The Muslim Friendship Paradigm

It's a common statement that comes out of many Muslim parents' mouths. Children from our generation and those before have heard it expounded upon time and time again.

"Muslim girls and boys cannot be friends. Muslim boys and girls do not chit chat with one another. Muslim boys and girls cannot be around one another, hormones make them do sinful things."

"But yes, pleeeeeeeeease beta, marry a good Muslim boy OK?"

I wasn't raised around Muslims, since we lived in small towns where the Muslim population was even smaller. The only time I was exposed to Muslim boys was passing those by on campus at the University of Calgary (the handful of Muslims back in the day) or in their parents' car as they whizzed into the mosque parking lot for Friday prayer. Prior to marriage, as I'd walk to the Stampede grounds for Eid prayer twice a year, I would pass hounds of Muslim males, dressed in sparkling white (and off putting) white dress shoes and wreaking of cologne from miles away, also off putting. I wondered if my future husband was out there but I knocked sense back into myself when my lowered gaze would expose me once again to ballin' white dress shoes and noxious cologne fumes entering my respiratory system.

And I digress. Back to the topic at hand.

I recently read in a book titled "Sex Education in Islam" about this very notion of Muslim parents (and the community) taking an exaggerated stance at separating Muslim boys and girls from interaction...and I mean ANY interaction. The author made a bold and profound statement that the reason why MANY Muslims are marrying non-Muslims is because they have more chances at interacting and becoming comfortable around non-Muslims than they do with Muslims. So while parents do their best to ensure  gender segregation between Muslims, they forget that their kids are exposed to non-Muslims all the time. Many may reject this hypothesis to be true, but when you take some time to consider this, it does hold water.

And here's why.

First of all, Muslims who are raised in the West will have more non-Muslim friends or interactions, especially if they are in public school. Sure, there's the occasional Sunday Islamic school lessons and masjid visits...but both of these are gender segregated. So again, females are with their own gender and males the same. Score = 0 for learning how to engage in normal conversations with the opposite gender. I have heard many Muslim brothers, through CIMAP (Calgary Islamic Marriage Assistance program) actually, say how awkward it is to approach and talk to Muslim girls. This is the main reason some brothers don't come to marriage events, it's too awkward for them to be around Muslim girls. It's beyond me as to why it should be awkward since apart from Islam as the defining factor, these girls are HUMAN and you talk to them in the same way as you do with other females at work or school.

"But, you know...they wear hijab..." or "It's haraam to approach girls, you know" (false!)

"But, you know...if I talk to her, she'll ask me to marry her first to make our interactions halal" (presumptuous stereotype)

And the same can be said for Muslim girls. It is perfectly OK for a Muslim girl to approach a Muslim guy for a platonic, purposeful interaction (i.e. school, work purposes, community work, mutual hobby or purpose, etc) that doesn't involve a pick up line. Yet the moment a girl does this, she's branded as being "loose" and thus her entire reputation is painted for her with a single "Salaam Alaikum". I love how we are so concerned with the affairs of others yet we don't take the same painstaking efforts to improve ourselves.

Second, while this problem of sex segregation is improving, many Muslim parents create a lot of shame and embarrassment with their kids if they DO want to or have friends from the opposite gender. Can a Fatima really be just friends with an Ahmed, who lives down the street? I think, yes! Both when they are 8 and riding their bikes and when they're older. But Muslim parents don't really encourage mixed gendered friendships. In my opinion, they SHOULD be, within the right contexts of course. Because I really do think that the more something is repressed, shut down and told "no, it's haram!" towards, the more a teenager is likely to do it.

And here's my next point. Unfortunately, around the time of puberty when parents think that all their teens are doing are raging hormones and dreaming about sex, they tend to further restrict who their kids are exposed to. So when a Muslim brother approaches a sister platonically (and in public nonetheless), she thinks that he's interested in her when he's really not, and then the situation gets messy when she bats her eyelashes and lowers her gaze as a means to look shy and interested too. Because really, the sister has learned that the only time a Muslim brother and sister can chat is if they are doing it for marriage purposes, and so this brother MUST be interested in her, right?! Right?! Right?! Prince Charming has finally come along, right?!

Wrong.

Culture has unfortunately once again taken over religion in dictating these nonsense practices that parents enforce on their children. "Beta, Muslims of the opposite gender are only to be talked to when you're ready to get married." But since you've never socialized with a Muslim and you only see the opposite gender behind a barrier at the mosque or local conference, then how does the marriage thing even work? Can I become friends with this person first before I think about if we are compatible for marriage? Do we talk about how often we pray first and our favourite Hadith, or do we talk about what we love to do for fun? How do I know what qualities to look for? How should a Muslim man treat a Muslim woman?

And most importantly, as I learned from watching a recent Khalid Latif lecture on Domestic Violence, erroneous and culture-based gender stereotypes continue to permeate even among the most educated Muslims. Domestic violence is not solely reserved for Muslims who are perhaps not as educated as their counterparts. Most of those who commit violence against women are often equipped with the wrong perspective on gender roles. Unfortunately, not only do parents NOT talk about how men should treat women (and vice versa) from the accurate Islamic perspective...but they also don't also their children to grow up learning how to interact respectfully towards the opposite gender. While it's one thing to say that all women should be treated with respect, children need to live by example and put this notion into action. Boys and girls, men and women need to learn how to get along with and work beside the opposite gender. How are problems resolved constructively? How does communication occur in such settings? How do girls know they are being put down and mistreated and how do they ever learn to stand up for themselves? How to boys learn that they've crossed the line? Silence from parents about gender roles sends just as dangerous a message as sending negative gender role messages are.

We need to move towards the way Prophet Mohammed (Peace Be Upon Him) did things where there were no barriers (and there still isn't in Mecca and many mosques, such as Ta'leef in California) yet families and individuals were trusted that they knew how to interact in a sacred space. All of this extra segregation nonsense is only providing teens with more of a challenge and need to break the rules and sneak out to talk to the opposite gender behind the masjid. Gone are the days where we need to focus on barriers, hijabs, and beards. There are more important issues to tackle with our children and youth. And if you look at the States and what their Muslim youth are facing, it's only a matter of time before we start facing those more serious issues too.

Parents need to be talking to their girls and boys about their duties of mutual respect and regards towards the opposite gender. Boys especially need to be taught the value that Islam places and upholds women to, and yes, they need to be told that are NOT allowed to lay a finger, harsh word or deliberately vile action towards any woman, especially their mother and wife. Boys need to be taught how to handle their emotions, to communicate their feelings, and to problem solve in a respectable way. Boys need their dads to step up to be positive role models towards the women in their life, so that these boys can grow up to become men, not scoundrels.

But I digressed again. I recommend boys, teens, single men and fathers to watch a film called "The Mask We Live In" once it's released sometime soon.

So what I'm suggesting is that parents relax the rules a little and allow their Muslim kids (and teens!) to interact with the opposite gender. Because I guarantee that if this isn't allowed, they're going to find some other way to get this done (i.e. internet). I'm not saying endorse 1:1 movie nights and coffee dates! But there are many opportunities for Muslim kids and youth to be in groups with the opposite gender, to be in a safe environment where they feel comfortable around the opposite gender while learning the Islamic etiquette and respect that is required in such interactions. And there may be situations where values are tested or boundaries are pushed, but that's a part of growing up that we all have to deal with. We just need to trust that our kids know what is right and wrong and that their conscience will come through. And if not, that they learn from their mistakes, repent, and try their best not to repeat it.

And more importantly, do you really want your son to be the one who emails a girl via his Shaadi.com profile with the tagline "hey baby gurl, can i get ur number so i can wake u up for morning prayer?"

I didn't think so either.

Comments

  1. The platonism had me laughing throughout. M

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  2. Dead on. Dealt with such with an Afghan friend, Qatari friend and Pakistani friend. The last one totally by chance. Simply offered to tell my South Asian friends at college about my friend's South Asian style dresses design business after her uncle who has known me for years mentioned it around me. Long story short I think my helping nature was overly taken as marital interest. Her family practically shove her down my throat. I was put off by it. She was put off by me being put off. She shortly there after (a few months) was set up with a rishta, they got engaged, which I awkwardly found out about via Facebook. My Mosque attendance which had always been good went down in response to aforementioned friendship that only existed outside of the mosque as neither of us wanted a peanut gallery beyond our families. With the engagement I just have felt it would be weird to go to Mosque and see this other guy and have been on the market for a new mosque so to speak. Which is sad since while internationally my friend had been involved in the community we were both in, locally I had been involved in it for years while her not even one and was my essentially my Islamic bird's nest. So yeah not only do I think 'Islamic' tradition in regards to opposite gender relations can be personally damaging I also think they can be Islamically damaging as well.

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