Struggling to maintain effective boundaries with non-Mahrams? We look at the concept of inner modesty, followed by practical tips and considerations.
How to Regulate Interactions with Non-Mahrams in the West
Struggling to maintain effective boundaries with non-Mahrams? We look at the concept of inner modesty, followed by practical tips and considerations.
Opposite gender interactions are a dilemma for Muslims living in western countries. Particularly at school and work, tricky and awkward situations arise, and a Muslim won’t know how to tackle them. With Islam being the final divinely revealed religion, logic necessitates it has the answer to all issues and queries from now up until the end of time.
In this article, we will examine how we can regulate interactions with non-mahrams in the west in two parts:
- The inner modesty and importance of adhering to the Islamic principles of modesty to develop a ‘modesty state of mind’
- Tips regulate interaction with non-mahram and how to approach everyday scenarios
The Inner Modesty
Modesty starts from within. The first step that will help keep our interactions with non-mahrams limited and halal is by having a ‘modesty frame of mind’, which is achieved through the regular practice of the Islamic concepts of modesty.
The Physical Hijab
Adorning the physical or outer hijab reminds us of our duty to religion. Wherever we are – be it at work, on holiday or at university – having a physical hijab will constantly remind us to draw the necessary lines.
The Male Physical Hijab
Even if the Quran does not stipulate a dress code for men, there are general concepts of modesty a man can adhere to, and it’s important for him to do so, given the following saying of the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)
Modesty is a branch of faith.”
Hijab literally means covering. So, the first thing a man should do is cover his gaze from looking at the opposite gender. The more he freely looks at non-mahram women, the more it subconsciously erodes his notion of modesty, and it may come to a point where it becomes normalised for him. The more a man looks at women he is attracted to, the more his imagination will get the better of him. These thoughts and feelings can turn into action through self-pleasure or zina. Therefore, it is better for him to lower his gaze as much as possible and prevent such stimuli from entering his eyes.
The Holy Prophet has said anyone who lowers their gaze, their eyes will not see hellfire [al-Mu’jam al-Kabīr].
Secondly, a man should be careful of his clothing. Overly tight or revealing clothing can lead to unwanted attention even if the Muslim man is not wearing this for those purposes and is doing it for fashion, personal preference etc. Through their clothing, men should signal to others that he is someone who is modest. This doesn’t mean one should keep their beard or hair unkempt. Being well-groomed and modesty is not mutually exclusive.
Applying the physical hijab puts men in a ‘modesty frame of mind’.
The Female Physical Hijab
The female dress code is well-documented in the Quran, namely the wearing of a headscarf and clothing that hides the shape of the body. When people talk about the female hijab, it’s often from the perspective of how it will protect them from male harassment. This is not entirely untrue because seeing the physical hijab can remind men of their boundaries, yet the logic is still flawed because history shows wearing a hijab, niqab, or jilbab has not stopped some men from violating the rights of the female.
I am a man, so disclaimer, these are only my humble thoughts, and I’m not trying to speak for females. As a Muslim, I seek to understand the philosophy of all aspects of religion, even those that may not strictly apply to me.
With respect to the hijab, I believe the female hijab has been instituted first and foremost to empower the woman. From pre-Islamic Arabia to the present day, the female and her success is largely defined by her appearance and body rather than her mind. Allah (SWT) gave women the hijab so they can remind themselves that their existence does not need to be defined by the derogative standards set by society. Today, female teens and young adults are shown sexualised women everywhere – from billboards and magazines to social media. Eventually, a young woman starts seeing her self-worth exclusively in these things. The hijab is a reminder that a woman is not a plaything or a centerpiece for men and, to use the words of the Quran, does not need to “display her finery” to receive validation.
Thus wearing the hijab, puts a woman in a ‘modesty frame of mind’.
Tips to Regulate Interactions with Non-Mahrams
As mentioned, taking steps to develop a ‘modesty state of mind’ serves as a reminder and keeps us on the straight path. So, when we are confronted with various situations, we are able to deal with them better. With that being said, here are some tips on how to regulate interactions with non-mahrams.
Limiting Interactions To Necessities
Interactions need to be regulated on two fronts: offline and online.
Free mixing in the west is an inevitable part of life. We can’t stay in our houses all day to avoid free mixing. We have to take part in society, but that doesn’t mean we forego all boundaries. When assigned to work with females in our employment or on a group project at university, stick to the necessary and basic topics of conversation. This means meeting them only for the purpose of work and departing once that purpose is met. And doing our best to talk with them exclusively about the project throughout the meeting.
I have to emphasise I’m not talking in a literal sense. As is common in the west, when people meet, they exchange pleasantries and may spend 5-10 minutes asking about your weekend, your wellbeing etc. Just because this isn’t about the project doesn’t mean you remain silent, be rude or cold shoulder them. This type of small talk is necessary because it leads to eventually getting into the work. It’s a buffer and part of the work process. As long as it’s not excessive, it is fine. Going into excess leads to over-friendliness, which can be a gateway to something haram. Over-friendliness could result in something as “little” as one forgetting they need to regulate their gaze or justifying initiating a hug for the sake of politeness. We’re smart enough to know the balance to exercise.
When it comes to mixed gatherings, there is no ayah of the Quran that talks about it. However, there are other ayahs that provide us with a general understanding of our duties here:
- We are instructed to lower our gaze and protect our private parts [24:30]
- Women are required to wear garments that cover their bodies [33:33]
- Women are required not to speak in a manner/voice that incites lust [33:32]
- Generally to avoid being around haram acts.
Therefore, mixed gatherings (be it work/social gatherings or going to the gym) are not unanimously haram, but if they compromise any of the above verses (and others, the above is not an exhaustive list), it’s probably better to stay away from them.
Social media and smartphones have made it super easy to remain in touch with people. As with every blessing, there is a test. The test of online technology for us Muslims is maintaining our distance from the opposite gender. It’s way too easy for a person to “slide into the DMs” of a non-Mahram to have a chat. We have to be mindful of the conversations and comments we leave on social media.
Liking or commenting “MashaAllah!” on a non-Mahrams picture is problematic and should be avoided. Ironically, it’s easier to stay away from non-Mahrams online than offline because we have full control over who we interact with. At work, you might be forced to work with the opposite gender. Online, it’s entirely up to you, yet we don’t impose Islamic boundaries.
At the same time, we should also be mindful of the types of content we post online (both visual and textual).
When it comes to work or college, we’re extremely careful about every detail, from avoiding shaking a non-mahram’s hand to making sure we don’t brush shoulders with the opposite gender down the corridor or when in a queue. Yet online, we seem to remove our restrictions, naively thinking it’s OK because we can’t touch or commit zina over Instagram (although it can lead to another type of zina). Moreover, it can chip away and dilute our ‘modesty state of mind’ to the extent we remove the previously enforced restrictions in offline interactions.
Walk in Front of the Opposite Gender
Prophet Musa (AS) famously requested the women who were leading him to their father’s house for employment after Musa helped them feed their sheep to walk behind him, and he would, for example, work out the direction by assessing the movement of their shadows.
How do we apply this today? If we are walking with a non-Mahram at work or school, we can’t always walk in front of them, especially if we are group members for a project. It will look odd to the other people. The principle Musa was expounding was not a literal instruction to always walk in front of the non-Mahram, but rather to simply be mindful of how we walk and interact with them.
For example, walking behind a non-Mahram when climbing a staircase is problematic because the backside of the non-Mahram is aligned with our immediate vision. Here, we can keep our gaze lowered or keep a distance. It’s that type of alertness that we need in these situations. Musa was alert to the possible dangers of walking behind the ladies, so he chose to walk in front. Where possible, we should walk in front, but that’s not the only option. In Musa’s story, let’s say it wasn’t two ladies but rather a lady and a man. In this situation, Musa may have adopted to walk side-by-side with them ensuring he’s on the side the man is walking.
These tiny considerations might seem inconsequential, but they’re not. If they were, Musa would not have cared how he walked with the ladies. These microdecisions go towards building a modest character and appropriate boundaries.
Avoid Shaking Hands
Physical touch, whether sexual or platonic, heightens one’s desires. Touch is a very powerful sense. After a bad day, one hug from our spouse can make everything seem better. Petting animals and playing with small children brings joy. Similarly, touching the opposite gender can evoke desires.
But let’s be honest, avoiding this is not easy in the west and often leads to unbearable difficulty, loss of income, breaking of relations and worse.
This is why some scholars have come and provided exceptions to this rule:
- Shaking hands in a region where it’s the cultural norm, and a sign of respect are allowed if declining the shake would lead to offence. However, it is not allowed if it’s not part of that society’s cultural norm.
- Shaking hands is only allowed if avoiding the shake leads to an incredible amount of difficulty. Sometimes, we may be in situations where it feels impossible to avoid it. Reverts often find this to be the case when they try to establish boundaries with non-mahram cousins or non-blood aunts/uncles. And they may opt to shake hands to avoid breaking the ties of kinship.
- Shaking hands through a cloth is allowed i.e. when wearing gloves.
These are, but a small set of rulings and are not intended to be acted upon by the reader. Please ask the leading scholar in your school of thought for detailed rulings pertaining to your school and your specific dilemma.
The intent here is to let the reader know the impermissibility of handshaking is not without its clauses, and scholars (particularly for Muslims in the west) have gone through Quran and hadith material to offer modern-day interpretations.
Avoid Being Alone With a Non-Mahram
Being alone with a non-mahram is huge dilemma and sometimes unavoidable. How many times have we heard the following hadith from Prophet Muhammad (PBUH):
“No man is alone with a woman but the Shaytan is the third one present.”
It’s a scary hadith. Nobody wants to be in the company of Satan. The hadith may have a literal meaning. Satan is one person, so he can’t be in every meeting, but he has an army that acts on his instructions and can present when two non-Mahrams are alone. The hadith can also have a metaphorical meaning that being alone with a non-mahram increases the chance of a sinful act. So, what do we do when faced with the following situations with non-Mahrams?
- Sharing a car
- Sharing a lift
- Having a work/school meeting exclusively with a non-Mahram i.e. a colleague, peer or teacher
- A doctors appointment with a non-mahram
And there is so much more that I could list. But you get the gist of it. We know the ruling, but how do we enact it, especially in the west?
Avoidance when possible
The first thing we can do is avoid getting into such situations as much as our circumstances allow us to. Keeping away from non-Mahrams in a lift is pretty easy – we can simply take the stairs and remove ourselves from the situation.
Don’t get into these situations for the sake of being nice and polite. Don’t go above and beyond and offer a non-mahram a lift to work or university to be nice, especially when not doing it won’t result in you being known as an unkind individual.
If we have to see the doctors, request someone who is the same gender.
The situations are almost infinite, so I can’t list them all. The point is to use our common sense and assess the situation. When reasonable, remove yourself from the situation.
What if I Can’t Avoid The Situation?
We have access to scholars and our own intellect. If we can’t avoid the situation, we haven’t necessarily committed a sin. Taking the above examples again, but with exceptions:
- You take the lift because you’re disabled, and a non-Mahram happens to catch it with you.
- You share a car with your non-mahram manager because you’re both going to a meeting from the office.
- There are no same-sex doctors available, and you need to be seen urgently.
These situations are exceptions, and we are confined to them due to the circumstances. In Islamic law, there is the principle of necessity. In short, anything haram becomes halal if absolutely necessary. For example, you can eat pork to keep yourself from dying from starvation, if there is no other food available.
The above-listed situations could come under the ruling of necessity:
- By necessity, you need to use the lift. There’s literally no other way for you to move around and exit a building.
- By necessity, you need to share a car with your manager. It could be weird and alienating for you to be both in the office, and despite the presence of a company car, you tell the manager you’ll make your own way to the meeting. And it’s better for you to go together in order to arrive on time and make a good impression on the client etc.
- By necessity, you need a doctor. You are unwell, and your life is at stake.
As long as you’ve tried your best, sometimes we are bound by necessity and have to act accordingly.
This article is for educational purposes only. The reader is not to consider this as qualified Islamic advice they can act upon. The reader is urged to speak to a leading scholar in their school of thought to gain a thorough appreciation of the regulations concerning certain scenarios, given everyone’s scenario will be different.
Be Careful When Dealing with Exceptions
The golden rule: Every rule will have an exception, but the exceptions do not change the rule.
If you do see yourself bound by necessity, that doesn’t mean it’s OK for you to stop observing the religious law. You were only bound by necessity in that one instance. Some may think, after sharing a lift with a non-mahram, that because nothing happened, they are free to do it all the time. Water erodes rock over a number of years. Similarly, just because nothing happened the first time, it doesn’t mean something can’t eventually happen.
We need to keep our ‘modesty state of mind’ active.