Ramadan, parenting, and “spiritual equality”

Since Ramadan began, my wife and I have seen quite a few posts and reflections regarding the inability of mothers to spend their time and energy in ritual devotion and spiritual development because of the demands of parenting (erm, I mean, mothering). Can’t make tarawih prayers at the mosque, someone has to stay home with the kids. Can’t read much Qur’an, the kids require too much attention. Can’t devote time to any worship beyond the bare requirements, too many responsibilities in the home.

With this come of course the reassuring statements by religious authorities that their energy and time spent in fulfilling their familial responsibilities as mothers and wives is itself a form of worship and obedience to God, and will be rewarded equal to the ritual devotion that they are missing out on.

Of course, there is no doubt that fulfilling one’s obligations and duties in life is part of our worship of and relationship with God, and is morally and spiritually meaningful. That is an important reminder and message of balance and reassurance. But, at the same time, there is something woefully lacking in such discourse. We have to have more to offer than mere comforting words about the reward of such obedience, some constructive and practical discussion of how to create opportunity for women to also participate in the abundant ritual blessings of Ramadan. So I have a few points in response to such communal rhetoric and discourse.

1) Firstly, just because those social and familial responsibilities are also a form of worship and obedience to God, it doesn’t take away from the unique role of ritual devotion specifically in our spiritual development and relationship with God. The spiritual fruits that we harvest through ritual practices (prayer, dhikr, reading Qur’an, meditation, etc.) are not the same as those that come from other forms of obedience and worship, and should not just be lightly cast aside.

2) Secondly, if it is true that serving your family and fulfilling your responsibilities to them is a form of worship, and we are serious about this, then this message needs to be directed not just towards women but men as well. After all, parenting is a joint endeavor and is the responsibility of both parents (in those families with a two-parent household). So yes, men too will get rewarded for taking care of their families and fulfilling their responsibilities to their children and wives. It is a form of worship and obedience to God for them as well. Otherwise, if we are not willing to emphasize this mutual responsibility, then it is clear that such rhetoric is nothing but an apologetic justification for women not having the opportunity to seek spiritual edification.

3) Thirdly, again, let’s focus on men for a bit, shall we? In all this rhetoric, women are as always valorized for their sacrifice for their families. In this case, even sacrificing their spiritual life. What we fail to recognize is that the flipside of such sacrifice is the spiritual greed of the men in our communities. Is the message we’re sending that it’s okay for men to be spiritually greedy, taking advantage of the ritual blessings of Ramadan without a care to the fact that the women in their lives are yearning for such spiritual opportunities but cannot have them? Is it not part of spiritual excellence and maturity to seek the betterment of others as well and promote a fair and balanced spiritual life for the whole?

4) That brings me to the practical considerations of what I’m talking about. In most situations, there is really no reason why one partner should take all the hits spiritually. So if you are privileged enough to be able to perform tarawih prayers together as a couple at home, do that instead of going to the mosque. If you prefer praying at the mosque or are not able to adequately perform tarawih yourselves, then alternate who goes and who stays with the kids, or figure out babysitting, etc. In general, alternate who gets to spend some extra time alone praying, reading Qur’an, meditating, reading dhikrs, etc., and who takes care of the kids. Share responsibilities and tasks so that both partners have a bit more time to concentrate on their spirituality. Each situation and each couple’s dynamics are unique and particular to them, but the bottom line is: negotiate, compromise, and figure something out that works for both people.

We hear endless apologetics from religious authorities about how in Islam the social roles of men and women may not be the same, but they are nonetheless “spiritually equal”. As a community, however, we need to think long and hard on how to make the concept of “spiritual equality” more than just superficial rhetoric that essentially means “you will not be punished in the afterlife for being a woman”. That is not spiritual equality, that is simply a notion of God that is not terribly unjust and arbitrary in His omnipotence. Let’s stop kidding ourselves. If it is to be a meaningful concept at all, spiritual equality can’t just be about the next life, it has to be about this life too, about the experience of religious and spiritual life. Otherwise our women are privileged to enjoy the same “spiritual equality” as African-American slaves, who were promised that fulfilling their social role and obeying their slave-masters would land them in heaven in the next life. I, for one, don’t think that is a standard of spiritual equality that we should settle for.



A Woman’s heart is stronger than a man’s

The maximum period of gestation, according to the Shafi’is, is four years. The Maliki’s argue for a five year period, I believe. The issue, it seems, is not self-evident and subject to disagreement. My teacher, MAR, and I laugh at the absurdity of the proposition. “The child will simply walk off to school right after delivery,” he jokes. I find it curious that he is poking fun at the apparent illogic of the stated gestation period. This discussion on pregnancy lends itself easily to musings on the miracle of child bearing and birthing. A woman’s heart is stronger than a man’s, he tells me. Finally, I think, at least something about a woman is not inferior to a man. He begins by detailing the process of menstruation and it’s relation to pregnancy. I can’t help but be amused by the irony of a man delineating female anatomy to a woman, patronizing me as though I have no knowledge of such things. Perhaps because I‘m single? Either way, I apparently have no understanding of how my own body works. Lost in my thoughts, I return to the story just in time to catch his elucidation of the fetus, enclosed in a “bag” in the womb, protected from harm. All the menstrual blood , you see, then gathers under this bag to form a cushion for the baby who sleeps peacefully, encased in the bag, resting its head on a progressive build up of menstrual blood. So what happens when this latent fetus awakens from it’s peaceful slumber? It begins to hit its head against the mouth of the uterus in order to make its exit. Here we return to the anecdote on the strength of women’s hearts. I struggle to keep my concentration, tempted to loose myself in thoughts of future plans. There was a woman, the story continues, who was in need of a heart transplant. The doctors were finally able to procure the heart of a young man who had recently passed away. The transplant was completed and the woman survived the procedure. Eventually, she became pregnant and when her sleeping child no longer desired his pillow of menstrual blood (at the end of a four or five year gestation period, I’m not sure), he began to knock his head against this closed door that must be opened for him to make his appearance. At this moment, this possessor of a man’s heart, no longer able to endure the agony of birthing, meets the fate of her donor. A woman’s heart is undoubtedly stronger than a man’s. I look at the clock. Fifteen minutes of lost time on an entertaining biology lesson. I’m uncertain what to think or where to begin my objections; do I even have any objections? I’m simply satisfied that, after months of taking classes with MAR, at long last, women are comparable to men in something, however fantastical that something might be.


An older piece from 2009