Monday, 30 November -0001

WHAT DOES ISLAM say about HOUSEWIVES?

When Muslim mother Zarqa Nawaz had to work away from home, she learned some life-affirming lessons about friends, family – and her faith

Written by Zarqa Nawaz
In 2006, my career took an unexpected turn when I created a television show entitled Little Mosque On The Prairie. No one thought a sitcom about a Muslim community worshipping in a destitute mosque in the middle of a tiny Canadian prairie town would be a ratings hit. But against all logic it was, and the producers decided to move the production of the show out of Regina, Saskatchewan, where I lived, to Toronto, which was a three-hour plane ride away. It would mean working out of town for a week and coming home on weekends for six months of the year.

I was conflicted. My husband was not. He told me it was the single biggest achievement of my career and it would be foolish not to do it. My conservative mother did not agree and felt that good Muslim women should stay home with their children.

Other conservative mosque lecturers concurred, but my husband, president of the Islamic Association of Saskatchewan, never trusted them. He felt these men never really cited any verses from the Koran to support their position. A verse stating ‘It’s better for women to stay home and raise kids’ just doesn’t exist in the Koran.

So what does Islam say about men and women’s roles regarding childrearing in a marriage? Interestingly enough, I found the Koran encourages communication between partners when making decisions about what is best for the family. Growing up in the West, I felt sometimes that the cult of breastfeeding was almost like a religion itself. If I chose not to breastfeed, I was a horrible mother. But in the Koran it states twice that the parents of a child should use ‘mutual consent and counsel’ to decide whether to breastfeed or hire out the job to a wet nurse. The modern equivalent would probably be to bottle-feed a baby, which my own mother did because she wasn’t able to breastfeed me. And neither decision was considered substandard.

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I also turned to the stories of the Prophet. Muslims are taught that when our Prophet was born, a wet nurse named Halima was hired. In that time, children were sent away to live with the families of nomadic tribes for the first five years of their lives. Young children could grow up in the fresh air, away from the pollution of the city, and learn the pure form of the Arabic language. City life was considered corrupt and dirty, much the same as today, I imagine. The nomads, meanwhile, would pick well-to-do children from high-born families, because their links as a foster family would remain forever, benefi tting them in many tangible ways.

This custom continued even after the Prophet preached Islam, and he himself chose a wet nurse for his own son, who ended up dying in infancy. This tradition not only swapped out breastfeeding, but the early years of motherhood as well. But lactating nomadic women who are willing to take your children for free and return them when they can speak, completely potty-trained and ready for full-time school, are not to be found these days in the Canadian mid-west, or anywhere really. Pity.

I had worked on my career from home when the children were young, because my husband was completing a psychiatric residency and it was easiest for us all. But now he had graduated and the kids were older, and so with my husband’s support and encouragement, I left for six months of the year, coming home on weekends, while he took on the role of primary caregiver.

My children were suitably appalled at their changed situation. My youngest, aged six, would hang on to me every Sunday and start crying at dinner time when my flight was due to leave. My mother-in-law would watch with pursed lips, wondering at how things could change so much in a generation. But my husband assured me that my son stopped crying as soon as I left and only did it for eff ect.

People asked me how I managed to juggle career and raising children. I would tell them that I was fine, because I lived in a condo rented by the production company during the week, my meals were eaten at work or in a restaurant and a maid did all my laundry and cleaning. It was my husband who had to cut back his hours at work to be home in time to care for our four young children. He would call me exhausted from being on four diff erent soccer fi elds, trying to supervise all the children at once.

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It occurred to me that I was living a life as men had traditionally done, with someone else looking after the drudgery associated with being at home. I suddenly realised why men had resisted feminism for so long. If I had been a man, I too would have hung on to the status quo for dear life. After all, it was the perfect life. My mother stopped fretting when she realised that my husband wasn’t going to divorce me for putting my career ahead of my family.

And it turns out the kids were fine – the house, not so much. But this amazing thing happens when a man is looking after a house: people forgive him because his wife callously ‘abandoned’ him.

After my duties on Little Mosque On The Prairie ended, I decided to write from home again. Although my husband encouraged me to pursue another show, I felt the kids’ needs had changed. They were all teenagers now and I felt it was better to have both of us at home supporting each other during these challenging years.

My faith taught me that there’s much flexibility when it comes to rearing children, and communication between partners is key. My husband and I shared responsibilities as we saw fit for the different circumstances in our lives, and it helped build peace and harmony with each other. Of course it also meant turning a blind eye to dust, which is a harder problem to solve than raising kids.

Laughing All The Way To The Mosque, by Zarqa Nawaz, is published by Little, Brown, priced £12.99.


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