بسم الله الرحمن الرحيم
All statements and examples quoted in the post below are factual. Nothing is based on fiction.
I once read a quote in Reader’s Digest, back in my childhood, which went something like this: Negative thinking is akin to a step-mother. If her step-child doesn’t wash his hands, he is dirty. If he does, he is wasting the water.
The same applies to all human relationships that are not linked by blood. If one listens to the whisperings of Satan or those of their own nafs, one falls into the trap of misreading even the most well-meaning actions of others.
In other words, if one wants, one can manage their relationships so well that one’s conscience and mind is always at peace. However, if one caves in to negative thinking, listens to mischief-makers among one’s social circle, or believes the hearsay of people who always create trouble by gossiping, one can make a mess out of all of one’s relationships – social, corporate, or biological.
When I was unmarried and studying the Quran and Sunnah at Al-Huda in Karachi, I had a lot of questions about the principles of living an Islamic way of life. Some of them remained unanswered even after I had finished the Taleem Al-Quran Course. Most of these questions centered on human relationships, particularly those that are not directly mentioned or addressed any where in the Quran or ahadeeth. They are:
(i) How to behave around and talk to non-mahrums, and
(ii) How to deal with in-laws
The thing with both these sets of relationships is that they have one common factor – they are very fragile, and if handled wrong, can lead to a lot of hurt feelings, misunderstood messages, and fitnah. Most of the aunties, as I have earlier stressed, have tons of advice to give to younger women and unmarried girls about handling attention received from non-mahrum men when they are single, and about handling their husband and in-laws after they are married. However, to say that their advice is based more on cultural factors than on the Deen of Islam would not be an exaggeration. Hence, I was not satisfied. As it is, each aunty had a separate story to tell.
For example, there was the aunty who, when beholding my decked-up friend in an elevator and discovering that she was newly married, told her empathetically, “Get your grip on your husband right from the start!” [“Apnay mian ko shuroo main hee qaaboo karlo”]. Since she was a stranger, she did not know that my friend’s mother-in-law was standing right next to her in the same elevator.
Then there are the happily-married aunties who have spent most of their early married-lives living with, and serving, their in-laws. But when asked, what advice to they have to give to me?
“Live separately. That is the best option. If you will live with them, they will make you do all the housework.”
Notwithstanding the circumstances that led me to live as a nuclear family, I do miss the benefits of a joint family system sometimes: the ease with which the elders take care of the household management system, for instance. The presence of the elders in the house itself is like the comforting cover of a shade in intense heat; a safety-net that provides you with moral support and cocoons you from menial day-to-day worries. If anything goes wrong, for example, they get it fixed without anyone having to ask them. Whether it is the electricity problems, water problems, grocery list, or plumbing fixes, no one else even has to worry how it will get done.
Then there are economies of scale; a married son living with his parents will not need to spend as much as he needs to, if living in a separate house. There is one maid for the whole house (as opposed to one maid for even the smallest of apartments the son can rent), and all he usually needs to do is contribute a portion of his income to his parents on a monthly basis.
The free babysitting services are also a plus point. I have many friends who just walk out of their palatial joint-family homes, shouting instructions to the maid regarding their baby or toddler, who will be supervised by the grandmother or both grandparents, whilst playing with the other children in the house in her absence. She then proceeds to get into the car waiting for her in the porch, and whiz off, driven by the family driver who has been the household employee since years. Where is she going? – To have coffee with friends. *Sigh*.
As for women like me, we need to juggle the toddler, purse and grocery bags as we descend multiple flights of apartment stairs, walking to the car parked far away amidst ogling men squatting at the tandoor and standing in groups in front of the electronics shops in the street, then fumble around for the car-keys trying to balance everything in our efforts to just open the car door! Sometimes we also let out a scream as the gali ka kutta (the pet street dog who eventually died) tries to come too close, wagging its tail in friendliness. Yup – at times like this, I do miss the joint family set-up and the economies of scale that come with it.
The sad but true part of it all is that, unless the household is that of a thriving businessman or otherwise affluent family, yes – the daughter-in-law has to do a lot of housework in a joint family. She has no choice in the matter. You might argue that a housewife has to do a lot of work even in nuclear families, especially in Western countries where there is no domestic help. But the difference – one that can not be undermined – is the presence of personal choice. She can choose to cook, or to order takeout. She can also skip cooking everyday and freeze meals by cooking just once on the weekends. She can do the week’s laundry on the weekend. She runs the house according to her own wishes, with no fear of receiving criticism or giving any explanations for her choices. She’s the ‘Queen’ of her own home.
In a joint-family setup, however, everything has to be done according to the will of the elders in the family, from what should be cooked, to when and how the laundry should be done, to when the car will be available for use by the younger ones. This is as it should be, of course, because it is their house, which they built and nurtured over many years. There is no contesting the fact that when a girl goes into her in-laws’ home after marriage, she should not expect to be able to dictate any changes in the way the household is run; at least, not at first. She can adjust to the home over a few years and then probably be given enough say in this matter, once she has assimilated into the family.
In the first few years, however, a daughter-in-law is lucky if she can spend her husband’s money, or even rearrange the furniture in her bedroom, as she wishes. In most joint-family households, doing anything major without prior consultation and discussion with the elders is frowned upon and discouraged. I know of many young women who are questioned in minute detail by their in-laws, regarding where they went and what they did, if they go out shopping or just visiting with their friends for the day. Their financial matters are also as transparent as glass: the elders know where she spent her money and on what, and they do not hesitate to criticize any spending which they deem to be in excess. Most good young men and women, however, stay silent and respect their elders’ opinions, since the latter have lived life and possess more wisdom based on their vast experience.
There is also an embarrassing lack of privacy in the first few years of marriage, during which the daughter-in-law goes through her pregnancies. From the date of conception to that of delivery; from the position of the fetus to the gender; from how her labor started to when she needs to go to her room to breastfeed, each and every thing is known by her in-laws, even the husband’s aunt or sister or anyone else who might be visiting; even, sadly, his male relatives. If she is unwell and needs to see the doctor, the parents-in-law might know about it even before her own parents, which might be uncomfortable for some girls, who take their time to adjust to a new family, and might still consider them relative strangers.
The years pass. After 5 or 6 years (or at least this is what I have noticed), in some cases, the pent-up frustration at the lack of control over their personal life and decisions, over their children’s upbringing, and their lack of privacy takes its toll on some young couples. Their children are now 2 or 3 in number, and they’re all co-sleeping in one bedroom. They have absolutely no independence. The son can not bring himself to “hurt” his parents by openly declaring that he is moving out.
This is usually the point when sons and daughters-in-law start their private planning about how they can move out, by manipulating their circumstances in such a way that this could be possible. Usually, it’s a job change that is cited as the reason.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not cooking this up, nor am I advocating that this should be done. I know of three couples who used the job-change scenario to move out – and, where to? – To another country altogether.
As for myself, I have no problem with the joint family system except for two factors:
- Lack of personal privacy, and,
- The unrestricted movement of non-mahrum men in the house.
This is a public blog, so I have no qualms in writing about this, because alhamdulillah, my in-laws are fully aware of this. And I have moved out quite amicably.
Just clarifying this to the reader, in case someone is wondering whether my in-laws know about my point of view or not.
“The in-law is death”
In our culture, the brother-in-law is considered – well – a “brother”. Granted, nowadays many Allah-conscious women who have studied the Quran are starting to cover their heads in front of them, but that’s about it.
It was narrated from Uqbah Bin Amir [may Allah be pleased with him] that Allah’s Messenger [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] said, “Beware of entering upon women.” A man from the Ansar said, “O Messenger of Allah! What about the in-law?” He said, “The in-law is death.”
[Sahih Al-Bukhari, Sahih Muslim]
Now, I don’t think “death” is something we Muslims would ever laugh or joke about. In order to understand this with an analogy: imagine a situation in which death is close to you e.g. if you are in a room several floors high in a building, and one side is open and un-walled, with no barricade to stop you from falling over. How would you approach that edge of the room? Would you walk towards it casually, laughing and joking, unconcerned? Or would you approach it carefully, with a wary eye constantly on the edge, ensuring you do not get too close to it?
The Islamic concept of the husband’s male relatives (except his father, grandfather or sons from another marriage) being likened to “death” by none other than our Prophet [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم], is taken very lightly by most Muslims. Even in practicing Muslim families that I know of, in which the women teach the Quran and gives darses [religious talks] day in and day out, aunties give excuses like this:
“So what if they [in-laws] don’t want you to do niqab in front of your husband’s brothers? You can just pin a dupatta around yourself. That is enough. Do what is easy for you and stop making things difficult.”
The sons and their wives are supposed to sit together and talk casually, even if the wives are covered, and eat meals together as a family. Eventually, “bhabi” can even serve tea to her husband’s brother if need be. If one wife is silent or reserved with her husband’s brothers, it is immediately noticed. She is supposed to be “normal” inside the house; after all, he is her parents’-in-laws’ son; not some man on the street! Why be so distant and aloof in his presence, just because he is a non-mahrum?
That’s all well for someone who is willing to regard ‘death’ so lightly.
Personally, I do not think it is possible for any Muslim family to observe “pardah” or hijab from non-mahrums as a norm in the household, i.e. amongst each other, until and unless they consider the Prophet’s advice over and above even their own logic or common sense. To love the Prophet [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] more than your own self, your convenience, ease, comfort, and also above your own family, is the only thing that can make you obey his command, and not just on an individual level, but as a whole family and household.
However, since parents-in-law are elders, and it is their house, they are the ones who get their way; and their way will not always tally with the obligations of the Deen of Islam. Consequently, the daughters-in-law, no matter how pious or Allah-fearing, can definitely not impose any of their own beliefs in a house into which they have just moved.
Further, more often than not, it’s not just the husband’s brothers, cousins, or the male servants in the house that a daughter-in-law is expected to act “normal” and uninhibited around.
Even if her in-laws’ family-friends or relatives come for visit, she is supposed to serve them refreshments in the common drawing room where the men and women are seated together (as is the cultural norm). She is supposed to respectfully greet the men with salaam. Woes betide the daughter-in-law who refuses to talk freely with these men, saying that because they are non-mahrums, she is not obligated to serve or talk to them.
“Why did she get up and go to her room so quickly? It’s not polite! What will the guests think?”
This is even truer if there are other daughters-in-law in the same house who do not practice this level of hijab from non-mahrum men. In such a scenario, if one daughter-in-law conducts herself with more restraint in that house, or guards her privacy more, she is considered, quite literally, the “odd” one out.
According to Islamic Shar’iah, the veiled daughter-in-law may appear before non-mahrum men after covering herself adequately in a loose, flowing chador with naqab that covers her garments, greet them with salaam and sit in their midst, if her husband is also there in the room. She can sit in such a way that she is surrounded more by the women than the men, and not directly facing the latter. She should restrict her conversation with them, keeping it to the minimum. However, if she gives in to taking off her niqab, serving the men herself, and being casual, sweet and friendly in her conversational style, the day won’t be far when her head-cover will be no more than a piece of cloth that accentuates her outfit. Anyone who fears Allah and who has been present at mixed gatherings of any age-group would attest to the fact that it’s not long before the jokes and laughter exceed the bounds set by Allah.
Consequently, the same result is apparent in the case of every pious, Allah-fearing young daughter-in-law I know of, who has been living in a joint family since a few years.
“I have no choice in the matter. By now, the point has come that I am lucky if the dupatta is on my head when my brother-in-law passes by. It’s just not possible to maintain hijab when everyone is living together in such close proximity. With little children to run after, pregnancy weighing you down, having to cook on the hot stove, and laying the table with heavy crockery, how can one stay wrapped in a chador? My hijab from my husband’s brothers has dwindled to almost nothing by now.”
Then there are those women who, though they wear head-scarves in public, demonstrate their disdain for the concept of ‘pardah‘ more than ardently in their biting criticism of Islamic restrictions and those who observe them:
“These people who enforce the face-veil as if it is obligatory really turn me off. They are more akin to “freaks” in society, despite their good intentions. Why do they have to make such a fuss if a non-mahrum man comes in the room?”
For all those of you nodding your head in agreement with the argument that this kind of hijab is just not possible in our ‘culture’, and should therefore be abandoned for ease and comfort, I must stress that change can not come about with such a give-way attitude. If everyone gave in and acceded to the demands and opinions of the creation of Allah rather than Allah Himself, they can not expect to create a society in which peace and harmony exists. Allah’s wisdom reigns supreme, even if we can not grasp it in our minds.
Further, there are actually two sides to this sordid story. One aspect is that of the Muslim woman observing hijab from the non-mahrum men in the house. The other is that of the Muslim menalso observing it from the women.
The backbone of the issue is that, in Islam, it’s not just the woman who needs to cover from non-mahrums. Muslim men ALSO have to observe some rules of hijab around women. They can not look at a non-mahrum woman, nor talk to her unless necessary (forget joking and teasing). They are not allowed to pass by a women’s-only area without seeking permission first.
Jareer ibn ‘Abdullah [may Allah be pleased with him] said: “I asked the Messenger of Allah [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] about an accidental glance at a woman. He commanded me to turn my gaze away.” [Al-Tirmidhi]
The Messenger of Allah [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] said: “O Ali [his cousin], do not follow a glance with another, for you will be forgiven for the first, but not for the second.”
In our culture, however, men are not even trained or brought up by their Muslim mothers to lower their gaze or refrain from looking at, or talking to, non-mahrum women. Rather, as the teenage son lounges with the television remote in his hand, sprawled out on the sofa before the television, staring at Shakira or Beyoncé gyrating to music, Ammi comes and serves him his choice of food and drink laid out on his plate.
“Men will be men. This level of taqwa, in which a boy doesn’t even cast a second glance at a girl, is for a very few people to reach; not everyone. It’s not possible today, with the TV in the house and the kind of free society that puts them into fitnah.” – An aunty.
So much for elders always being right! They allow us to give up before we even try, but only as far as Allah’s Deen and His limits are concerned. As for achieving worldly success and fortune, they advise us youngsters to work ourselves to the limit and leave no stone unturned! Laxities, flimsy excuses, and carelessness in attitude are reserved for Allah’s Deen.
“How can my sons not move around freely in their own home, just because their brother’s wife has arrived to live with us? Does this mean we can not even have dinner together now, if she’s in the room? There must be something wrong with this hadith about the brother-in-law. Why should there be so much separation and restriction among biological brothers’ families?”
“I am looking for a girl for my son, who should have done the full, four-year Aalimah course; preferably a haafidhah of the Quran, who does strict hijab and niqab. However, she must not do hijab from my other sons. They will be living in the same house, and she should serve them food in case I am not well. She should not do any pardah from them. Will she refuse to serve them when I am not well?”
Fear Allah, aunty. Fear Allah. Can your sons not fetch their own food from the kitchen when you are sick? Why do they have to be served all the time?
In this scenario, when the elders of the family – those who own the house in which a young woman must reside after marriage – are stringently unflinching in their opposition to enforcing Allah’s limits regarding hijab from brothers-in-law in the household, despite polite reminders and references to authentic ahadeeth, particularly if they start questioning these very ahadeeth themselves, the young couple is left with only two options:
- Abide in the house without obeying Allah’s commands in obedience of Allah’s creation, instead; or,
- Pray to Allah for ease and move out to alternative accommodation.
Allah has promised His slaves that He will test their steadfastness in faith.
“Do people think that they will be left alone because they say: “We believe,” and will not be tested? And We indeed tested those who were before them. And Allah will certainly make known those who are true, and will certainly make known those who are liars.” [Surah Al-Ankabut: 2, 3]
He has also promised that those who are always conscious of Him, and always regard His commands and laws as mandatory, with high levels of taqwa in their hearts, will be provided for by Him from means they can not fathom:
“And whosoever fears Allah and keeps his duty to Him, He will make a way for him to get out (from every difficulty). And He will provide him from (sources) he never could imagine. And whosoever puts his trust in Allah, He will suffice him.” [Surah Al-Talaaq: 2-3]
For those who do not observe hijab:
The sincerest advice I can give to those people who do not observe any level of hijab, and freely intermingle with not just their husband’s male relatives, but with his friends and other men in general, is that firstly, they should fear Allah. Secondly, they should not criticize the rules and laws of the Deen of Islam just because they do not act upon them. Even if a command of Allah does not appeal to your logic or common sense, you should submit to the fact that your Creator has infinite wisdom and vast knowledge, and knows best what rules should be adhered to in human relationships.
How often do we see people criticize what the Prophet Muhammad [صلی اللہ علیہ وسلم] has endorsed or embodied? How often do we go on and on against the restrictions of Islam, just because it makes us feel less guilty about not adhering to them?
“Ever since I have started wearing a scarf, the skin around my face has developed the nastiest rash.”
“When I wore the niqab in Saudi Arabia, I felt short of breath and developed a rash across my face.”
It has all got to do with one’s mental attitude towards Allah’s commands. If one submits, heart, mind and body to them, no discomfort or obstacle seems unseemly or too difficult to bear. Just as a surgeon can perform intricate surgery under extreme pressure for hours, wearing a skull-cap, face-mask and gloves, women can cover according to Allah’s commands without feeling any gargantuan physical difficulty.
Demarcation of boundaries within the household
The question remains, as readers pointed out, that what should a young man do when he gets married, if he has brothers living in his parent’s house, he can not afford to live separately, and his parents’ house is small i.e. with just one kitchen, and everyone’s bedrooms opening into a common sitting area shared by all?
– If, in the optimum case that the elders in the family are willing to adhere to Allah’s laws, and they consequently allow it – try demarcating an area where your brothers will need to announce their entry before coming. This can be an area where your wife can be a bit more at ease, and can take off her niqab.
– Ensure that your relatives do not enter your bedroom without prior permission, whether you are at home or not. The proof of this is the ayah in the Quran in which children are exhorted to ask for permission even before entering their parents’ bedroom, at siesta times before Fajr, after Dhuhr, and after `Isha prayer, citing the reason that the latter are usually lying down, and their garments might not suitably be covering them. If biological children are requested to seek permission into their parents’ room after a certain age, what can be said about relatives with whom one is not even familiar with, at first?
– Try not to have your wife live in a room whose door directly faces that of your brothers’ room.
– Ask your brothers to lower their gaze when your wife is present.
– Ask them to not enter the kitchen (remember, if the house is small) when your wife is in it, no matter how inconvenient; if your mother is cooperating, she can fetch whatever they want for them in this case. This is to avoid embarassing bump-in’s and collisions.
– During dinner time, your brothers should sit in such a way that they do not face your wife. Also, they should try not to look her way while she is eating. If the family is large in number, the men and women can eat in separate rooms. You do not need two fancy dining tables for this. A mat or sheet on the floor works well for a humble servant of Allah to dine happily.
– No one can rummage through your wife’s cupboard or drawers without her prior consent. Not even your mother or sister.
– As soon as you can afford to, have a separate portion built for your wife, which can comprise of just one kitchenette, one sitting area, one bedroom and a bath. It is not that expensive to build a small portion like this within the same house (e.g. on the roof, or outside, in the compound). Your wife can spend the day with your parents while your brothers are away at school or work, and remain in her own suite when they return. This way, no one will be uncomfortable or restricted in each other’s presence, and you can still live near your parents to be with them.
– If your parents live in an apartment, and things are just too congested for Allah’s limits to be observed, well, then the only option left is to pray to Allah for relief and ease. It is not difficult for Him to grant you separate accommodation which is nearby.
Many people find that when they trust in Allah, He suffices them. E.g. a relative could relocate and ask you to live in their vacated house; you could find a job which provides you with family accommodation; your grandfather, father or uncle could have a turn of heart (if Allah inspires them to help you) and they’ll build you a portion nearby etc. Where there is steadfastness and trust in Allah among His slaves, He creates the means to their ease without any problems. But first, you have to be patient and constant in not giving up your obedience to His commands, no matter how difficult it gets for you.
Global trends have changed considerably over the last few decades, disseminating the extended family and enabling its members to relocate easily to others countries for sustenance. A direct consequence of this is the gradual collapse of the joint-family system. Nuclear families are the norm now, with the resulting dilemma – that of taking care of parents in their old age – becoming a growing concern for most married sons and daughters who have relocated to other countries.
You might argue that if every family was as well-off, such demarcation would be possible. However, I beg to differ. There are many families (I know several) that are more than able to afford to build each son a small, separate portion for his family, but do not, for several reasons. The foremost reason is lack of knowledge of, or lack of a desire to obey, the commands of Islam ordained for Muslim families regarding privacy and hijab between non-mahrums. Most elders are simply unwilling to accept the fact that the husband’s brother is not a mahrum, as I have discussed above.
The second reason is insecurity on the part of the parents (usually the mother), who fear that, if given too much independence, their married sons will ignore them and have their meals separately, without giving them company. Some are so insecure that they fear that the sons might take even a little leeway as a go-ahead for going elsewhere to live independently. Basically, the parents don’t want their importance and position of authority in the household to be undermined. They still want to be in “the driving seat” of the house, controlling all the affairs and making all the big decisions.
Thirdly, several parents just don’t want to spend their money (even though they have it) on providing for their sons after the latters’ marriages. They urge them to be in the providing position for the whole family from then on (citing themselves as dependents, despite owning a considerable amount of wealth themselves), so that the household’s running expenses are covered by the sons’ monthly incomes, while their families (wives and children) serve the parents and provide “ronaq” [bubbly laughter and merriment] in the household.
The saddest reasons are the first and second ones, of course. Lack of knowledge of Islam, rejection of those aspects of the Deen that undermine personal benefit, and refusal to observe Allah’s limits in the house, are not things that should be taken lightly, especially if the older generation does this.
Here are some links to scholars’ opinions about this issue at IslamQA.info:
To what extent can a husband’s relatives interfere in his wife’s life?
Sitting with non-mahrums in complete hijab
She does not want to live with her husband’s family
Sitting with husband’s relatives and shaking hands with them
How does a Muslim son reconcile the Islamic obligation of providing his wife and children with their private space, with the equally, if not more, binding Islamic obligation of providing for, and taking care of, his parents (and other relatives, if need be), in old age? We will leave that for the next post in this series, insha’Allah. It has become a series, has it not?