue in one of her speeches at ISNA last weekend. She acknowledged the women who helped her with babysitting and cooking responsiblities as she completed her PhD. These women while acknowledging that they couldn't make academic contributions, could make alternate but equally meaningful contributions, as well.

  4. I love, love this post. Having inherited a Nigerian family through marriage, I've been able to observe how the family unit is heavily supported by more than just the immediate family members. Aunties, neices, cousins, little sisters, etc. com to live with the family and help out. They even have drivers! My aunt is always expressing how difficult it is to raise her family here in the United States because she is having to do it without extra support.

    I pray that I'll have a strong support system in place when I have children, inshallah. I love the statement a sister made about her mom having help and being free to pursue her personal interests, yet she as a child never felt short changed by her mom. Very encouraging statement for a future mom who may decide to work. :)

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  6. Thanx for this posting, Jamillah. I so believe in the practice of having helpers support the mother. I have never experienced it myself nor seen it really in action except on movies and through stories of friends who have lived and given birth outside of the United States. But it only makes sense to have this practice. Mothers are amazing creatures cuz we bring forth life through our bodies (with the help of Allah) and are shaped to do what it takes to care for our offspring inspite of any difficulties and no matter how challenging. BUT if we can have help outside of our spouses, meaning other women who can relieve the burden of motherhood and provide sanity breaks, why not hire this help!? I have a wonderful AMAZING nontraditional husband who does more housework than I do cleaning, grocery shopping, paying the bills, all while working fulltime and assisting with the children but still I find that it is non stop work for me as a mother with NO breaks for me! I am exhausted! It is bigger than my husband and I, though. We need need help outside of the 2 of us because its either him or me and we need another alternative.

    Since relocating to Atlanta a couple of months ago we now live next door to my mom and not far from my sisters, but we have yet to devise a system that benefits us all because they too are busy with their own lives. I would love to have an unrelated trusted dedicated helper.

    I need ME back! I have a whole lot to share with the world and I dont want to wait until my kids are grown and out of the house! :)