Betty Friedan passed away Saturday. While she is famous for her book, and for being one of the founders of NOW, it is not for her fame nor even for the achievements of the feminist movement that I wish to remember her. It is for her impact on the psyches of millions American women.
When Friedan started writing, "the problem with no name" was as denied as PMS, morning sickness, and the severity of migraines. Friedan brought it under spot light, examined it, probed it, and changed the way women think about themselves. The feminist movement has made huge gains in the workplace, in politics, in the treatment of girls and women in education, from elementary school to graduate programs, in the understanding of what it means to be a woman. This impacts us all. And many of those gains rest upon owning and acknowledging the fact that the life of a modern housewife is not enough for the vast multitude of women. We need other things than taking care of a house and kids to find fulfillment in life, and that's not only ok, it's normal, it's even good.
For many women of my mother's generation, reading "The Feminine Mystique" was the first time they realized other women felt the same way they did -- trapped and bored at home, and silently desperate. It freed them to talk about the problem, and to do something about it.
For those of us who read the books as teenagers or young women, they planted seeds of understanding that led us to take steps to prevent ourselves from falling into the same trap. Whether we ended up choosing to pursue a career or to stay home to raise our children, the books forever changed the way we lived our lives, and perhaps more importantly, they changed the way we felt about how we lived our lives. It removed the guilt over finding house cleaning deadly dull, at feeling that raising kids was an important task but not the end all and be all of one's existence, at thinking that serving your husband is still being a servant.
Friedan's books have not solved the problem confronting most American women today -- that having it all in today's corporate climate often means not having enough of any one thing. Not enough time with the kids. Silent loss of potential at work due to the "mommy factor." Nor has it solved the conundrums facing women who stay at home -- the difficulties trying to find one's way into the workforce once your kids are older, the nagging sense that you have betrayed your potential to contribute to greater society, the need to be able to do meaningful things while spending the bulk of your time at home.
Even though we have not solved these problems, the mere fact that we can acknowledge them and work on them makes them easier to bear, removes the guilt and tendency to blame oneself, and gives me hope that someday, perhaps we will see our way to a society where raising children is as valued as other work, and the corporate culture is such that parents -- men and women -- will have more time at home, without it impacting their careers negatively, but instead raising their value as employees because it means they are responsible people, who take their role in raising the next generation seriously.
As a Muslim woman, I see that we need a Muslim Betty Friedan. Too many in the Muslim world still buy into the concept that a woman's place is in the home, and that homelife should be estatically fulfilling, that she should have no goals outside of raising her children and supporting her husband, indeed that her goals for life are expressed through her children and husband, rather than through her own actions, despite the ample evidence in the early history of Islam that Islam teaches no such thing.
The Qur'an makes no declarations that the role of women is to be in the home. In fact, it says, to men a portion of what they earn and to women a portion of what they earn -- clearly the Qur'an assumes that women are out earning. It provides a rigorous equality of spiritual and practical involvement - addressing itself consciously to :men who believe and women who believe, men who fast and women who fast, men who give charity and women who give charity." Even in discussing martial relationships -- it says good women are those devoutly dedicated to God, who guard what Allah would have them gaurd, not those who are obedient to the husband, or fulfilled in his actions, not those who keep exclusively to child rearing. It shows the same rigorous equality when discussing practical concerns as well -- using the exact same word for wife and husband, saying he is a protecting garment for her and she is a protecting garment for him, counselling both on what to do in the case of the spouse being guilty of "nushuz" or gross rebellion, giving both the right to initiate divorce if worst comes to worst.
Furthermore, the example of the women surrounding the Prophet is remarkable. Khadija, who was a wealthy business woman -- a widow operating her business alone for many years. Aishah who single-handedly narrated a quarter of the hadith and who rode at the head of an army. Nusaiba who defended the Prophet left and right with her sword. Umm Waraqa who the Prophet appointed to lead prayers for her community. Saffiya, his wife, who was known for her skill in craftsmanship and for her charitable works.
There is a rich history in Islam of women who had goals and dreams and lives outside of the home, husband and family. Yet the Feminine Mystique lives strong in many Muslim hearts. There, of course, have been many combatting that, Fatima Mernisi for one. But so far, none have suceeded in the same way Betty Friedan did. Perhaps the timing just isn't right. Certainly there were women who wrote about the problem before Friedan -- The Yellow Wallpaper
by Charlotte Perkins Gillman comes to mind. But maybe the timing is right. Maybe I need to add another genre to my writing...