I’m single. So what?’
She was clearly irritated. It was the gazillionth time she had to answer the same question, and hear that judgmental tone.
What is so wrong about not getting married? Is life all about marriage and having kids? Is she incomplete just being herself?
Deep inside, she was unsure. She felt vulnerable. Everyone she met hinted at marriage. There must be something wrong with her.
In most traditional societies, a woman is generally and most commonly seen as a mother and wife. Her value, status and reputation are often defined by marital affiliation, family ties and motherhood. As the majority of men and women, to a large extent, embrace the path of marriage and raising children, being different in that sense can be rather painful.
The rule however does not apply to men in the same way as it does to women. Single men are more readily accepted but single, unmarried women are constantly questioned and judged.
Society on the other hand tends to make generalized statements and over simplify the subject, which in reality can be more complex than what it superficially appears.As a consequence, women who are unmarried or still are in search of marriage partners often feel like they are under constant scrutiny, and that they owe people around an explanation. These result in a lot of unnecessary mental torture and embarrassment, which sometimes end up in broken friendships and damaged family ties.
Women and Diversity
Just as the human race is diverse, so are women. While it is true that many women choose to be mothers and wives, it is wrong to impose a similar expectation on all women. Even among mothers and wives themselves, they can be very different from each other and might play many roles other than those of a mother or a wife.
The problem arises when society and cultural norms hastily conclude that a woman is incomplete, less worthy or abnormal until she is married. Even marriage at times does not solve things for her, as she is expected to embrace motherhood and then to give birth to children of both genders.
Women have been mothers throughout history without doubt, for men can almost never contribute to childbirth and motherhood. However, with modernization, women’s traditional roles as mothers and wives are increasingly being challenged. Two groups have emerged as a result, each with its own extreme ideas and beliefs.
The first group resists any kinds of change; they insist that women have to remain mothers and wives or this world will be corrupted. They tend to deny the existence of other roles and functions that women can play.
The second group on the other hand is desperate to renounce the idea of marriage and motherhood completely, for they see these two as impediments to women’s liberty and advancement.
The Qur’anic Approach
The narratives in the Quran are the best evidence of how God himself acknowledges and celebrates the diversity of women and their roles. Contrary to what many contemporary Muslim societies often culturally dictate, Qur’anic verses debunk those myths. The Quran has taken a delicately balanced approach as it narrates a number of stories in which women are not depicted as mainly mothers or wives but as free individuals whose merit are not related to the two traditional roles.
Maryam was described as a devout, obedient and chaste person who dedicated her whole life to the worship of God. Pharaoh’s wife was an influential figure in her husband’s administrative affairs who later challenged his authority.
Aziz’s wife was portrayed as a clever and cunning individual who knew how to plot and convince people. Hajar (Ibrahim’s wife) though not mentioned directly, was the founder of Makkah. The Queen of Sheba was characterized by her political capabilities, intellect and grace. The two daughters of Shuaib were the caretakers of their father and performed duties, which at that time were dominated by men.
Khadijah’s story though not explicitly narrated in the Qur’an, is widely known. She was a successful businesswoman and merchant. Khaulah (Prophet’s companion) was a warrior who fought in battles. While some female figures in the holy book and history were indeed described as wives and mothers, others were described in such a manner that gives little attention to their personal lives or domestic identities; rather the real focus was on themselves as independent humans who act freely and are not bound by conventional gender stereotypes.
Evidence 1: the story of Maryam
Maryam (Mary) is inarguably one of the most revered women in history. In the chapter of Maryam, God ascertains her high status and praiseworthiness. Interestingly, her prominence and special place was not a result of her getting pregnant and giving birth to Jesus. The repeated mention of her high rank is attributed solely to her devotion, faith, purity and chastity.
Even though there is a mention of her parents (Imran and wife) and her son Jesus, the actual gist of her story revolves around her faith and perseverance.
Maryam was not defined by her parents, or Jesus, or the need for a spouse. In fact, the Quran completely omits any historical accounts on her marital life (which are debated by some historians) to show that what really matters is her belief and actions, not her marital or social status.
Evidence 2: The story of Pharaoh’s wife (Asiyah)
Asiyah’s name is not mentioned in the Qur’an, but her story is so powerful that it has triggered fierce debates among scholars and historians to this day. The Qur’anic narration of her journey conveys a clear message of how a woman is not defined by her husband’s faith and practices.
Asiyah was portrayed as an independent and free woman because despite her marriage to Pharaoh, she whole-heartedly rejected his claims and authority. Pharaoh’s love and wealth could not buy her heart.
She became a hero in the story for two reasons: first, she saved Moses’ life after he was thrown into the river, and persuaded Pharaoh to adopt him
Unlike the stereotypical image of Muslim women who are often perceived as passive and submissive to their husbands’ will and orders, Asiyah proved exactly the opposite. She took the first step to adopt Moses, cared for him, and later rejected her husband’s tyranny and blasphemy. She sought liberty from being affiliated to her husband through her famous supplication, which was beautifully carved in the Qur’an (66: 11).
Evidence 3: The Queen of Sheba
Chapter 27 of the Qur’an wonderfully illustrates the story of the Queen of Sheba. She was a great sovereign ruler who led her people and was engaged in political negotiations in her time. Her huge empire was confirmed by verse 23 when thehudhud bird reported to Prophet Sulayman:
‘I found (there) a woman ruling over them and provided with every requisite; and she has a magnificent throne’. (Qur’an 27:24)
It is interesting to note here that there was no mention of her personal life: whether she had children or a husband, obviously because that carries no importance. Similarly, the Qur’anic narration of the relationship between her and Prophet Sulayman revolves around their discussion on the oneness of God and how Sulayman refused to be bribed by her lavish gifts.
In the end, her unique status was reaffirmed when she displayed extraordinary humility, grace and intellect by accepting Sulayman’s call to submit to God. Although some historians claimed that they later got married, the Qur’an chooses not to discuss it, perhaps, to show that the marriage, whether it happened or not did not matter much.
The queen’s real worth lied within her conscience, deeds and readiness to accept the truth. Besides, if Islam is really against women’s active participation in public life and leadership, Sulayman perhaps would have commented on that. He did not question the fact that she was a political leader; what drew his attention were her faith and principles.
Evidence 4: Aziz’s wife
In the gripping tale of Yusuf, Aziz’s wife attempted to seduce him and because of Yusuf’s resistance and her failure, he was imprisoned. The interesting part however, was how the story eventually ended with her confession and repentance. Aziz’s wife was mentioned several times throughout the Chapter of Yusuf, as she was one of the main characters. Her husband however, received much less attention. The Qur’an chooses not to explain about her marital life and whether she was childless or not.
It becomes even more interesting as historians later debated whether Yusuf married her or not. The Qur’an again, took a brilliant stand not to prove or disprove the theory. The reason is clear: Such an issue is not important. A woman’s marriage and personal love life does not carry as much significance as her conscience or conviction does.
This shows that a woman’s worth has nothing to do with her spouse or child. She by herself is complete, free and valuable.The entire focus was on her initial evil intention, which later turned into defeat and repentance. She had acted independently, both when she committed the crime and when she courageously announced her guilt. Her status in the beginning of the chronicle was low while her husband’s was high, and towards the end she actually attained a higher rank through her honesty and remorse, independent of her husband.
There are many other female figures mentioned in the Qur’an but only few are discussed here. It is evident that the holy book recognizes and celebrates women as having diversified roles, functions, identities and circumstances.
Women therefore should not be looked at from merely and ultimately the lens of motherhood and wifehood. It is undeniable however, to note that the role of mothers and wives receive huge and special emphasis in various verses. This is because such paths are taken up by the majority of women.
However, some exceptions are clearly singled out in God’s verses to convey the correct message to humanity, and remove any forms of prejudice against those who follow different life paths, either voluntarily or due to specific circumstances.
First published: March 2016