Donnerstag, 5. Juni 2014

Men, women, friendship and Islam

"Islam forbids 'unnecessary contact' between men and women"

Can men and women be friends? Just friends? Many Muslims will tell you that Islam forbids "unnecessary contact" between men and women. I have heard (and read) this numerous times since becoming a Muslim. There is talks, lectures, books, articles about the topic, in which Muslim after Muslim explain to you that men and women can't, shouldn't, mustn't be friends. There is family, there is mariage, two areas in which contacts with the opposite gender is legitimate; there is the grey zone of colleagues or classmates whom you need to deal with (unless you live in a country where universities and the workplace are completely segregated); there is strangers on the street (whom you usually don't really engage with anyway), but friendship, just for the sake of friendship between men and women? No. Haram. "Where will it lead?!" - "The line between joking and flirting is fine." - "When a man and a woman are together, Shaitan is the third person present." 

No khalwa; no physical contact; respectful behaviour

I know there is difference of opinion between scholars on the topic but I was taught that a man and a woman must not be alone in a secluded space (khalwa). I was taught that physical contact between members of the opposite gender is forbidden unless you are married or he is your mahram (some might want to add "physical contact when there is attraction", again: difference of opinion). I was taught that you must behave responsibly, sensibly and treat others respectfully. This is, of course, true for men and women but in front of members of the opposite gender it is even more important to maintain some decorum. 

It is useful to set objective limits

All this makes sense to me. Not because I believe that if you are alone in a room with a strange man you will inevitably be all over each other within seconds, or that shaking hands with a man will lead to hugging him will lead to kissing him will lead to (I spare you the rest) ... but because I believe it helps to know how far you can go, because I think it is useful to set (fairly) objective limits regardless of the person you're dealing with, because these rules help avoid confusion and misunderstandings. I respect these rules whenever possible, but I don't see how these tell me not to be friends with someone of the opposite gender.

If...: friendship with conditions

If I avoid being in a secluded space with my male friends, if I don't touch them and if they (and I) behave responsibly, sensibly and treat each other respectfully - why should I not be friends with them? Because "where will it lead?!"? Because "The line between joking and flirting is fine"? Because "When a man and a woman are together, Shaitan is the third person present"? No. 

"Where will it lead?!"

"Where will it lead?!" I am not sure what you are thinking of. Where will it lead?! I have had male friends for over ten years. It has not lead anywhere. I have not had any illicit relationship with any of them. I meet them with other friends or in public, talk to them on the phone or via social media, in short: I do not meet them in a secluded space. They know me. They know about my religion, my values, where my limits are. They respect them. They respect me. They don't hug me. They don't touch me. I don't either. They don't think anything when we talk or meet. And I don't either. They are married or not, I know their wives or girlfriends or not, but it is out of question that there is anything except friendship.

"The line between joking and flirting is fine."

"The line between joking and flirting is fine." No. Whether someone is joking or flirting depends on the intention. As long as my intention is pure, there is no flirting. I might joke with my friends but it is joking, nothing else. I know that and they know that. If I sense that there is more on the other side, I know how to distance myself. If it does not stop, he does not stay my friend. Easy.

"When a man and a woman are together, Shaitan is the third person present."

"When a man and a woman are together, Shaitan is the third person present." If you do believe that this hadith means that a woman should not be in the presence of a strange man without a mahram by her side, then I would urge you not to follow my example and have male friends. I do not believe this is what this hadith means. I was taught this hadith means that men and women are not allowed to be together alone, i.e. in a secluded space. I am not in a secluded space with my male friends, so this point does not apply to my friendships with men. If you are in doubt about how to interpret this hadith, check with a scholar. I did. And follow now what I believe in.

Friends who have lent me more money than I make a month

I would not want to miss my male friends. I have male friends that I can call at midnight and talk to them on the phone for three hours without them or me thinking anything bad. I have male friends who have lent me three times more money than I make a month when I needed it and did not ask twice when I would be able to pay them back. I have male friends who I have been friends with when they were single, in a relationship, engaged, married, divorced. I have male friends who have asked me for advice when they wanted to get married. I have male friends who I can discuss family matters with. I have male friends who will tell me when my headscarf does not go well together with my dress at all. I have male friends with whom I can laugh about stereotypes about Muslim women or the assumptions others make when they see us together.

I am not naive: reputation is important, too...

I am not naive. I am not like this with all of my male friends and acquaintances. I will be more careful in some contexts, not because I think what I do is wrong but because there are other factors that need to be taken into consideration, such as, for example, your (and his) reputation. There is no point in knowing that you have not done anything wrong if everyone believes you have. In situations like this, I will be more careful. (Most of the time. Because if there is nothing wrong with what you do, you cannot always worry about what others will think.)

...and so is knowing that there are black sheep

Another aspect to be taken into account is that no matter how clear the rules are to yourself, there is a risk that they might not be as obvious (or seem as respect-worthy) to him as they are to you. However, as mentioned above, this usually becomes obvious rather quickly. Unless you are completely naive, you can usually tell whether someone has pure intentions or something else on their mind. If you can't distinguish between the two, don't be friends with members of the opposite gender.

Breaking off all contact with male friends after marriage?

I have friends who have broken off all contact with their male friends after they have gotten married. It is your life and you have, of course, the right to do whatever you please, but I don't think I will ever understand. If I believe there is nothing wrong with having male friends, if there is nothing but friendship between me and them - why would I stop all contact with them just because I have gotten married? If my husband does not believe me when I say they are just friends, if he cannot stand that there are other people I like and I am in contact with, if he does not trust me - again, it is your life, but - I don't understand. To me it would be insulting if a man told me to stop having male friends or if he was jealous of my male friends. Don't you trust me? And please don't tell me he says: "I trust you, but I don't trust him!" Erm, excuse me?, who do you think I am, a piece of candy that a man just takes when he pleases without me being able to establish any rules, any limits in our friendship?

They offer a different perspective

I don't believe there is anything wrong with having male friends (if the conditions outlined above are met). Not being able to have male friends would break me. I love my female friends, there is something only they can give me; and I appreciate my male friends, something would be missing if they weren't there. Sometimes they are friends just like my female friends are, but sometimes they are different. Sometimes they make me understand things I, as a woman, would not see. Sometimes they offer a different perspective, speak differently, think differently, view things differently. This is something I, as an individual would not want to miss, but there is also a wider context this comes to play in. I want to be an active member of this society. I want to make a difference to my community, to help change things for the better. If I don't know how men think, how they behave, how they speak, laugh and cry, if I don't know how half of this society functions, how will I be able to contribute to making any impact?

Who defines "unnecessary"?

And this, by the way, is one of the reasons, I cringe when I hear this statement that "Islam forbids unnecessary contact between men and women". Unnecessary? Who defines that? Is it unnecessary for me to work with male colleagues? No, because I need to make money. Yes, because I could work from home. Is it unnecessary for me to study at a university where I sit in lectures held by male professors, side by side with my male classmates, where my thesis supervisor might be male? No, because otherwise I could not get an education. Yes, because I could emigrate to Saudi Arabia and enroll at a local, fully gender-segregated university. Is it unnecessary for me to speak to the male shopkeeper, to buy my groceries from his shop? No, because I need to get groceries. Yes, because for just one pound per delivery I could order them online. Is it unnecessary for me to have male friends? Yes, because why don't you just have female friends? No, because it is not the same; because they are not the same; because my male friends offer a different perspective and make me grow in ways that my female friends don't.