During the time of the Prophet, women were encouraged to engage in housework, but it was seen as a charity, not as an obligation. The woman who cooked and cleaned was viewed as being generous with her labor. I’m not even kidding; you can look this up. Women who didn’t know how to cook (those who were originally upper class but may have married men in a class lower than theirs) were not expected to learn. Their husbands were expected to hire someone to cook and clean for them.
That’s terrific for upper class women–I’m sure you’re all thinking–but the same is true for women who were ill, or otherwise somehow disabled from cooking. A number of jurists came to this conclusion (including Shaykh Mufti Taqi Usmani and Imam al-Mawsili, if you must know which). This is because traditionally a man is expected to provide provisions; for longer than they haven’t been, those provisions were considered prepared/cooked provisions. In other words, you can’t just drop raw meat in front of your wife like, “I HAVE PROVIDED!” and expect her to make a meal out of it. It has to come that way. From you. (Yes, I heard it, no jokes please.)
Fatwas like this are typically followed by a sentiment along the lines of, “But she is encouraged to partake in her religious duty,” or “There are blessings for women who are generous and kind to their husbands, otherwise she is obstinate.” This is because jurists think women are cold-hearted assholes like men, who wouldn’t consider expending themselves a little for sake of mutual understanding in a marriage, and that we would just sit around all day doing nothing at any opportunity. Let’s face it, no woman is going to read this and stop vacuuming. A man might, were it in his favor.
Before you think Jesus Christ, Nahida, who hurt you?!, men actually HAVE stopped vacuuming. Doesn’t, “Sorry, I’m only encouraged to help with housework,” sound familiar? I’m not exaggerating what opportunists men are.
So I don’t need to tell any woman that it would be nice if she picked up some chores anyway; women largely are–and tirelessly. Look, I would be the first to roll my eyes at an upper class woman and think, “Learn to cook, Your Highness.” Okay maybe not the first, I don’t really care, but if she were obnoxious enough I’d do it eventually. Obviously, God has been far more generous. And not just to her. What I’m saying is, working class women, stop exhausting yourselves.
My friend Vanessa (hi Vanessa) said to me once, “In Islam, a woman has the right to work. If her husband discourages her from practicing this right, because he requires full-time maintenance of the household, then she must be compensated for her forfeiture of this right. He must pay her for the money she has lost from not working, out of consideration of him.” She reportedly told this to her female (potential) in-laws, who looked at her as though they’d been conned.
Stay-at-home mothers with children should be contractually employed by their husbands for cooking, cleaning, and childcare services provided and contributed to the household. They should show this salary on their taxes, and, if it is too low, should receive additional compensation/benefits from the government for raising a generation of workers to contribute to the economy. Realistically, most of this is life management; most husbands couldn’t afford all of the work their wives do. The economy would need to change, drastically, to implement something like this. Traditionally “women’s work” would need to be seen as actual work.