One of the things I’ve noticed growing up in America is that despite the number of talks we have on proper interactions between men and women, there’s a distinct lack of practical advice on the topic. We’re told to strike a balance between being too free and completely walling ourselves off the opposite gender. But that’s not really practical advice that we can take and act on. Most of us know perfectly well that spending the night sleeping with a woman is haram. We’re also very well aware that screaming “AUDHOBILLAH” when a female classmate asks to borrow a pencil is excessive. Most lectures and articles on gender interactions usually touch on scenarios at these two extremes. Which is to say, they’re not very useful for anyone who wants guidance on gender interaction.
For this article, I’ve combed through several Islamic websites, listened to a number of lectures, and drawn on the answers I’ve received personally from scholars at lectures, conferences, and halaqahs. I hope that it will insha’Allah be a useful guide for knowing the Islamic adab in interacting with women.
By far the most important rule when interacting with women in sincerity. You’re never going to find a lecture or article or even book which lists every single scenario imaginable and how to act Islamically for that specific moment. You have to use your own judgement. That opens the door for making excuses to blur the line between acceptable and unacceptable. Be sincere in your interactions and honest with yourself. The outside world may think you’re being a gentleman but you know when your polite interactions have an ulterior motive. The fact that you’re even reading this article shows that you do care about proper Islamic behavior. Don’t be complacent though; sincerity is always in flux and you might find that while you initially began an interaction sincerely, the intention has since morphed into something else. Be consistent in checking yourself and honestly assessing if, at some level, you know that you’re being flirtatious or overly friendly.
Be professional and purposeful
One of the best rules of thumb I was taught goes as follows: In the realm of worship, everything is forbidden until proven otherwise by the Qur’an and Sunnah. In the realm of worldly affairs, everything is permissible until proven otherwise by the Qur’an and Sunnah with a handful of exceptions. One of those exceptions is right here. Interacting with women (for guys, obviously). Here, the rule of thumb is “Talking to women is forbidden unless there is a purpose.” If the way you talk to women is the same way you talk to men, there’s an issue. There should be a difference. The most important difference being that you don’t talk unless you have an actual reason to talk.
For example, say you miss a class and need notes to make it up. The only person in the class you know well enough to ask for notes is a Muslim girl. You can send her an email and say “Salaam, This is Ahmad from Biology 101. I wasn’t able to make it to class yesterday and was wondering if I could get a copy of your notes. I would really appreciate it. Jazakullah khair, Ahmad.” That’s it. Straight and to the point. No needless chatter, no smileys, nothing other than a strictly professional email you’d be fine with her father discovering.
On the other hand, let’s say you see this Muslim girl in your Biology 101 class and decide to add her on Facebook. You occasionally like a status or so (always about Islamic related stuff) and then before a test, send her a message, “Salaam! Good luck on that test, you’ll be in my du’a!” And then three hours later “That last test was sooo hard! My mom’s going to kill me if I don’t get into med school :-). Jk…sorta.” This interaction was pointless and you’re making a casual conversation when the tone should be professional. If her dad finds this message, his view of you is going to be very different than if he had seen the email above. Use the father/husband rule when you’re unsure. Would you change anything in in the way you’re interacting with her if her father or husband was present? If so, you know deep down that you’re doing something wrong.
While the headscarf may be just for women, modesty is not. Whether you’re in the workforce and dress professionally or at college and dress casually, there’re still an Islamic etiquette for how you dress. This has long been a problem for women’s clothing in the West but lately, it seems men’s fashion has undergone a change to immodesty as well. Tight pants which hug your thighs are not alright. Throw away the skinny jeans. You’ve been working out, great. Thank Allah for the biceps. Still not a reason to be wearing super tight shirts which accentuate your upper body. I’m sure you had fun swimming last summer but the shirtless pics on Facebook need to be taken down. Your body is for the enjoyment of your wife, not for random girls to admire.
Extend this to whoever is following you on Snapchat or Instagram. The reality is that you always have women seeing you on these accounts. You might think that you’ve only added guys but those guys have sisters and some may have female friends who they have no qualms about showing your pictures to. If it’s a picture that you think is not appropriate for women to see, it shouldn’t be on your account, even if you only have male followers.
Lower your gaze
Don’t stare, don’t ogle. Yes, in the summer months, you’ll have classmates and coworkers who wear very revealing clothes. That’s not an excuse to check them out. Look them in the eyes, not below their neck.
If you’re getting Snapchat pictures of women (Muslim or otherwise) that are flirty or even just fun, delete that person from your account and make it clear to them you’re not interested. Go back to our rule of thumb. All interactions are haram unless there is a purpose. There is no purpose behind following girls on Snapchat or looking at their pictures on Facebook. No, it’s not harmless or innocent. How would you feel if your mom sent a pic of herself making a duck face to your dad’s friend? Or if he sent one back to her about going to an Islamic conference and with the caption “You’re missing out on this great lecture! :D”. Would you smile as he laughed about how “No, I’m just friends with your mom, it’s harmless interaction!” More likely, you’d want to punch him in the face.
Avoid private conversations
Ibn `Abbas said, “I heard the Messenger of Allah ﷺ give a sermon. He said, ‘A man should not be in an isolated area with a woman except that there be with her someone who is of unmarriageable kin.’” [Bukhari, Muslim]
If you have an assignment that requires you to work with a girl, meet her in public and somewhere that carries a professional air. Meaning a library rather than a pizza place. Also very important is that you meet at an appropriate time. Late night meetings going into midnight to work on a project are not acceptable. If you can, especially in college, bring a third person with you to just hang out nearby.
If you’re working on an MSA project, be very cognizant of the time. Don’t take phone calls when it’s dark and everyone has gone to sleep. Ask yourself, if my father or her father walked in on one of us, would I feel embarrassed and stutter to explain myself? “No Baba, we’re just talking about MSA planning at midnight, I promise.” While that might even be true, you know how it would look to others and you would feel queasy. Your heart is telling you it’s not right. Don’t worry about looking weird to the sister, she’ll understand (or at least pretend to). I had an MSA event I was working on once during college and one of the sisters on the board gave me a call at around 11:30pm to discuss some details. I ignored the call and sent a simple text message back saying I didn’t feel comfortable talking to girls when it was late and everyone was asleep. I immediately received profuse apologies and never again got a call late at night. Once you set your boundaries, people will respect them. Even if they think you are weird, better to be seen as weird than disobey Allah ﷻ.
Some people may object and say that this is hypersexualizing men and women and that the insinuation is that the second a man and woman are alone together, they’ll jump on each other. That’s not true and is not at all what is being said or even hinted at. Absolutely, the first time you’re alone with a practicing Muslim sister, it’ll almost definitely be a completely professional conversation. The second time, the third time, the fourth time as well. The tenth time you’ll feel at ease and crack a joke that you wouldn’t have before. And by the 50th time, you both are completely free with each other and have formed emotional bonds which are very real. Even if there is no physical relation, those emotional bonds are meant be between a husband and wife and when you do get married, you will be getting married after having a heart that has been attached to someone else.
Realize that your reputation is at stake
While the reason we adhere to proper interactions is to please Allah ﷻ, at the same time, realize that your reputation is also directly tied to your interactions. When you cross boundaries, people will eventually find out and that has long lasting repercussions. When it’s time to get married, the women who have protected their chastity, both physical and emotional, will want to find someone who has done the same. If you’ve developed a reputation for being flirty and free with women, you’re going to get passed on for seemingly less compatible suitors who have maintained their haya and modesty. Some guys shrug this off because they think that only men care about their spouse being emotionally and physically chaste. That is not true. I have three sisters and can guarantee you many (if not most) Muslim women demand that their husband be someone who has met the same standards they’ve held themselves to. How sad would it be if you missed out on a great Muslim woman in marriage because of the reputation you cultivated in college by being too free with the opposite gender?
Avoid all unnecessary contact. No high fives, definitely no hugs, and obviously nothing beyond that. As far as handshaking goes, there are a few scholars who hold it to be permissible with certain caveats. However, outside of this possible exception in professional interactions, absolutely no physical contact. Beyond touching though, maintain physical distance. There’s no reason for you to be so close to a woman when you’re talking to her that you can tell what brand of shampoo she uses. Take a step back.
Proper interaction does not mean to be robotic. Every person has their own personality and their own way of talking. Culture and setting also play a role in how you speak. While you should always have a purpose when you speak to women, it does not mean that you need a line by line justification for every sentence you utter. Go back to our rule of thumb. Try to put yourself in her father’s shoes (or if she’s non-Muslim, imagine she has a Muslim father). If he were to see you talking to his daughter in that manner, would he think “He’s just being polite, nothing shady here,” or would he get angry at you?
In short, don’t flirt, don’t joke excessively, don’t make extra casual conversations. Don’t use pet names for each other. Be normal, be yourself, be polite, but be respectful and draw the line.
You set the boundaries
Putting all the gender equality and men and women are the same business aside, the unadulterated truth is that you as the man are going to be the one who sets the limit. If you draw the line where it should, the vast majority of women are not going to keep trying to move past it. To be honest, this usually doesn’t work the other way. Many women, regardless of how attractive they are, will inevitably find some guy who keeps trying to move past the limit they’ve set. So set the boundaries and stick to them.
Never be too casual
One of the biggest reasons people cross boundaries and get involved in excessive interactions with the opposite gender is that they want to get married. However, remember that if your goal is to find a spouse who will elevate you in this life and the next, you’re not going to find that by disobeying Allah ﷻ. MSA’s have (often accurately) gotten the reputation for being a place for men and women to freely mingle under the excuse of looking for marriage. In a lot of MSA’s, it has become culturally acceptable for men and women to hang out together provided it’s in a group. Being in a group does not change any of the guidelines above. In a later article, we will insha’Allah detail the Islamic way of getting married. For now though, know that the women who will be your wife was written down by Allah ﷻ 50,000 years before the creation of the heavens and earth. You will find her and the only thing you are doing by crossing lines is causing yourself heartache before you meet her.
So there you go. Insha’Allah this has been useful in giving some practical advice for gender interactions. May Allah ﷻ keep us sincere in our interactions with others, guide us to the best character, and forgive us our shortcomings.
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