As Muslim women, we are often (InshaAllah) concerned with maintaining our modesty. The first form of modesty people often think of is how a person dresses. Indeed, we strive to wear loose clothing that does not accentuate the shape of our body and we wear the headscarf. Yet, there is also modesty in our interactions and our behavior. Particularly in regards to our interactions with men—both Muslim and non-Muslim. In this blog, I (Halimah) will share some valuable advice I adhere by and an experience from which I learned a valuable lesson,.
PPL: Public, Purposeful & Limited
Quite some time ago, Mufti Hussain Kamani, a Islamic scholar, gave a lecture about gender interactions where he encouraged Muslims to always abide by PPL when interacting with the opposite gender. First, always be in a public space surrounded by other people. This means avoiding small closed-off rooms or being alone anywhere with the opposite gender. Second, only interact for a purposeful reason. After a simple short “Hello. How are you?” we should not drag out conversations any longer unless we have a specific and necessary reason to talk. Third, interactions, if necessary, should be kept as short as politely possible. Since Muslimahs are advised to abstain from male companionship outside of marriage and immediate male relatives, there is really no reason for us to have repeated or extensive interactions with men. Now, I know that some young Muslimahs are of the personal opinion that it is okay to have male friends (Non-Muslim and Muslim), but I think it can be enlightening to for a person to step back and honestly analyze the nature and effects of such relationships. Occasionally, when I find myself trying to excuse or rationalize an opposite gender interaction, I ask “What would the wives of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) do?” For truly, these women are our best examples of strong pious Muslim women. May Allah(SWT) make it easy for all Muslim sisters to maintain modesty.
For Muslimahs living, studying, and working in non-Muslim environments, we are surrounded by men, non-Muslim and Muslim. Our social gender values are often in direct contrast to what is permissible and “normal” for current Western society. Just think of shaking hands and hugs--a very common way of greeting others (strangers, acquaintances, and close friends). But, let’s save the “I am Muslim. I don’t hug boys so please refrain from touching me” bit for later.
Until my recent transition to an Islamic workplace, I studied and worked in American non-Muslim environments. This past summer, I was at a career training program where all the participants lived in university housing. We all were pushing ourselves almost 24/7 to make sure we produced high quality work. Almost immediately, everyone found their desired places in the campus residence hall that they preferred to work (or just socialize). There was a particular non-Muslim co-participant, let’s call him Henry, who I saw almost everyday because we had a similar summer job location placement and had similar evening work preferences. Over the first few weeks, due to structured training discussions and random chatting during work breaks, we got to know each other quite well. By the third week of the program, Henry would tell me things like “Halimah, I love our conversations. You get me. I don’t really let people get to know me this quickly, but our conversations are deep! We are both so real, you know? I know we are going to be friends for a while.” Then, Henry started asking to be my Facebook friend. Indeed, Henry was a great person. He was dedicated to his work and we had intense conversations about immigration, racism, and education/health disparities.
To be honest, our work schedules were so busy and everyone was so sleep deprived that I barely had time to stop and think about the nature and consequences of my actions. It was not until Henry asked me for my number so we could better coordinate late night work sessions in the university lounges that I started to think about the consequences. This was an obvious "red flag” for me. This same day, Henry told me “Halimah, I love hugging my friends and I don’t think I have ever hugged you so I am going to give you a hug.” STOP! STOP! OMG WHAT did I get myself into?!---this was the state of my internal panicking.
Immediately, I said “Henry, I am Muslim so I don’t hug or touch men who are not directly related to me. So don’t ever mention hugging me again please.” Now, as totally awkward as this could have become, Henry was rather cool about it and responded “Oh, okay. I respect that. Got it. I won’t try to hug you.” Now, with 'crisis averted' (yes, I consider males trying to hug me a crisis), I returned to my room early that day and began reflecting. I realized that I had broken so many of my usual strict gender interaction values. Of course even someone who generally adheres to PPL (Public, Purposeful, & Limited) could argue that there was always a ‘purpose’ to our interactions: sharing and giving feedback on each others program work. Yes, I suppose that is true, but this is where I had to ask myself if that these interactions and their purpose were absolutely necessary. After reflecting that day, I knew that I had to change my interactions with Henry. I stopped going to our common work lounges and instead opted to work in my room or another female friend’s room. I did not seek out Henry for any information/conversations. If Henry tried to engage me in conversations, I would politely but quickly exit the conversation after a few exchanges. This is what I call “shutting down a situation”: put an immediate halt to situations that impede on your Muslim modesty.
Some Muslimahs may agree with my drastic “shut down” of the situation while others may think I was overreacting. While each person is indeed entitled to his/her opinion, I think the truth of the matter is that Western expectations/norms for friendship between opposite genders do not align in anyway with the Islamic expectations for opposite gender interactions. For me, it always boils down to “Am I honestly handling myself in a way that would please Allah(SWT)?” If there is any uncertainty about being in the favor of Allah, then that action must cease.
May Allah(SWT) guide us all in our actions.
While there are many Muslims who live in Muslim countries, a large portion of the ummah live in environments that do not align with Islamic principles. The "Navigating Non-Muslim Society" section of SFC is geared towards discussing the challenges that occur in these situations.