To clarify: I am not a scholar, nor am I student of knowledge (yet). Article below is my attempt at an objective analysis, using limited resources.
The traditional gender role in marriage unfortunately holds many negative connotations; some assuming that it allows the husband to open the door to domestic violence without consequence, while the wife has to accept her place as uneducated & abused. However, the traditional gender role in this article will be defined as a complimentary traditional split of responsibility – with the husband as the primary financial provider, and the wife as the primary nurturer of the household and children.
This complimentary split of responsibility does not mean that the wife’s only role in society is to mother the children and care for the household, just like it doesn’t mean the husband’s only role in society is to be the breadwinner for his family. Communication and mutual empathy for each other’s goals can foster both a healthy family life, and a meaningful role in society. It also doesn’t mean that couples can’t have stable relationships based on non-traditional gender roles, and within Shari’i guidelines – but those are exceptions rather than the norm. However, the most just marriage, and potentially the most stable marriage, is the one that conforms to traditional gender roles.
In January 2012, Julie Macfarlane, a Professor at the University of Windsor, in Canada, published a four-year study to find reasons for divorce rates as high as 50% in North American Muslim communities. Among the top two reasons? Different expectations over the role of each gender in marriage, and conflict over the split of power & responsibility. While many women felt that their husbands where too constricting with their personal freedoms, the husbands interviewed for the study also had an interesting view,
“Some men described their confusion over what they felt were inconsistencies between their wife’s aspiration to greater equality and independence and their continuing desire to be “taken care of” by their husband, as their fathers had provided for their mothers.”
Though the study doesn’t elaborate on this point, it most likely relates to the responsibility that Sharia places on the husband towards his family. All four schools of Islamic jurisprudence unanimously hold the husband responsible for the family’s financial, physical and emotional well-being, unless excused by the wife. If the wife choses to work, her earnings are her own, and she is not obligated to spend on the family. There is a dichotomy between the wife also being driven by her career, not responsible for household finances, yet expect the husband to shoulder all the expenses and participate equally in household chores. It’s unjust.**
Is an egalitarian marriage the solution? A marriage in which the husband and wife share 50% each of the financial responsibility and household duties, may seem ideal for the modern lifestyle, yet studies have shown that while our lifestyle may have changed, our biological inclinations (or fitra) have not. A survey by the Pew Research Center in 2014 shows that out of all the women surveyed, 80% consider a steady job to be ‘very important’ in choosing a potential spouse, while for men it matters less at 46%. I would expect an even a wider gap for the Muslim community, given the cultural and religious expected norms.
A study published in the American Sociological Review found that couples saw their relationships more satisfying when chores at home where split between the masculine chores – fixing the car, taking out the trash – and feminine chores, like vacuuming and laundry. Another study by the National Bureau of Economic Research in 2013, reports that in marriages in which the wife earned more than the husband, “15 percent [were] less likely to report that their marriage is very happy; 32 percent more likely to report marital troubles in the past year; and 46 percent more likely to have discussed separating in the past year”. Both of these studies where referenced by an Op-Ed in the New York Times, by psychotherapist and self-declared feminist, Lori Gottlieb, who, although admits a traditional division of labor “may make scientific sense, even as it challenges conventional wisdom”, but she hopes that “sexual scripts we currently follow will evolve along with our marital arrangements so that sameness becomes sexy.” Unlikely.
An egalitarian marriage might sound ideal, but when biological inclinations and Islamic law expect the husband to be primarily responsible for the family’s financial, emotional, and spiritual well-being – his partner taking charge of complimentary tasks of running a household makes sense. A traditional gender-based split of responsibility in marriage does not mean domestic abuse should be tolerated (Never!), girls be discouraged from education, or women not be able to hold meaningful roles in society – but that traditional gender responsibilities in marriage have a greater chance of creating more just, and happy relationships, even in the modern world.
**Not in all cases. Please note that I am not saying good people won’t help each other out. The example of our Prophet (SAW) is that he would! Constructive feedback and critique are always appreciated.