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Obligatory Housewives?

It is commonly assumed that Islam puts forward a precise division of labour in gender roles, but there is much evidence apart from the above that raises questions about these interpretations, and goes against the grain of conventional thinking.

For instance, both the Qur'an and various hadith show that there is no basis within Islam to demand that women play the role of domestic housekeepers and child rearers as a matter of Divine obligation. On the contrary, women are explicitly exempted from wajib (mandatory) expectations this regard.

For instance, most people are unaware that the Qur'an clarifies that there is no obligation on a mother to nurse or breastfeed her baby, and that as was common practice at the time of revelation, fathers would often hire wet-nurses for this function. To the extent, then, that a mother does fulfil this function herself, she is entitled to payment from her husband for doing so:

"And if they should be pregnant, then spend on them until they give birth. And if they breastfeed for you, then give them their payment and confer among yourselves in the acceptable way; but if you are in discord, then another woman may breastfeed for the father." (65:6)

In a similar vein, and contrary to prevailing misconceptions, husbands have no right to demand their wives to carry out household chores, including cooking, cleaning or any other domestic work.

"It is reported that a man once came to Umar, the second Caliph, with the intention of bringing to his notice certain complaints he had against his wife. When he reached the door of Umar's house, he heard the Caliph's wife railing against him. Hearing this, he went back as he thought that the Caliph himself was in the same predicament and could, therefore, hardly be expected to set matters right for him. Umar, coming out of his house, saw the person going back. So he called him out and inquired as to the purpose which had brought him to his house. He said that he had come to him with some complaints against his wife, but turned back on finding that the Caliph himself was subject to the same treatment from his [the Caliph's] wife. Umar said to him that he patiently bore the excesses of his wife because she had certain rights over him: 'Is it not true that she cooks my food, washes my clothes and suckles my children, thus relieving me of the necessity of employing a cook, a washerman and a nurse, although she is not in the slightest degree responsible for this? Not only that, I enjoy peace of mind on account of her and I am protected from committing the sin of adultery. In view of these advantages, I put up with her excesses. You should also do the same.'" (Cited in Mazheruddin Siddiqi, Women in Islam, Institute of Islamic Culture, Lahore, Pakistan, 1975, pp. 83-84)

Mutual responsibility for the household

A wide range of Prophetic traditions, of course, exhort and encourage both men and women to participate in household activities, such as playing with and rearing one's children, taking care of general household chores, and other domestic activities. However, what is particularly important here is that Islam advocates something that radical feminists have for long pointed out: that women have no obligation to perform household labour, including even breastfeeding their own children, and that they are entitled to renumeration for such labour.

Men, on the other hand, have no right to demand that women undertaken such labour. The Prophet's example, however, illustrates that men are expected to play a key role in the household:

Al-Aswad reported: I asked Aisha, “What did the Prophet, peace and blessings be upon him, do when he was with his family?” Aisha said, “The Prophet would do household chores for his family and he would go out when it was time for prayer.” (Sahih Bukhari, 644)

The Prophet also used to do all sorts of things that many modern men would eschew today as being 'women's activities', like sowing. He would "sew his own clothes, mend his own shoes and do whatever other work men do in their homes." (Imaam Ahmad in al-Musnad, 6/121; Sheikh al-Albani, Sahih al-Jami', 4927).

Elsewhere, Aisha is reported to have said that "He was like any other human being: he would clean his clothes, milk his ewe [female sheep] and serve himself." (Imam Ahmad in al-Musnad, 6/256; al-Silsilat al-Saihiha,671)