Saturday, July 05, 2014

Between Hypersexualization & Extreme Segregation: Mixed Gender Interaction in Islam

It is unfortunate that today, the Ummah seems to fall into two camps when it comes to mixed gender interaction.

One side - quite often those of a more conservative stripe, whether cultural, religious, or both - holds that it is impossible for men and women to ever interact in a way that is free of sexual tension; that men and women are primal, innately sexual beings who are unable to operate in a manner that puts sexual desire on the back burner; and that it is nigh sacrilegious to even suggest otherwise.

The other side - usually of the liberal and progressive stream - posit that implying that bringing up sexual desire as a presence in any mixed gender interactions is downright insulting. Some believe that hijab and lowering of the gaze are unnecessary and oppressively restrict both genders by creating an attitude of paranoid hypersexuality.

In truth, neither are correct.

Islam recognizes that men and women are both human beings, with diverse qualities, characteristics, and desires... but does *not* render those desires evil in and of themselves, nor state that women are solely responsible for 'inciting' the desires of men.

The obligation of lowering the gaze, modest dressing, and hijab exist for a reason - neither to hide our sexual desires nor to highlight them, but simply to recognize their existence and take appropriate measures to remind us human beings of how to conduct ourselves in a manner befitting of true believers.

Islam is a religion which does not merely create and enforce rules for no reason other than blind obedience; those rulings exist for a reason, and that reason is to purify our behaviour, our speech, and our character such that we attain not just a state of 'Islam' (submission/obedience), but of *Ihsaan.*

When we look to RasulAllah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), and how his Companions - men and women alike - interacted with each other, we see a holistic understanding of both mixed-gender interaction... one which emphasized a state of Ihsaan.

The men and women of the Companions interacted with each other on a regular basis: bargaining in the marketplace, visiting each other, seeking knowledge with each other, even challenging and debating each other. Yet their every interaction was marked by a striving for chastity, for spiritual strength and purity. They had a consciousness and awareness of honour and dignity, and conducted themselves with such.

Those who imply that men and women cannot possibly interact with each other in a 'safe' manner (some go so far as to claim that if a woman even moves her elbow in a certain way, it will be percieved as sexually attractive by men) are in fact insulting the very spirit of Ihsaan that exists within the rulings of hijaab.

As Muslims, it is not enough for us to say "our desires exist" - it is upon us to seek to conquer those base desires, not merely in action (e.g. through observing hijab or segregating the genders), but in the very way we *think.*
Allah describes the relationship between the believers, men and women, as one of cooperation in all aspects of life and society; worshipping Allah together and enjoining the good and forbidding the evil. It is a relationship based upon honour and dignity, upon the 'izzah bestowed upon us by Islam, a relationship that recognizes our humanity (including our sexuality) but does not restrict us to being controlled by those human desires.

To reduce the rulings of our Deen in such a manner that we encourage our baser desires rather than conquering them, is to remove that 'izzah from ourselves and make us no better than animals who have no control over their thoughts and actions.

{The believing men and believing women are allies of one another. They enjoin what is right and forbid what is wrong and establish prayer and give zakah and obey Allah and His Messenger. Those - Allah will have mercy upon them. Indeed, Allah is Exalted in Might and Wise.} (Qur'an 9:71)


Anonymous said...

Asalam Aliakum and Ramadan Mubarak to you. This is a brilliant post on gender relations. I am a mature age convert to Islam and this has been a very difficult issue for me to navigate. Jazak'Allah khayr for this article; it really put me at ease.

Anonymous said...

Assalamu alaikum, than you for this. And all your other posts. May Allah reward you abundantly, ameen. I have had to unfollow several "muslim feminists" sites because the version of feminism within the context of Islam didn't sit well with me. Its one thing to say our understanding of the religion needs to be reappraised and quite another to say there is something inherently wrong with the religion that needs to be changed.

Anonymous said...

very interesting blog. Im going to read more. Just a question; what's your definition of a feminist? Serious question. Jazaakillah khair ukhtee

Amiyn al-Ansare said...

Assalaamu3laykum. Your opinion seems balanced, but I do have some questions about how you've derived it; I hope your travels and exposure to the Muslim world will further enlighten me.

I am originally from America (born to Muslim parents), and being Salafi (for lack of better words) just happened naturally by wanting to be with truth (many mistakes made along the way). I now live in Kuala Lumpur with my Malay wife. What I can say about the society here is that lowering gaze is easier due to 2/3 of all ladies at least have their head and necks covered, and 1/3 of those are in baju kurung. Furthermore, Malays do not try to justify shari' violations in their society (music and bid'ah aside); lots of dating in college and university, but they don't say it's halal. Ladies admit tight clothes are bad for them and those around them. Men and women try to avoid handshakes (these days it seems only to be applicable with Muslim to Muslim). Mixed gatherings are totally unavoidable even in circle of Ilm, except for when an Arab da'yee is at its head. Ladies here don’t really party by themselves, and cousins and in-laws are close associates, so I can kind of understand why they are a comparatively loose since many of them spend 70% to 90% of their time in hijaab!
I have never been to Saudi Arabia or Dammaaj or anywhere similar, but what I can say is that there still a challenge to continue the gaze or even take the forbidden second look, that might not be present or possible in societies where ladies are covered as you are covered (or portrayed in your writing presence). I do not believe that Niqab is wajib, but it helps tremendously, and it is the sunnah of the mothers of the believers, ALLAH be pleased with them. I also believe that maybe some societies just cannot mix responsibly, so desperate measures are taken to prevent evil.

I value informed opinions over my endless speculation with what little I know of the world, and of the Shari’ah. Would you say that my stance is fulled by relying on IslamQA and the likes and the fact that I spent a young man’s lifetime in sex-crazed America?

AnonyMouse said...

wa 'alaikumus-salaam wa rahmatullaahi wa barakaatuh,

Having lived in Egypt and Kuwait, and experienced Saudi for a short time, I can tell you that what despite the outward "hijab" that we see, the mentality regarding sexuality, modesty, and segregation is EXTREMELY unhealthy... to the point that it has led to high rates of homosexual rape, incest, and all kinds of twisted perversions... I would say that it's even worse in some ways than sex-crazed Western countries (where I was raised as well).

As I emphasized in the article, what's necessary is a very balanced, holistic approach to the issue of modesty and gender segregation... one that fully understands the fiqhi limitations while keeping in mind spiritual and emotional health.

Amiyn al-Ansare said...

Can that be more rigidly defined? If not I can only imagine abuse of freedomdue the wide spread lack of knowlege and laxidasical approach to shari' compliance.

I think what we would call balanced, the Ulamaa' might understand to be a reasonable settlement given civilized conditions today, but still not sufficient.Where they settle is apparent in the words of Shaykh al-Munajjid,
"We know that the intermingling, mixing and crowding together of men and women is part of today’s unavoidable yet regrettable affliction in most places, such as markets, hospitals, colleges, etc., but:

· We will not willfully choose or accept mixing and crowding, particularly in religious classes and council meetings in Islamic Centers.

· We take precautions to avoid meeting and mixing of men and women as much as possible while at the same time achieving desired goals and objectives. This result can be achieved by designating separate places assigned for men and women, using different doors for each, utilizing modern means of communication such as microphones, video recorders etc., and expediting efforts to have enough female teachers to teach women, etc.

· We show fear of Allaah as much as we can by not looking at members of the opposite sex and by applying self-restraint."("

They appear to understamd that what is implimented in their lands (or at least some of it) is as the Prophet peace be upon him instructed, with such proofs as what Abu Usayd al-Ansari narrated; he heard Allah’s Messenger (May peace and blessings be upon him) say to the women on his way out of the mosque when he saw men and women mixing together on their way home:
‘Give way (i.e., walk to the sides) as it is not appropriate for you to walk in the middle the road.’ Thereafter, women would walk so close to the wall that their dresses would get caught on it. Narrated by Abu Dawood in "Kitab al-Adab min Sunanihi, Chapter: Mashyu an-Nisa Ma’ ar-Rijal fi at-Tariq." Does the Saudi way transgress this hukum?

AnonyMouse said...

One issue that I think many conservative/ Salafi Muslims have is that they expect everything to be spelled out to them completely - as opposed to using hikmah.

Also, there is a very distinct pattern of cherry-picking texts to support arguments, as opposed to looking at them as a whole.

While we are of course supposed to avoid the things you mentioned as much as possible, we also need to remember that daily life isn't black and white, and that "necessity" is a flexible concept. Even in the time of RasulAllah (sallAllahu 'alayhi wa sallam), the male and female Companions regularly interacted - while observing correct hijab and adab - whether it was in the context of studying Islam, engaging in business, or even simply visiting each other for the sake of Allah.

In any case, here is another piece I wrote on the topic that you might find interesting, and which to me highlights the understanding of the Sahabah:

Amiyn al-Ansare said...

Alhamdulillah, That certainly puts things in perspective. Thank you.

Please pardon me for anything hurtful I may have said.

If you can, your welcome to put any helpful commentaryon my blog thinklivesunnah

AnonyMouse said...

No apologies necessary. Thank you for the interesting conversation!