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A belated Happy International Women’s Day to everyone!

A few years ago when I still considered myself to be an Ahmadi Muslim (albeit one who was struggling with certain aspects of my faith) I remember listening to a speech that Mirza Masroor Ahmad was giving to the Lajna. It may have been at a jalsa or an ijtema, I can’t remember now which, but what I do remember very clearly is that he was quite negative about women who worked, particularly because of the impact that he felt it had on the tarbeeyat of children. I knew many women who were present that day who were highly educated and very successful in their careers. Some of these women were also doing a great job alongside their husbands of raising wonderful children. I wondered if this speech had made them secretly feel upset or at the very least a little bit uneasy. I never found out how they felt because I knew that if Huzoor had said something it could not be questioned in any way.

The dichotomy between the Jamat’s internal and external messaging on women having careers is something that I have felt strongly about for a long time. I grew up in a family in which thankfully female education and employment was encouraged and in some ways it was comforting to see the Jamat slowly beginning to espouse the same sort of attitude (to outsiders at least). They were proud to proclaim that their women weren’t stereotypical oppressed Muslim women (“we have female doctors, lawyers, teachers etc”) and they would put working women before external non Ahmadi guests to try to reinforce this image.

On the other hand I would sit in lajna meetings which were closed to outsiders and hear women (such as my local sadr lajna) say things like – “Women have a right to get an education but they should only get a basic one which will help them with teaching their children. In the end our primary role is to cook, clean and look after children” or “Our rishta nata problems are caused by girls being over educated and working, if it weren’t for that they would be less fussy and would get married quickly” or “Women should only use their education to serve the Jamat, not to have ‘worldly’ jobs”. The basic premise was always that education was acceptable, but too much education and any sort of ambition to make use that education outside the narrow confines of the Jamat was overstepping the mark. I can’t begin to describe how disheartened these sorts of comments made me feel. At times like this I felt like all my hard work, education and achievements amounted to nothing.

Although it bothered me a great deal I never really felt comfortable writing about this because I didn’t have any references for the speech that Mirza Masroor Ahmad had given and I knew that the things that had been said to me could simply be put down to “cultural attitudes” and not religion.

In fact these very same sentiments can be found in a book by Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad. In Anwar Ul Uloom, he laments the trend that he observes of women seeking employment and describes it as a curse of western culture. Below is a translated excerpt as well as a link to the screenshot of the Urdu text.

”Many girls are studying just for earning and employment, although the work of a woman is not employment. This trend of employment of women is one reminiscence from the cursed reminiscences of Western culture. Islam has placed the responsibility of providing income on men. Thus, rather than spending their time in some other way, righteous women should spend their time in the protection and guardianship of men, and in the absence of men when they  are out earning a living, they should, with the help of Allah Almighty, safeguard those  trusts  that  have  been  entrusted to them, as in, they should turn their attention to matters of homemaking, train the children, keep the morals of the home and neighborhood right, etc.”

(Anwarul ‘Ulum, vol. 13, p. 94; Meri Sarah, p.23)

We live in a time now where female participation in the workforce is valued and its benefits are generally accepted. We don’t think that women are deficient in intelligence, in fact we accept that they are as capable as men and we encourage them to make use of their skills and abilities in order to seek personal fulfilment. We don’t believe that women should be subjected to physical disciplining by men, in fact we believe that women should have financial independence so that they are able to walk away from violence and abuse and take control of their own lives if necessary. We are accepting of all sorts of drivers and motivations for working, whether it is done out of necessity or simply a desire to contribute to the household income and improve the family’s standard of living. We are also increasingly recognising the importance of work life balance/ flexibility for parents in the workplace and encouraging men to take on a greater role in household and childcare responsibilities. In this last respect things are by no means perfect but mainstream society recognises that whilst we have come a long way there is still more that needs to be done and it is working on this (without suggesting that the solution is to exclude women from the workplace and confine them to their homes).

I am happy to acknowledge that there is some semblance of a progressive attitude in the Ahmadiyya Jamat. At the awards ceremonies during jalsa salanas there are indeed many Ahmadi woman who are excelling in their fields and their achievements are celebrated. I hope things continue to head in that direction and that female empowerment is something that the Ahmadiyya Jamat genuinely supports rather than something which lip service is paid to for the sake of appealing to outsiders. The idea that it is all for show might seem very cynical but when the Khalifa is clearly so opposed to women working, is it really wrong to question whether the Jamat is genuinely supportive of it?

I feel that it is important to highlight the fact that there are contradictions in the Jamat’s narrative. Personally I found these contradictions impossible to ignore and I am still curious to know how Ahmadi women do this. It does concern me that people who hold regressive attitudes have the backing of the Khalifas and this could be used at any point to impose traditional gender roles with even more vigour and curtail the ability of Ahmadi women to work. My guess is that most Ahmadis aren’t aware that Khalifa II has described the phenomenon of women working as a ‘western curse’ and even if they were made aware of it, as with many other unsavoury aspects of Islam/Ahmadiyyat they would either deny it or invent flimsy justifications for why such things were said. Despite that for those who are willing to reflect on this with honesty I wanted to put my thoughts on this out there.
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