As much as we praise education for girls as a valuable opportunity in and of itself, higher education for both genders is somehow expected to bring money. When a college graduate decides to stay home to raise her family, not everyone cheers her for her decision. There are some who think that her education turned out to be a waste of money and energy because as a stay-at-home mother she has little use for it. Others comment on how fruitful her contribution to the wider society would have been had she exercised her profession. No account on pleasures of motherhood, nor any amount of reasoning on the part of the housewife can truly make her choice valid and laudable.
As a mother of five children with a BA in Turkish Literature, at first I was spared from reproach for not working. After all, day care and afterschool care expenses for five children would somehow render my toil outside home profitless. Yet, when I decided to pursue a master’s degree, some acquaintances of mine, for whom higher education means only better opportunities for employment, were utterly baffled. Some inquired on how I was going to juggle graduate school with tending to my brood. Others presented a more imposing question: Why? Why bother with all the hassle of graduate studies when you still plan on being a housewife for at least ten more years?
It would be easy to explain this connection between education and paid work with ideals of capitalism. But in communist countries also women were pushed into the work force with no say in the matter. Growing up in Albania during the communist era I remember that the only women who stayed home were retired grannies. The term housewife just didn’t exist in my vocabulary. While my mother felt sad to leave the house for work before the kids went to school, she had no choice. Of the most distinct childhood memories I carry to this day is the feeling of pure envy that took hold of me when my next door neighbor and classmate was greeted by the warmth of his grandmother’s smile while the sweet aroma of home cooked food swept the floor. My heart ached as I unlocked the door to be greeted by a cold house where I would sit hungry waiting for mom.
Beyond capitalism and communism, this issue gets a bit more complicated when Western Feminism/s enters the scene. Its formula of empowerment for women all over the world goes like this: education equals career which in turn equals financial (and otherwise) independence. Anything less is subject to condemnation as appropriation to male power.
As a Muslim woman I find this model materialistic and disempowering. Because I see my existence through two prisms, material and spiritual, this model falls short in satisfying both of them. Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, is reported to have said that knowledge is the lost possession of every believer. He or she should claim it, even if it is found in China. While this prophetic tradition points to the immense value of sound knowledge which should be redeemed, origin notwithstanding, it also hints to the intrinsic value of education for its own sake, to the immense spiritual and material benefits that it brings to the individual. My master’s degree remains a worthy endeavor if it doesn’t bring a penny to my wallet. It helped me understand better myself, my community and the wider society in this globalizing world. It has broadened my perspective on women issues and it has provided the tools to articulate my views to different audiences. I have a better grip on the challenges my kids are facing and I can be more attentive thereof.
My understanding of what my faith teaches about gender relations has changed too and this has helped me help others see the difference between a religious conjunction and a cultural imposition when it comes to gender relations. In a sense it has been enlightening, liberating. I am sure not all women can afford to stay home but those who chose to should not be looked at as oddities. Many housewives contribute to the society not only by raising children to become people of integrity but also they volunteer their time and effort in beneficial causes they believe in, be it in schools or faith organizations.
When people ask me what I plan to do with my MA degree, I tell them that I am already putting it to good use. What I don’t tell them is that sometimes I dream of going back to school for a PhD.
When I open the door to greet my children from school, I give them hugs and kisses feeling grateful that I can welcome them with a smile and scents of cinnamon and vanilla.
I am a stay-at-home mom and I’m loving it.
Mirkena Ozer has a master’s degree in women studies from the University of Georgia, Atlanta.