Review of Beyond the Kitchen: Muslim Women on Balancing Life, Family and Work

 Being that I am one of those typical Super Sisters striving to juggle multiple roles while clinging to my deen, Huda Khattab’s latest book completely had me at the title-Beyond the Kitchen: Muslim Women on Balancing  Life, Family and Work. Khattab’s work—extensive research, interviewing Muslimahs and writing this book—grew from her personal search for practical education and career solutions for her own young daughters. Khattab, a British-born convert now living and working in Canada, has bound her findings on Muslimahs’ successes into “a celebration of the diversity of interest and skills to be found among Muslim women.” Sharing the experiences of dozens of sisters, Beyond the Kitchen offers insight and tactical suggestions for some of the challenges unique to Muslim women who must, as Katherine Bullock explains in the foreword, “balance our need to work with our obligation to live a lifestyle in conformity with what Allah (swt) has laid down for us.”

Amongst the book’s participants I found many sisters carving paths similar to sisters whom I have known, and there are even a few high-profile Muslimahs whom I have heard of who shared their experiences. A would-be opera singer who converted her creative energy and skills into developing Muslim media is an especially interesting and inspiring account, though even the most seemingly typical occupations and endeavors demonstrate the complexities and possibilities open to working Muslim women. Academic in its methodology, Beyond the Kitchen is thoughtfully revealing read. I love personal narratives, especially those of Muslim women, and delightfully Khattab includes along with these narratives a brief account of the kinds of “jobs” performed by early Muslimahs, such as trade, agriculture, medicine, animal husbandry, literature, and scholarship:

In an interesting vignette, it is reported from ‘Amra bint al-Tubakh that she went to the market with her slave woman and bought a fish that was so big that its head and tail appeared from the basket in which she carried it. ‘Ali passed by and asked how much it had cost, commenting that it would fee her family well.

These vignettes remind us that direct buying and selling (along with other occupations) have always been possible, practical and necessary options in the lives of many Muslim women. Being a housewife may be the Islamic ideal in some circles, but the sisters in Beyond the Kitchen are frequently either realistic, “As a convert, I also am aware that the ‘traditional’ ideas, that your family will always support you even if you are divorced or widowed, aren’t applicable in my case” or they have been hit with reality, “Some respondents were the sole breadwinners in their families, such as Naz whose parents’ health problems prevent them from working.”  Khattab also found that Muslimahs are drawn to work for non-financial reasons, such as “self-fulfillment, intellectual stimulation” and “to make a contribution to society.” For others, working beyond the domestic sphere simply enables their families’ lifestyles to go further than the barebones that only one income may provide.

Although Khattab attempts to reveal a varied cross-section of working Muslimahs, one commonality most share is higher education. Though some work in the fields they were trained for, others needed to return to school to obtain a skill set. Let it be a counsel to other sisters, insha Allah, that an education of some sort is invaluable for Muslim women to be hirable or effectively trained for self-employment, which can be an ideal situation giving sisters the kind of freedom they need to keep their earnings and their time uncompromised. In keeping with her own advice to “think outside the box,” Khattab offers practical and Muslim-friendly suggestions for obtaining skills other than the standard go-to-college route which, though ideal, is simply not an option for every sister. Mentorship is something few sisters encountered but, Mira, a nurse and midwife encouraged that, “We should think of how we as women and sisters can help each other. We need mentoring between each other, advice, support . . . We should really be supporting and nurturing and loving and give advice.” Absolutely. Mentorship is an Islamic ideal many of us can informally practice; certainly we say it all the time, “Want for your sister what you want for yourself.”

Flexibility is another commonality amongst the participants, and undoubtedly a trait that women quickly pick-up when they become mothers. Several of the participants, and even Khattab, parlayed their work and life experiences into wahm (work at home mom) situations when they had children. Adaptability is also a challenge for converts who must transition their new Muslim parameters into their (usually) secular workplaces or carve out any entirely new route in self-employment. As someone who has worked many jobs and attended university both as a Muslim and before being Muslim I know firsthand that being Muslim in non-Muslim work environments does make a difference in how I was treated as well as some difficulty in being hired in the first place. Khattab mostly avoids dabbling in the details and daleel of Islamic do’s and don’ts in the work place by allowing the sisters to explain how they approach issues, such as interacting with the opposite sex, transitioning to hijab, dealing with non-Muslim holidays and bigotry. There’s no whitewashing here, participants from outside The West also reported incidents of discrimination for being practicing Muslims in Muslim-majority countries and how they dealt with these challenges.

A thorough and well balanced demonstration of the particulars working Muslim women face, Beyond the Kitchen even takes a peek into the kitchen and domestic realms of sisters and offers sage advice and resources for better managing around the hearth.  I have come across some of these resources before when during times of my own domestic crisis I have frantically turned to Google for help—have we all heard of The Fly Lady?—but in staying outside the box, Khattab dispenses lots of more good sense. Beyind the Kitchen’s appendices are just as relevant and prudent as her narratives.

Although her participants glean a great deal of insight into their personal experiences of striving to balance work, life, family and deen, an area beyond the scope of Khattab’s book are the detailed practicalities of being self-employed and/or a wahm. Next month, insha Allah, we will look more closely at some of the myths and pitfalls around wahming and self-employment. Ideally Beyond the Kitchen would be a great resource for all parents of young Muslimahs and it would also be of immeasurable benefit to new(ish) converts who are trying to forge their way in balancing their new religious obligations with their worldly needs and responsibilities. The sisters in Beyond the Kitchen demonstrate that there is no one way to do it, but plenty of routes worth trying while looking for your own right way.

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This review originally appeared in the February 2011 edition of SISTERS Magazine. “Work at Home Muslimah: The Great WAHM Myths, Realities and Possibilities can be read here.

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