What Makes A ‘Good’ Wife – Objection #2

The following objection is with regards to domestic responsibilities, and by extension what constitutes a good home. Let’s ‘revise’ the marital advice given to Muslim wives by the speaker:

2. Rumah mesti dihias, jangan kotor macam rumah Yahudi

(Your house must be looked after and decorated, not left dirty like the house of this group of people which I shall not translate because demonising any group is just offensive)

Firstly, let us ask ourselves: who lives in the house or home? Is it the wife alone who lives there? Obviously, the answer is no (unless she has separated from her husband and is living on her own, in which case she is not the general ‘wife’ the speaker is referring to). There is the husband living there too, and there could also be their children, parent(s) and / or sibling(s) of either or both spouses.

Now, imagine a house rented collectively by a bunch of people of various ages and genders. As housemates, they would have been expected to be responsible for their individual domestic chores  (washing their own cutlery after use, doing their own laundry, for example). However, housemates may choose to help each other, be it in a structured manner (via an official and mutually agreed duty roster) or on an ad-hoc basis (e.g. whoever happens to get to the sink first after dinner may, out of goodwill, volunteer to finish doing the dishes for that particular night). Despite such arrangements, the fact still remains that it is never one person’s obligation to do the chores for the others; it is not a MUST and thus he or she cannot be expected to bear all the domestic responsibilities. They all live there together, so each and every one of them has to chip in to do the domestic chores. These are reasonable expectations, no?

Let’s go back to the context of marriage and family. Let’s look at just the basic unit of husband and wife. They share the same living space, they live in the same house. They sleep in the same room. They use the same kitchen and bathroom(s). They use the same living room to watch the television or read the papers. They use around the same amount of cutlery pieces for meals. They both go through clothes day in and day out, and need a rotation of clean clothes. They both need to eat and they both need a clean house to live in. They both would appreciate an aesthetically pleasing house, but that’s a bonus. They are housemates who happen to be married. As fully functioning adults, they should be equally capable at keeping house and should be equally expected to do so. Yet, what we see is that it is always the wives who are told that they are (almost) solely responsible for domestic chores!

There is nothing about domestic chores that requires a set of special skills which only women have, or only women can learn. If anyone were to insist that the reason for women having to be the one solely responsible for domestic chores is that men and women are made different, then that difference which cuts across the whole board would be biological – men in general are physically stronger than women. And since domestic chores are in essence manual, labour-intensive tasks, by right it is men who are better suited to complete them as they are physically stronger! (I am just saying this to counter the logical flaw of saying ‘men and women are different, that’s why women should be responsible for domestic chores’; I am in no way advocating for the tables to be turned and that men should be the ones solely responsible for domestic chores. I’m a big fan of equality and fairness, haven’t you noticed by now?)

When we extend this ‘housemates who happen to be married’ idea to ‘housemates who happen to be family’, the same expectation can and should be applied. Children can be taught, even from a young preschool-going age, to pick up after themselves, beginning with their own toys and books. As they get older, more domestic chores can be taught; doing the dishes, folding clothes, making the bed, making a sandwich, the list goes on.

I know this is possible because by the age of 10, I could do my own laundry and probably ironing (I remember because I was once asked by my brother to help him iron something and I was careless; my right thumb accidentally touched the hot iron as i was reaching out for it and I got a huge blister afterwards, and that was at our old place so scratch the 10 – I could iron clothes at 7 years old). I could do simple chores in the kitchen like frying an egg, if not by 10 then by 12 years old. And no, I did not miss out on my childhood, because it’s not like I was made the resident housekeeper – I was only expected to do such chores for myself because my mom was a working mother. We never got a domestic helper because the concept was uncommon in the 70’s and 80’s, and we probably couldn’t afford it on my mom’s single salary (my dad quit his civil service job for good on the year I was born and my mom soldiered continued on the same job alone until all 5 of us kids – me being the last – completed secondary school.)

Anyway, what if there are other adult family members who live in the same house, like sibling(s) and parent(s) of either spouse, or both? Of course, the expectation is the same. As long as they are physically able to, they should chip in with the domestic chores too, because they are sharing the same living space after all. The least they should do is to pick up after themselves – wash that mug and bowl after they’ve had their morning coffee and cereal, not leave it in the kitchen sink (or worse, on the kitchen table) for someone else to pick up after them, for instance.

I am not saying we should be calculative about domestic chores. I am just saying that no one person should be expected to bear the sole responsibility for them. Husbands and wives, and family members, should chip in and help each other out. Nobody is to stay or return home like a queen or king and expect a clean home with food in the kitchen, and after dinner, immediately relax in front of the television, conveniently forgetting about the crumbs on the dining table and dirty dishes in the kitchen sink because they will be magically cleared and cleaned by the same one family member day in and day out. Take turns, delegate, distribute, just like any housemates living together would.

How domestic chores are delegated and distributed would be up to each couple and family. They can be categorised into personal and shared chores; they can be listed down and everyone takes their pick of preferred chores (I hate vacuuming, for example, but love folding); they can be delegated such that everyone has to do all the chores within the week so all get a fair share of preferred and abhorred chores… whatever. A marriage is a partnership, and a family is a team. Tackle it TOGETHER.

And no, just because one goes out to work and one stays home does not mean the former can drop all personal responsibility or share of the chores and expect the latter to pick up after him or her. Let me say this again: you are not the queen or king. Your spouse may, out of goodwill, do what should be your personal chores but that does not mean you take it for granted and don’t lift a single finger to make his or her job easier – it’s not hard to help wipe the table while he or she does the dishes, it’s not hard to do some folding while watching the television together, it’s not hard to take over some chores on your days off work so that he or she feels that he or she has a partner in the house, not a master.

As for decorating the house, or maintaining it to be aesthetically pleasing, again, just as there are male chefs, there are also male interior designers. The task does not require any gender-specific skill (and don’t give me crap about how males in such professions are more ‘feminine’ and are not reflective of men in general – the only difference between them and other men is that they were interested and willing to learn and get good at such skills, just like some men are interested in soccer and willing to learn and get good enough at playing to make it a profession). I personally know of some men who are much more involved and passionate in decorating their homes than their wives are, so why is it that only wives are given such marital advice and told that ‘(you must ensure) your house be decorated’?

Before I move on, I just have to call out the speaker’s prejudice towards the group of people which she demonised. If any of you out there found nothing wrong with what she said, and are even prone to saying it yourselves (‘jahat / kurang ajar / biadab macam Yahudi‘), please be reminded that there is a difference between the regular people who embrace the belief, and the state or government or group of leaders and followers that commits atrocities in its name. In the case of the comparison made by the speaker, we can say she is referring to the regular people as she says their homes are ‘dirty’. I ask now: has she ever been in any of their homes? Has she ever been in all of their homes to make such a sweeping statement? How sure is she that all Muslim homes are clean and can never fall into the category of ‘dirty’? Would she like it if someone else gives advice along the lines of ‘fill your children’s rooms with books, don’t let them be stupid and backward like the children of Muslims’? I don’t think so. There is much emphasis on akhlak (manners and decency) when it comes to living an Islamic life; laymen are continuously reminded of the importance of akhlak when they get expressive against religious or traditional figures of authority, even if what they say is true, yet we have such religious figures who state such indecent and demonising things in the gentlest manner (she was speaking in an Egyptian Arabic-accented Malay and dragging her words in a matronly way).

Now that that is done, let me move on to what constitutes a good home. In Malay, the word rumah is used to refer to both ‘house’ and ‘home’ in English. What bothers me about her advice for the rumah to be decorated is the emphasis on the outward appearance of the house/home. Even if we were to accept the home as the traditional domain of the wife (i.e., she is ‘home affairs minister’), why is she only advised to keep the home aesthetically pleasing? A good home is much more than what it looks like; a good home is one where its members feel safe and loved, where they are respected (they = their bodies, their minds, their opinions, their choices), where they get informed and educated, where they learn what Islam is really about. Why aren’t wives advised to ‘fill your homes with books so you can instil a culture of reading within your family’? Why aren’t wives advised to ‘learn the Quran (the meaning, not just reciting the sounds) so that you can teach your children (and maybe your husband too)’? Why aren’t wives advised to ‘hold family meetings, so that everyone learns to practise communicating openly and everyone gets a chance to have their voices and opinions heard in a safe environment and no one feels so bottled up and infantilised and feels a need to express herself in a blog‘?

Why indeed? Why are the capabilities of wives (and by extension, women) limited to the domestic domain? When she has so much more to offer in the intellectual and spiritual sphere?

One thought on “What Makes A ‘Good’ Wife – Objection #2

  1. Pingback: Ramadan Reflections #1 | pengantin pelik

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