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A Sister’s Dilemma: College or Family?
Social Issues


Young women, both Muslim and non-Muslim living in the US, face an important dilemma. Societal, family, cultural, and even economic situations dictate that an intelligent, self-respecting woman who wants to ‘do something’ with her life and accomplish something ‘meaningful’ must receive a minimum of a 4 year undergraduate college education.

Following the attainment of a degree, the woman must go to work, full-time, in a high-powered, ‘respectable’ career. Even if she does not need to hold a job in order to please other people, she needs a job in order to pay off the immense debt she has incurred due to the high cost of higher education.

Here is what sisters face:

A sister attending a public university on in-state tuition might expect to pay $5,000 a year; a public university on out-of-state tuition, $15,000 a year; and a private university from $20,000 to $30,000 per year. Over the course of a four year undergraduate education, that amounts to anywhere from $20,000 to $120,000! a sister who is fortunate and blessed by Allah to come from a wealthy family will have no problems meeting these financial requirements without interest-bearing loans and without needing to work to repay loans. Some sisters from poor families may meet all financial aid requirements and may be offered a free education. However, the majority of the middle-class and less fortunate poor sisters will continue to face the dilemma.

Many scholars hold the opinion that, due to the severity of the warnings issued to those who deal in Ribā (interest of any kind), as issued in the Qur’ān and by the Prophet (sws) in his Ahadīth, taking an interest-bearing loan is unacceptable in any circumstance. That aside, loans and debt present further complications for a sister who hopes to stay home with her children, because a debt, whether interest-bearing or not, must be repaid. Therefore, a sister who graduates from a university with a debt, will then be expected to work in order to earn the money to pay off that debt. A debt of up to $120,000 will take many years to pay off. Where, then, does this leave a sister’s goal of having and raising her children?

Option number one: A sister may choose to work and postpone childbearing. However, this can leave her only starting her family when she is in her late 20s and early 30s, when fertility rates decrease, and rates of miscarriage, genetic disorders, and other pregnancy complications increase. Postponing children can also cause tensions within the family, as a sister’s parents or parents-in-law may be anxiously awaiting grandchildren. Furthermore, this raises the ages of the parents relative to the ages of their children. This may leave the parents with young children at an age when they have less energy to handle them, or it may simply be something undesirable to the parents.

Option number two: A sister may work and start a family, and function in the role of the American ‘working mother’. This forces the mother to abandon her children in day-care while she works, unable to raise her children on her own and handing the responsibility of instilling basic moral values to another: most likely a non-Muslim, as Muslim day-cares are hard to come by. Is this how we plan to bring up the Ummah of the future? Furthermore, numerous studies have found that children who are brought up in day-care have a wealth of emotional, social, academic, and ethical problems. (Despite a recent widely-publicised study that suggests that children who are placed in day-care do not experience these problems, it still does not address the problem of the lack of Islamic values and influences that can only come from the Muslim family).

In addition, many women find Corporate America hostile to women with children. Only recently did the ‘Family Leave Act’ passed by the United States Congress give a woman the legal right to take time away from work when she has a baby without being fired. However, many problems still exist in the workplace. Women who work are also denied the benefit that comes to them and their children from long-term breast-feeding. Major medical associations now recommend that a child be breast-fed for at least one year in order to obtain optimal health benefits. Perhaps more importantly, however, is the intense emotional bonding which occurs between the mother and the child through this natural, merciful act.

Option number three: Forfeit education completely, and in the process forfeit many of the benefits education can offer – and there are, in fact, many. Often, I am asked by school advisors, administrators, and friends: ‘If you just plan to stay home and not work, why are you wasting your money on education?’

I have the following answer to this question:

1) As an intelligent woman, I feel entitled to education. Simply because I plan to put my education to use in a place other than the work force does not mean I am not entitled to an education for my own interest or enrichment.

2) Something could happen to my husband, and I may need to work (temporarily) to support myself and my family. As it is very difficult for one without a college degree to obtain a job with a living wage, my husband and I feel that a college degree is insurance against disaster.

3) My own education can be used to educate my children. My major happens to be Arabic and I hope to speak and teach Arabic to my children.

However, sisters may choose a variety of courses of study that will benefit their children or others’ children in the future (through home-schooling and teacher networks) including science, mathematics, language arts, etc. A major in education is also highly applicable. Some private universities which may be expensive may also be among few universities offering specialised and obscure majors, such as Arabic.

4) By getting an education early on, a sister can ward off the whisperings of Satan later. If a sister chooses to forfeit her education in order to stay home with her children, Satan may cause her to regret her decision. She may think: ‘If only I had gone to college, so much would have been different.’ Yet if a sister postpones having children in order to attend school and then pay off her debts, Satan may also cause her to regret the decision, and she may think: ‘If only I stayed home with my children instead of working, things would have been different’. Sisters need to be encouraged to stay home with their children and provide their children with the best Islamic upbringing possible. Not only for the sake of their children, but for the great reward and dignity Islam places on the role of the mother. In American society today, a woman who stays home to raise her children instead of working in the ‘real world’ is looked down upon. A stay-at-home mother is assumed to be less intelligent and less capable than a working woman. In defence of stay-at-home mothers, the At-Home Mother Association published a book the title of which reflects the prevalent attitude held towards women who stay at home with their children: What’s a Smart Woman Like You Doing At Home?

Conversely, Islam places the highest imaginable value on the difficult and rewarding task of motherhood. Mothers make many sacrifices for the sake of their family and children and these sacrifices do not go unnoticed by Allah. The mother makes sacrifices for her children without regretting her sacrifices or feeling burdened by them, and because of this, not only did Allah mandate the utmost of kindness and obedience to the mother, but care of children is even considered the Jihād of the mother, and the mother will be rewarded with Paradise for this Jihād, Inshā’Allāh. We do not want to sacrifice the reward of mothering, nor do we want to sacrifice the Islamic upbringing and warm, loving environment we can give our children by staying home. Yet the system under which we must operate makes this goal almost completely incompatible with the goal of obtaining higher education.

I am unable to offer a solution to this dilemma. Perhaps, in order to secure the best interest of my family, I will never finish school, unless we find a way to establish a system by which we can enable our sisters to gain an education and fulfil family responsibilities, more sisters will face the same difficult decision. May Allah guide us to the right decisions. Amen.


(Tasneem Crooker is on a leave of absence from Georgetown University)
Courtesy: The Radiance Viewsweekly, Delhi, India

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