Sohail [as he tilts his phone to show his mother a photo of a beautiful 23 year old Indian girl]: “Mom, what about her?”
Sohail’s Mother: “Nah, not her. Her skin’s too dark, and isn’t she a 4th year student in medical school?”
Sohail [with furrowed brows and a look of concern on his face, he turns his face to look at his mother]: “But she’s Indian and educated…ma, isn’t this what you want?”
Sohail’s Mother: “But if you marry a girl who is more educated than you, she won’t listen to you.”
Sohail: “Wait, but isn’t that what you want…someone educated?”
Sohail’s Mother: “Aha, but not too educated! She won’t respect your opinions, and she will have an attitude problem.”
Sohail: “But Sunaina’s wants to do a Master’s!”
Sohail’s Mother: “Your sister’s different.”
NPR, TedTalks, Oprah, public health specialists and humans rights activists mention the fundamental role of education when it comes teaching methods of self-sustenance and empowering women. Educators and scientists attribute a woman’s socioeconomic status and inaccessibility to educational resources to her disadvantage.
But what if I told you that those weren’t the only things that shaped her position on the totem-pole, her low position in this bureaucracy of life? What if I told you that often a women’s low position in society is strongly influenced by the heavy presence of toxic masculinity and by other women who disempower her? That this disempowerment can stem from individuals who have suffered from it themselves – that the perpetrator was actually once the victim? There are many situations where one is able to observe this issue surface in subtle ways. Every Muslim woman knows or has experienced an example of this before – she was either too qualified for a potential suitor or not good enough for him. We’ve heard of mother-in-laws critiquing a potential suitor for her son – either too dark, too skinny, too healthy, or too educated. These women often resort to criticizing her family’s background – her parent’s relationship status, occupations, ethnic affiliations, religious upbringing, and other factors that do not directly pertain to the girl herself. Overall, in other words, a girl is not accepted for who she is. Her individuality and talents must be adjusted or changed to be part and parcel of a package of standards that must be met, and if they fall short, the girl is disqualified. She is not good enough.
Sometimes, this very situation is incredibly ironic – a “qualified” woman being rejected by a suitor’s mother, although the suitor himself is not very suitable. He, himself, may not possess the intellectual, financial, mental and emotional independence and stability that is necessary in a marriage. Even though he lacks certain qualifications, society still justifies a man getting married to satisfy his sexual needs and expects women to settle for marriage with such men.
Even so, many elders consider the mother’s high expectations justifiable – she birthed and raised him into the man he is today. Therefore, he must obey her and, out of respect, give his mother’s decision priority. This deep-rooted respect stems from a hadith, or tradition found in Islam, regarding the elevated status of mothers in Islam. It can be interpreted in a number of ways, for multiple agendas. However, counter-intuitive to this hadith, Islam does allow children to not follow their mom’s advice if it is unreasonable.
A man once consulted the Prophet Muhammad about taking part in a military campaign. The Prophet asked the man if his mother was still living. When told that she was alive, the Prophet said: “(Then) stay with her, for Paradise is at her feet.” (Al-Tirmidhi)
Elderly women, who are not strangers to these customs and social norms themselves, may resort to slut-shaming and victim-blaming behaviors whether it be due to their personal preferences, narcissism, or possessiveness. They may grant more privileges to men than they do to women; they expect their daughter-in-laws to come home before the sun goes down to nurture the family, whereas they expect “boys to be boys” and get home late. When she is sexually violated, the daughter-in-law may shoulder the burden of accusations such as “why did you dress up like that? Good women don’t wear jeans as tight as yours. You’re provoking other men, and neglecting my son!” This may seem like a far-fetched example to some, but it is the grim reality for many women. The focus is on the actions and words of women, but hardly ever on the men.
It is important to keep in mind that mothers are as human as the rest of us. They have their traits and flaws that are characterized by their respective upbringings and culture. It is these attributes that a mother takes with her, as she transitions into her role of being a mother-in-law. However, despite who she was in the past, she will be instilled with the same level of attachment and love for her child as any other woman. Furthermore, a mother’s attachment to her son is undeniable and is studied by many behavioral and social scientists. Out of her utmost desire to safeguard her son(s) from “conniving, shameless, and useless gold-diggers,” stems a vicious protectiveness that often entails mistreatment and abuse of daughter-in-laws that can be considered borderline slavery. Many Muslims believe that, because paradise is at the feet of a mother, these daughter-in-laws must tolerate such behavior. And because paradise is at the feet of a mother, sons often believe that their mother’s opinions must have some validity to them.
Such mentality is prevalent in Muslim-majority countries because of the differing degrees to which Islamic doctrine is upheld and combined with cultural values. This can often shape the language and discourse surrounding feminism in the numerous Islamic communities that are also entrenched in their patriarchal roots and colored by their cultural values. A cultural group’s definition of social roles for men and women also play a large role in shaping how daughter-in-laws are treated. In more progressive and developed nations, women are found to be involved in most areas of, if not all, job markets. Their education and qualifications are encouraged and respected. However, in less-developed nations and more traditional groups, this may not be desired – a self-sacrificing, stay-at-home mom is idealized.
Without realizing her own smothering love and biological attachment to her son, a mother can snatch away a man’s personal responsibilities and become fixated on an rigid list of requirements for his wife. She may inhibit his growth, and eventually intrude upon his marriage. But most importantly, this can hinder the progress and budding of a young lady’s personality. This dehumanization can, ultimately, shape how a man views his wife and other females.
Islamically, however, this is prohibited. According to Islamic jurisdiction found through multiple sources, including dar-alifta.org: “A woman is not required to serve her husband’s parents. He himself is required to look after his parents and try as hard as possible to ensure their comfort according to his means. This means that if a woman decides to serve her husband’s parents, in deference to them or out of love for her husband, she does so voluntarily.”
Furthermore, Islam promotes gender equity and prohibits the mistreatment of wives, with the following references as example
“The Prophet of Allah (S) also stated: ‘None would respect women except the magnanimous ones, and none would insult them except the ignoble ones.” [Mawa iz al-Adadiyyah]
Allegations of sexual abuse and domestic violence, and signs of toxic masculinity are starting to surface and be recognized by the media. We often blame the apple, such as toxic masculinity, but never the tree – a man’s upbringing. We often fail to recognize that those who were victims may become perpetrators of that same crime. To overcome this toxic masculinity, women not only need to achieve the same rights that have been afforded to men, but also need the support and empowerment of other women.
Women should be compassionate towards their fellow sisters and daughters, and pass on positivity to promote a unified womanhood that is not characterized by toxic competition, jealousy, and traditions such as those typically found in mother-in-law and daughter-in-law relations…kyun ki saas bhi kabhi bahoo thi, because women should be able to empathize with the struggles and plight of other women.