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| On the 5th April 2008, Justice Coleridge, the judge in charge of family courts across South West England delivered a speech to family lawyers from the organisation "Resolution", where he described family life in the UK in "meltdown" marked by an epidemic of family breakdown.|
He said, "A large number of families now consist of children being brought up by mothers who have children by a number of different fathers, none of whom take any part in their lives or support or upbringing....These are not isolated, one-off cases. They are part of the stock-in-trade of the family courts." He continued, "Almost all society's ills can be traced directly to the collapse of family life. We all know it. Examine the background of almost every child in the care system or the youth justice system and you will discover a broken family. Ditto the drug addict. Ditto the binge drinker. Ditto those children who are truanting or who cannot behave at school. Scratch the surface of these cases and you invariably find a miserable family, overseen by a dysfunctional and fractured parental relationship - or none at all."
In addition to such stories, one is all too familiar with the other issues related to family life in Britain - the neglect of elderly parents or relatives, the shrinkage of the "extended family", the lack of time spent with children due to both parents having demanding work expectations, the sufferings of the "Superwoman" struggling to balance the responsibilities of home life with a high-maintenance career or job, and the devaluing of family life in the workplace. Last week, the Fawcett society launched their manifesto "Sexism in the city", highlighting the fact that 30,000 women a year in Britain lose their jobs simply for being pregnant and that of all social groups, mothers to be and new mothers experience the most discrimination in the labour market. In February 2006, the Institute for Public Policy Research published a report detailing a fertility crisis in Britain due to women delaying motherhood or remaining childless due to fears that they would face a reduction in lifetime earnings or lose their place on their career ladder for taking time out to have babies. It described a "baby gap" of 90,000 due to this delay in motherhood. The demographic impact of this "baby gap" that many European countries such as France, Italy and the UK are predicting is of an ageing population, a reduced national workforce due to a generation gap and fewer young people to look after the old.
The Impact of Family Breakdown on Lives
The declining worth of family life in Britain and in many other secular societies is evident to see. This is despite the fact that report after report, study after study has shown that marriage and strong families are the cornerstone to stability in the lives of children and a healthy society. The consequences of broken families and dysfunctional or neglectful parent-child relations are also clear to see. Politicians from all camps have related increasing levels of anti-social behaviour, drug- addiction and binge-drinking amongst the youth and teenage pregnancies to rising quotas of dysfunctional families. Judge Justice Coleridge commented in his speech, "I am not saying every broken family produces dysfunctional children but I am saying that almost every dysfunctional child is the product of a broken family." In addition the emotional impact of divorce and broken families on spouses, children and single parents left to bring up their children by themselves, often having to juggle 2 to 3 jobs in the process has caused as the judge describes, "...a never-ending carnival of human misery. A ceaseless river of human distress." Rising levels of child depression, self-harm, even eating disorders have been afforded to the current state of family life in Britain. One should also not forget the emotional gauntlet experienced by women forced to undergo IVF treatment in order to conceive, due to reduced fertility, miscarriages and increased pregnancy related complications related to delaying motherhood.
The Causes of Family Breakdown in Secular Society
The response of many Western governments to this dire problem of "Family Meltdown" has been in main financially based - tax incentives to encourage marriage and married couples to stay together, affordable childcare to enable single mothers to work, working and child tax credits for poor families, and even paying couples to have a second or third child as in France. Throwing money at issues seems to be a recurring knee-jerk reaction of many capitalist secular societies in solving deep-seated problems within their societies. To believe that simply more money will solve this dire state of family affairs is on par with believing that a bundle of dollar notes could seal the hole of a sinking Titanic. Of course Western governments have introduced other initiatives to try and raise the importance of family responsibilities. These include parenting classes or fines for neglectful parents as well as establishing laws to outlaw pregnancy-related discrimination in the workplace but these handful of actions fail to recognise that the fundamental cause of this family meltdown are core secular values and the general lack of weight given to family life within capitalist societies.
The "freedom-loving" culture of liberal society has nurtured a hedonistic and care-free attitude to life based upon the pursuit of carnal and individualistic whims and desires rather than nurturing a mindset of responsibility and respect towards others. This has created an aversion to marriage in many individuals due the level of commitment, fidelity and responsibility required - viewing marriage as a "curbing of their freedom" and preferring rather to be "free and single" and to have sexual relations with "whoever, whenever". It has spurned a culture of promiscuity resulting in spiralling rates of teenage pregnancies, abortions, single mothers and adultery which is the main cause of divorce in Britain. It has created a situation where a man may have relations with many women, father children from different mothers and take no physical or emotional responsibility for either his child or its mother other than a cheque in the post once a month. This situation has created a lack of trust in individuals seeking a partner for marriage, unsure whether a relationship based upon loyalty, fidelity and care and concern for one another will survive such a societal climate based upon a norm of promiscuity and individualism.
This "cancerous" individualistic mindset of "Me, myself, and I", bred within capitalist societies that sanctify securing individual self-interest over all else has eaten away at the foundations of family structure. It has caused individuals to focus on what is best for themselves rather than what is best for their spouse or marriage resulting in increased divorce. It has contributed to people rejecting or delaying having children until later life to maximize their social life, personal finances and personal freedom. It has caused parents to neglect their children while pursuing their own personal interests. It has caused children to neglect their elderly parents, viewing them as burdens on their time and their personal finances, placing them in homes for others to look after. The individualistic concern for one's own family and disregard or neglect of other relatives has caused a lack of a support system for extended family facing physical, financial and emotional problems, causing individuals to suffer in silence alone.
In addition, within capitalist secular societies there has been a devaluing of motherhood and family life against economic life. Firstly, on a historical level, the Western struggle for gender equality and the rise of feminism placed the public life and the man's traditional role of being breadwinner above the private life, motherhood and the woman's traditional role of home-maker. Many feminists argued that female respect and liberty was not compatible with economic dependence upon her husband nor full domestic responsibility and therefore it was not simply a matter of the woman having the right to work but the necessity to work. Christabel Pankhurst, the well known radical feminist and member of the suffragette movement of the early 20th century said of home-life responsibilities that they were an in intolerable burden on married women, a waste of time and economic energies, and was unpaid and unrecognised.
Today, one of the consequences of this view of home-life and concept of "Gender Equality" has been the creation of societies where women do not simply have the right to employment but rather are expected to work even if single mothers with sole responsibility for the care and upbringing of their children. The concept of gender equality that was in theory to produce the "have it all woman" in reality produced the "do it all woman" - who continued to burden the responsibilities of motherhood and household chores but now also struggled with the added burden of financially maintaining the family. With both parents as breadwinners in many families, there is a constant struggle to find time for the children or time to make marriages strong. The basis of gender equality where one looks at what is best for the woman verses what is best for the man rather than what is best for a family or community overall can sometimes overlook what is best for a strong marriage, for the children and for society. Furthermore, the idea of gender equality that erodes the appreciation of sex differences within the workplace and society, hinders rather than facilitates the securing of specific rights based upon sex difference such as pregnancy or maternity rights or flexible working hours for those women with young children and lays open the door to discrimination.
Secondly, the capitalist, materialistic system that has placed the pursuit of the "£" or "$" as its supreme ideological goal, has placed profit over people and finance over families. It has focussed consistently on securing the coffers of government or business over securing the family. This constant drive for short-term profitability has undervalued motherhood and family life and forced even single mothers into work, leaving them little time to bring up their children effectively. Indeed, there are often financial incentives for mothers to return to work; very few incentives for them to stay at home in order to ensure the effective upbringing of their children if they feel this is necessary, which is especially the case with many single parents. This valuing of materialism over motherhood has led to a situation where a pregnant woman or one with young children is often seen as a burden to a company rather than as an asset to society. A 2005 survey of 98 companies by the Recruitment and Employment Confederation found that ¾ of companies would rather break the law than employ a pregnant woman or one of child-bearing age - a fact well-known by many women who would rather delay having children or remain childless rather than face this "fertility penalty" on their earnings or career. It seems that being "chained to the kitchen sink" has been replaced with being "chained to the economic market".
Unfortunately, the Muslim Ummah living in the West or in the Muslim world has not been shielded from these secular or materialistic values. The consequence is that the concept of "strong marriages" and "strong family units" that has always been understood by Muslims over the generations to be the heart or building block of a strong community, has today also been eroded. We face similar problems as those discussed due to the adoption of secular and liberal values and mindsets into our lives - increased divorces, increase in adultery, family breakdown, neglect of children, neglect of elders, severed relationships with extended family and so on. In addition, our community has been blighted with non-Islamic Asian/Arab/African traditions and culture that have also affected our marriages, parent-child relationships, in-law relationships and family structure.
The Islamic View towards Family
Within Islam, issues such as "strong marriages", "motherhood", "fatherhood", "rights and responsibilities of parents, "rights and responsibilities of children", "keeping relations with extended family (silat-ur-Rahm)" and "strong family units", have a high status of importance in the religion and should enjoy an elevated status within a community and society. Islam therefore does not believe in personal or sexual freedom - the freedom of an individual to have any relationship they wish, the freedom to commit adultery and betray one's spouse and family, the freedom to father children and bear no physical, emotional or financial responsibility towards them or their mother. Rather, it believes in building a mindset of accountability towards a Creator that nurtures values such as chastity, loyalty in marriage, and a sense of responsibility towards others and for one's actions. In addition, strict social laws - such as the dress codes for men and women, segregation of the sexes, the prohibition of a man and woman being alone together (khulwa), and harsh punishments for fornication and adultery - all aim to ensure that sexual relations are restricted to marriage and that every child is born with wedlock, knowing who is responsible for its financial, physical and emotional welfare. These values and these laws create a sense of trust between men and women in marriage, when seeking a partner for marriage and in society in general.
Islam not only encourages marriage, linking it to completing half of one's religion(deen) but also encourages husband and wife to consistently seek tranquillity within the marriage to keep the union strong. The Prophet(saw) said, "Oh you youngsters. Whoever amongst you who can afford to marry should marry, because it will help him more to lower his gaze and guard his modesty (i.e.chastity). And whoever is not able to marry he should fast, because it will be a protection for him" (Bukhari and Muslim). He(saw) also said, "When a man gets married, he gets one half of the deen. Thus he should fear Allah in the other half" (Al-Baihaqi). Allah(swt) says in Surah Ar-Rum,
"And among His Signs is this, that He created for you wives from among yourselves, that you may find tranquillity in them, and He has put between you affection and mercy." [Ar-Rum: 21]
Although Islam permits divorce, the Muslim should understand that it is one of the most hated actions in the eyes of the Creator such that it is avoided as much as possible and arbitration sought to heal the relationship. Infact in one hadith, it is mentioned that the Throne of Allah(swt) shakes upon hearing of a divorce of a believing man and woman.
With regards to individualism, Islam abhors it. Rather it seeks to build a mentality of responsibility towards others. Therefore, the husband stands accountable to the Creator for fulfilling the rights of his wife. The wife stands accountable to the Creator for fulfilling the rights of her husband. Parents stand accountable to the Creator for fulfilling their responsibility to their children of ensuring their financial and physical well-being as well as their strong Islamic upbringing. The Prophet(saw) said, "Beware! Each of you is a shepherd and each of you is responsible and answerable for his flock. The leader and the ruler is a shepherd over the people and shall be questioned about his subjects (as to how he conducted their affairs); a man is a guardian over his family and shall be questioned about them (as to how he looked after their physical and moral well-being); a woman is the guardian over the household of her husband and his children and shall be questioned about them (as to how she managed the household and brought up the children); a servant is the shepherd of his master's property and shall be questioned about it (as to how he safeguarded his trust). Beware! Everyone of you is a guardian and everyone of you shall be questioned with regards to his trust." (Bukhari and Muslim). In addition, individuals stand accountable to the Creator for fulfilling their responsibility towards their parents of looking after them financially and physically in their old age.
With regards to materialism, Islam understands that the earning of money is important for the physical needs of individuals and therefore encourages a healthy economic life for society. However, it is also based upon the belief that although money may be the currency for this life, it is fulfilling the good deed prescribed by Allah(swt) that is the currency in the Hereafter. Having many children, looking after their welfare, and giving them a good Islamic upbringing to make them good Muslims and upright citizens who are a source of goodness for the community and society, is just one of those actions given much weight in currency in the Hereafter. The Prophet(saw) used to say, "Get married to the tender and fertile(women), for indeed I will vie with the Prophets in your great numbers on the day of Judgement." Abu Sa'id al-Khudri narrated that the Prophet(saw) said, "If anyone cares for three daughters, disciplines them, has them married, and does good to them, he will go to Paradise." (Abu Dawud). He(saw) said, "A man will be raised some degrees in Paradise and he will say, ‘For what reason I am receiving this?' He will be told, ‘Because of your son (child) asking forgiveness for you.'" (Bukhari). In contrast to the capitalist ideology, the philosophy of the Islamic system is not based upon securing "capital" over all else but rather understands that society must be organised in order to fulfil all aspects of human life effectively. Therefore it does not seek to maximise economic life up and above family life but rather understands that both are required for a healthy society. Nor in Islam are the roles of men and women in society and family life defined according to the concept of "Gender Equality", where the role of breadwinner is valued above the role of mother and home-maker. In family life Islam defines the responsibility of the man as the breadwinner and the woman as the homemaker and the nurturer of the children. One role is not above another but both are essential for the effective organization and functioning of family life and the progress of society as a whole.