Twenty-year-old Nadia, a pious Muslim woman from Patna’s impoverished neighborhood of Phulwari Sharif, graduated from an Islamic school in 2016. Following her high school graduation, Nadia had hoped to become an Urdu teacher. Her goal was to get a university degree in teaching so she could earn her living as a schoolteacher and take care of her aging parents as a farmabardar (obedient) daughter (Munazir 2016).
Due to a lack of financial support from her family, which worsened with the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, Nadia dropped out of her local college in Patna. Her plans for a university education did not materialize as she had hoped. In the meantime, she was primarily staying at home caring for her family members, waiting to return to college or to get married, whichever happened first. As part of her everyday life in a gendered household, Nadia assisted her mother with household chores like cooking, cleaning, and caring for her grandmother when she was ill. She believed that the divine rewards of caregiving will shape her taqdeer (destiny), which will lead to a ‘good life’ and ‘better futures.’
As Nadia emphasized concerns of ‘destiny’ and ‘better futures,’ I was reminded of the many young Muslim women in India that I know, who also define their present conditions and future goals through their belief in ‘destiny.’ In many households in India that are attentive to Islamic ethos, Muslim women such as Nadia embody the theological notion of al-qada’ wa’l-qadar or ‘destiny’ (De Cillis 2014), through their practices of religiosity at home and oftentimes through their education in Islamic schools.
What does a ‘good life’ or a ‘better future’ mean to pious Muslim women in India? What role does caregiving play in shaping these young women’s perceptions of a good life? Finally, how do women negotiate with their fate or their irrevocable ‘destiny’ within their personal choices and responsibilities of caregiving? In attempting to answer some of these questions, I perceive Bihar's young pious Muslim women's predestined future as residing in and shaping their present and seeing local conceptions of destiny in this context as individual ways of imagining better futures. In doing so, my aim is to bring back the concerns of futurity into the mundane everyday, beyond the futuristic imaginations and concerns of modernity and capitalism in urban India.
In this post, I examine Muslim women’s present role as caregivers and their beliefs in predestination guiding their present. Through my ethnographic experience in Patna, India, as well as my own experiences as a woman raised in a Muslim household, I am able to gain a unique perspective into pious women's aspirations, emotions, connections, and disconnections, as they care for their families and gain a better understanding of how 'destiny' or 'better future' contributes to their present lives.
Destiny and Good Life
The notions of ‘destiny’, ‘better future’, and ‘good life’ are ethnographically relevant to scholarly discussions about contemporary Islamic womanhood in India, which often continues to be characterized into binary categories of backward and modern, pious and secular, and so on (Jeffery and Qureshi 2022; Khan 2015). Much of this recent scholarship draws upon Arjun Appadurai's concepts of the “capacity to aspire” and the “future as a cultural fact” (2013, 20), which theorize ‘aspiration’ as an a priori ideal to empower Muslim women facing modernity’s distressing or progressive futures. In doing so, this scholarship has ignored temporal eschatological concerns related to destiny, Islamic notions of care, and future-making, thereby obscuring the diverse exigencies faced by Muslim women in their everyday life.
In what follows, I aim to re-center these concerns focusing on the construction of Islamic womanhood in contemporary India through embodied practices of everyday care and women’s Islamic belief in ‘destiny.’ Here, I focus on the ontological concerns associated with Islamic beliefs about caregiving, future, and future-making, and I see anthropological ideas of temporality and caregiving as interrelated.
When I asked Nadia about her future goals, she said:
“No one can know what the future holds. Only Allah can know best. See, I want to become an Urdu teacher, but my plans have not worked out yet. In a few years, I will be married. Right now, I have the time to take care of my parents who are now old. Who knows what will come next? But I have faith that whatever comes my way, I will have the courage to get through life.”
Conversations like these made me realize that in fact, modernist presumptions of aspirations have occluded the concept of the ‘good life’ in the lives of many socioeconomically vulnerable Muslim women in India. It’s clear that for Nadia, the concept of a good life was not simply determined by a career, marital bliss, or financial success. Rather Nadia and many others like her envision a future based on God’s inevitability and faith to handle the drudgery, mundaneness, and uncertainty of the everyday. The vignette above shows how new, and perhaps better, futures are imagined within the constraints, roles, and responsibilities in everyday practices of caregiving. As such, the purpose of this post is not to recount Muslim women’s shattered dreams, aspirations, or personal desires of the present (cf. Maqsood 2021). Rather, I demonstrate how perceptions of a good life transcend present concerns shaped by modernity toward eschatological concerns of the future.
Within anthropological scholarship on temporalities and future, there is a subtle citing of the past in the present, calling for a reassessment of the universality of global conditions created by capitalism, rather than an assessment of how the future resides in or draws in the present (for example, Comaroff and Comaroff 2000, Berlant 2011, see also Bryant and Knight 2019). In the present case of Muslim women’s concerns of future-making, for example, the temporalization of the future in their everyday enables Muslim women caregivers to handle the uncertainties and anxieties of the present whilst hoping to build a better future. Thus, by focusing on the futuralism of the everyday, my study moves past the abstract temporalization and the too-far-beyond-futuristic imaginations of modernity and capitalism (cf. Bryant and Knight 2019, 12). Thus, while research on time and temporality within anthropology and history often finds the past as shaping the present (Munn 1992; Thapar 2013), in this context it is the future that plays an active role in shaping the present conditions of these women.
Colloquially called taqdeer or kismat, the concept of ‘destiny’ holds a wide-ranging meaning in different South Asian Muslim settings. Most often it is used as an explanation for something that has not gone the way one would have wished (Bryant and Knight 2019). But, in other contexts, it also points to the malleability of the future to come (see, Elliot 2016, Menin 2020). In the case of central Morocco, Laura Menin emphasizes the interaction between the divine and human intentionality in undertaking personal responsibilities, where destiny is viewed as a ‘path’ that each individual is actively called to fulfill (2020, 517). Within this idea of individual maneuver and action within limits, Alice Elliot and Laura Menin theorize destiny through the concept of “malleable fixity” (2018, 293).
In the context of this idea of malleable fixity, taqdeer holds a special significance for socio-economically vulnerable Muslim women caregivers. In these households, ordinary caregiving has its own script, based on helping the elderly while simultaneously enhancing the caregiver’s moral standing and crafting a better destiny (cf. Ismail 2021). Thus, for women like Nadia, the idea of better futures is strategically built over time by means of divine rewards, as well as blessings from the elderly through practices of care. Women believe that through these rewards, intergenerational ties are strengthened, marital prospects are improved, and that these rewards offer them the resilience to cope with unexpected life events and hope for newer life outcomes. The concept of destiny, far from being a meaningless verbal hyperbole of an irrevocable future, is employed by these women as a means of understanding their aspirations, anxieties, frustrations, and obligations as caregivers in the present
Divine Rewards through Everyday Caregiving
Working in different settings, anthropologists of care have offered ethnographic evidence to show how caregiving is not necessarily driven by compassion. Amira Mittermaier’s (2021) ethnography in Cairo offers an example of how bureaucratization drives Islamic ethics of care in Islamic charities. In the context of Thailand, Felicity Aulino (2019) shows that care is a matter of practical work, bodily ritual, and karmic morality that decenters the sentimentalized and morally loaded aspects of care. Similarly, my work within Muslim households in India has shown me that caregiving at home is not always driven by a sense of compassion but is often considered a way of repaying parental debt (see also, Mody, 2020), and young women in gendered households experience parental pressure to perform household duties. In such conditions, women like Nadia, find localized religious expressions of taqdeer useful to undertake the simultaneous necessity and impossibility of caregiving.
On various occasions when I discussed Nadia’s everyday routine and her care duties for her elderly grandmother, she expressed resentment, complaining about how much of her time she spent taking care of her grandmother and doing household chores. She said:
“Yes, I am tired and exhausted with the work that I have to do at home. Sometimes I don’t want to take up these responsibilities. However, this time won't come back again. Who knows, but maybe Allah will reward me for all the hard work I'm doing right now. My taqdeer will be shaped by my amal (or work) now.”
In that moment of resentment, Nadia invoked fate, or her taqdeer, hoping that things would turn out for the better through the blessings of Allah and her grandmother. Moreover, in Nadia’s expressions of ‘destiny,’ there was a subtle note about ‘divine will’ alongside her personal choices and actions guiding her present responsibilities. For Nadia, her role as caregiver for her aging grandmother was part of an inscrutable divine plan, yet one which also emphasized individual responsibility.
In another instance, twenty-five-year-old Amina shared with me how she cared for her parents on her own. In response to my question about what she did with her free time and whether she felt bored at home, Amina, who was a part-time teacher at a local Islamic school for girls, replied:
“Where is the time to get bored? I am busy in the morning at school and after that, I have to take care of everyone in the house. Both my brothers earn their living in the Gulf. I am, in fact, so lucky that I have the kind of work that gives me time to be there for my parents and take care of my grandmother. Who knows if I will get this kind of time in the future once I get married? My mother always taught me that our lives in the future will be shaped by how we behave with our elders now. I believe that everything happens by the Will of Allah.”
Both Nadia’s and Amina’s roles as full-time caregivers were influenced by their belief in the Islamic temporality of ‘destiny,’ woven into and through the idea of quotidian care and their indefatigable determination in the practice of future-making. In caring for others, the women realized and found out what their familial roles, responsibilities, and vulnerabilities were within the home and outside it. As such, due to their belief in destiny that actualized hopes of a better future, women found caregiving meaningful and powerfully agential. In the process, the practice of ordinary caregiving, which is usually seen as passive, boring, and mundane, became an avenue for the women’s agency.
In conclusion, unlike what is usually theorized about Indian housewives, young socio-economically impoverished Muslim women caregivers do not always show boredom or passivity while staying at home (see Islam 2020). Instead, they are motivated and driven with the idea of a better future and a better destiny, which they believe depends on good care practices. This does not mean that all of Muslim women’s actions are guided through destiny. Instead, it means that destiny involves intimate, everyday actions (cf. Elliot 2016). This invites us to think about the future as a means of understanding the present.
In recent decades, anthropology has increasingly theorized the future (Bryant and Knight 2019). Yet, divine temporalities are actively disregarded in shaping individual present and future (Schielke 2019). In this post, I have investigated how young Muslim women in contemporary India see destiny or an “irrevocable” future as a malleable concept in their present to define their future life outcomes. In my analysis of destiny and caregiving, I argue that women's reflections on the present reveal an anthropological perspective on how the present is constructed through a sense of the future rather than the past. As a result, women in this context visualize the future through localized religious expressions of taqdeer or destiny instead of Eurocentric conceptions of agency and aspiration that are based on the vulnerabilities caused by capitalism (Khoja-Moolji 2019, Mahmood 2005). Thus, despite gender-based expectations and unequal responsibilities in households, everyday care by these Muslim women and their belief in destiny is not passive and non-agential.
The ubiquitous use of the religious vocabulary of destiny in everyday life illustrates how young women construct renewed meanings of caregiving, and in the process make strategic use of faith connections and kinship bonds to achieve personal ends of securing a ‘better future.’ Additionally, these innovative practices of generating ‘better futures’ reveal the significance that women attach to the depths of future time, and they are markers of how Muslim women of low-income households in India frame their personal desires and social worlds. It encourages us to shift anthropology’s attention from the past building the present to examine how the future shapes present actions and situations.
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