Can Muslim Women Work Outside Their Homes?

Posted on July 22, 2009

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By Maulvi Waris Mazhari
(Translated from Urdu by Yoginder Sikand)

Some traditional ulema are of the view that Muslim women must not work outside their homes. They even argue that women can step out of their homes only under extreme necessity. Otherwise, they insist, they must remain within the four walls of their homes. Ironically, there are no Quranic commandments that sanction these prohibitions. Consequently, sharp differences among Islamic scholars continue to remain concerning these matters. In this regard, my personal opinion is reflected in a hadith report, according to which the Prophet is said to have declared that one should ask one’s heart, no matter what fatwa a mufti might give on a particular matter. In other words, in such cases one must follow one’s conscience.

I see no harm in women taking up employment out of their homes, provided, of course, their respect and honour are protected and their work does not cause their children and husband to suffer or be neglected. In some situations, in fact, it may even be a dire necessity, rather than a matter of choice, for women to seek employment out of their homes. Such, for instance, may be the case for divorced or widowed women with no source of sustenance or for a woman whose husband does not earn enough to properly maintain the family. If a woman seeks to work out of the home with the intention of using her earnings to help the poor or for spending her income on pious causes, I feel she can do so, keeping in mind, of course, the provisos mentioned above.

Unfortunately, there is no unanimity or consensus among the ulema on the issue of women working outside their homes. There is, as I suggested above, no evidence that they can cite from the Quran and the corpus of Hadith to back the contention that such employment is absolutely haram or forbidden. From earliest times onwards, many Muslim women, particularly from poor families, have been working outside their homes, mostly because this was an economic compulsion. The opinion of some ulema banning this has never been enforced anywhere in the Muslim world. That is why today, in many Muslim countries, even in those that style themselves as ‘Islamic’ states, such as Iran and Saudi Arabia, women can be found working in different spheres of the economy, in both the public as well as private sectors.

There is even early Islamic precedent for Muslim women working outside their homes. For instance, the Caliph Umar appointed a woman, Shifa Bint Abdullah, as the administrator of the market in Madinah. Obviously, for her work she had to regularly visit the market, inspect how people were conducting their businesses and interact and talk with the businessmen, most of who must have been men. Today, in contrast, many ulema might balk at a woman taking up such a job. They might argue that a market is a centre of materialism, the very opposite of spiritualism, and that a woman working out of her house, and, that too in a market, would cause strife, and that she might even lose her morals. Yet, the Caliph Umar appointed Shifa Bint Abdullah to this post although he could well have chosen a man for this purpose had he wanted to.

As I said earlier, I see no harm in a Muslim woman working outside her home, even if she has to interact with men in her workplace, provided, of course, the environment is decent and she can preserve her modesty. Even in the Prophet’s time, interaction between the genders was never forbidden, contrary to what some people might think. In the early years of Muslim history, Muslim women would go out to purchase and sell things and even participated in battles.

Some people might claim that the Quran explicitly prohibits Muslim women from going out of their homes. To support this claim, they often refer to the following verses in the Surah Al-Ahzab of the Quran:

O ye wives of the Prophet! Ye are not like any other women. If ye keep your duty (to Allah), then be not soft of speech, lest he in whose heart is a disease aspire (to you), but utter customary speech. And stay in your houses. ( Quran 33: 32-33)

What they ignore or forget is that the above-quoted commandment ordering the wives of the Prophet to stay in their houses was applicable precisely to them, and not to all Muslim women. According to some scholars of the Quran, Umar Faruq advised the Prophet to ask his wives to adopt seclusion within their homes because all sorts of people, good as well as bad, used to come to the Prophet’s house to meet him. It was on this occasion, they say, that these verses were revealed.

Many traditional Indian ulema, however, continue to insist that Muslim women must not seek outside employment or even go out of their homes. Still, I would say, there has been at least some attitudinal change in some ulema circles in this regard. To cite an instance, some years ago a Mufti of the Dar ul-Ulum at Deoband issued a fatwa forbidding Muslim women from contesting elections. Shortly after, however, he rescinded this fatwa and issued a fresh one, declaring it permissible for Muslim women to participate in elections. I do not know why, and on what basis, he changed his opinion, but this case illustrates the fact that, slowly, the views of some traditional Indian ulema on issues related to women are beginning to change. At the same time, it is true that probably the majority of the Indian ulema still remain wedded to their traditional opinions about women’s employment. These are men who have been reared on traditional or medieval fiqh texts, and whose lives are restricted to teaching within the walls of their madrasas.

Today, however, we have an increasing number of younger ulema who are more socially engaged, have knowledge of contemporary issues and an awareness of the demands of modern world. They know the concerns and problems of the new generation—and this includes the issue of women’s employment—and desire to provide appropriate leadership to it. I am optimistic that these ulema will come to play an important and more socially relevant role, including as far as women’s issues are concerned, in the coming decades.

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