29th March 2021Add Comment
Nila Ahmad, USA
Some days are good. Those are when my two boys finish their virtual schooling by 4 pm and there are no technical glitches to solve. Other days are not so great when we finish at 8 pm, the day spent scrambling to fix broken video links and recording software which malfunctions during my seven-year old’s fifth attempt at reading a passage. This is the time of COVID and virtual schooling is the latest experiment added to my plate of responsibilities.
This pandemic has brought its burdens of unemployment, food insecurity, safety, health concerns – both physical and mental – upon the whole world. However, one consequence of the pandemic brought to the fore is the additional burden put upon women, specifically mothers, that of balancing work as well as childcare, which now includes virtual schooling. With an already full plate, many mothers are at their breaking point in a society which expects women to ‘do it all’. Although COVID has highlighted the burdens women currently bear, what happens when we shift back to normal routines? Will women still be expected to handle it all or will perspectives shift around what society expects of women?
Numerous studies have been conducted on the pandemic’s impact on women, including one by the Center for American Progress. They reported, ‘In fact, one recent study showed that 80 percent of parents plan to work and facilitate remote learning, and 90 percent who have both school-aged and younger children will be primarily responsible for caring for both, even while meeting their work and other obligations. This situation is untenable.’ 
This is just one statistic of many which reveals how women are struggling to balance their work and family responsibilities. Women who are the sole breadwinners for their family or who work on the front lines and now have trouble accessing childcare options, have even more burdens to carry.
But this pandemic has equally affected the lives of mothers who do not work outside the home. A friend of mine who stays at home with her children, one of whom has oppositional defiance disorder [A disorder in a child marked by defiant and disobedient behavior to authority figures], recently told me she now feels as if she is forever a string stretched taut. Others have told me how they struggle to bounce between their children and ensure everyone is succeeding in their schoolwork, while also managing the household and other responsibilities. There is no doubt that things are falling between the cracks and that as women we are feeling the strain of juggling it all.
And yet, isn’t juggling it all what women are expected and even encouraged to do? When I was growing up in America, the message I received (I have yet to pinpoint the exact source), was that women can ‘do it all.’ ‘All’ meaning that a woman was fully capable of balancing a career and a family, while baking cupcakes on the weekends for the school bake sale. The assumption impressed upon me was that if I could not do it all, I was inadequate. The only paragon society admired was the woman with a flourishing career, while raising three angels of virtue.
As Anne-Marie Slaughter, an international lawyer and political scientist, who left her position with the U.S State Department to be closer to her teenage boys, wrote in her article for The Atlantic, ‘Women of my generation have clung to the feminist credo we were raised with, even as our ranks have been steadily thinned by unresolvable tensions between family and career, because we are determined not to drop the flag for the next generation. But when many members of the younger generation have stopped listening, on the grounds that glibly repeating ‘you can have it all’ is simply airbrushing reality, it is time to talk.’ 
For many women, the concept of doing it all is almost a badge of honour and admitting that this is untenable for some is an admittance of failure to all the strides the feminist movement has made in securing women’s equality here in the West.
I myself have worked part-time while managing the home and raising two boys and from my personal experience, I can say I always let something go. My guilt at failing one thing or another further pushed me to think lesser of myself and my capabilities. I am not the only one to feel this way. In a commencement speech at Dartmouth, Shondra Rhimes, an American TV producer, said,
‘If I am succeeding at one, I am inevitably failing at the other. That is the tradeoff. That is the Faustian bargain one makes with the devil that comes with being a powerful working woman who is also a powerful mother. You never feel a hundred percent OK; you never get your sea legs; you are always a little nauseous. Something is always lost. Something is always missing…. anyone who tells you they are doing it all perfectly is a liar.’ 
Over the past several years, women like Rhimes and Slaughter are raising their voices around this notion of ‘doing it all.’ This discussion precludes the stark reality of some women’s financial circumstances, where they have no choice but to take on all the responsibilities. Nor is this an analysis of a woman’s own personal temperament, her access to support systems, or her own career ambitions. For, this is not a question of can a woman do it all? The question here is should society expect women to handle it all in the first place, and is her status dependent upon whether or not she does so?
From the Islamic perspective, the answer is no. To assume God Almighty expected one half of the population to fulfill all the roles and the other half to undertake only one responsibility, would be cruel. Islam wishes to establish a society where no one person is overburdened with responsibilities, but rather one in which both genders share equally. As the Fifth Caliph and Worldwide Head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, His Holiness, Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (aba) wrote,
‘Islamic teachings are unambiguous. If women are precluded from doing certain jobs, this is not because they are deemed incapable or because their rights are being compromised, but because God has divided the duties between men and women. Some roles are better suited to men and others to women; nevertheless, as far as the rights are concerned they are equal. 
Here, the responsibility accorded to women is considered just as valuable as the responsibility accorded to men. Islam teaches that both a man’s and woman’s purpose in life is to attain righteousness and to serve God Almighty as well as humanity. If a woman chooses to work outside the home while committing the whole of her intellect, strength, talents and skills to stewarding the next generation to greatness, that is her choice. If she chooses to do the same by foregoing a career, it does not negate any of her rights or status of equality in comparison to a man. As the Second Caliph, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra), stated in a speech, ‘The standard with which the nation’s mothers raise their children is the very standard which the nation will rise to, the result of which will either be great or ruinous.’ 
As the pandemic wanes and our lives begin to resume a more normal pace, as the benevolent light in which children are viewed when they barge into Zoom meetings fades, as the additional strain of virtual schooling is lifted, can we shift our perspective on a woman’s capabilities and her responsibilities? Whether a woman chooses to work or not, can society begin to reframe a woman’s status, not based on whether she can do it all, but based upon her contribution to society? A contribution which creates the next successors to this world. For if we do it right, we can genuinely break the glass ceiling, establishing equality between men and women, not merely in the boardrooms or government halls, but in the thoughts and actions of the next generation.
About the Author: Nila Ahmad lives in the southern United States with her family. Having graduated with an art degree, she has participated in the illustration of children’s books, as well as serving on the team for US magazine Al-Hilal. Her particular interest is in dispelling misconceptions around women’s status in Islam. Nila is an assistant Editor of the Women’s Section of The Review of Religions.
 Kashen, Julie, Sarah Jane Glynn, and Amanda Novello. ‘How COVID-19 Sent Women’s Workforce Progress Backward.’ 30 October 2020, https://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/reports/2020/10/30/492582/covid-19-sent-womens-workforce-progress-backward/.
 Slaughter, Anne-Marie. ‘Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.’ July/August 2012, https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2012/07/why-women-still-cant-have-it-all/309020/.
 Rhimes, Shondra. https://susieschnall.com/shonda-rhimes-on-doing-it-all/. Accessed 10 March 2021.
 Ahmad (aba), Hazrat Mirza Masroor. ‘Islam and Women’s Rights.’ Al-Islam, 26 July 2008. https://www.alislam.org/articles/islam-and-womens-rights/.
 Ahmad (ra), Hazrat Mirza Bashir-ud-din Mahmud. Flowers for the Women Wearing Veils. Silver Spring, MD: Lajna Ima’illah USA, 2019, pg. 300.
- ‘Safe Relating’
- Interview with National President of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Association UK – the Community During Covid-19
- Thoughts on the Tragic Case of Sarah Everard and How Islam Protects Women
- COVID-19 Vaccine Myths and Concerns: Insights from an Intensive Care Specialist Working on the Front Lines
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