Muslims and keeping up appearances

I came across an interesting photo on Instagram recently. The account belonged to a Muslim girl I’ve never met, and she was posting photos of herself with her ‘boyfriend’-her words, not mine. I was surprised. Muslims don’t tend to use that word, simply because of the connotations it has. But does this mean that Muslims never engage in relationships outside of marriage? Certainly not. It’s simply that the language we use is different. This language becomes of vital importance when it comes to how others perceive us. By choosing the unfortunate word ‘boyfriend’, this girl had flouted social convention and thus summoned negative images to people’s minds.

This chance discovery got me thinking about how we frame ourselves and our conduct in the Muslim community. The Muslim community expects, no, demands, a certain level of public obedience to convention. It rewards those who obey and punishes those who don’t. This is due to a number of complex factors. Firstly, because we are told to make excuses for others, we can’t assume anything bad of people as long as they behave appropriately in public. Secondly, because we are told to hide our sins, we tend to look very unfavourably upon those who don’t make any effort to hide what they’re up to. Thus, the girl who posts photos of herself with her ‘boyfriend’ is thought to be far worse than the girl who everyone knows has a ‘boyfriend’ (not that she’d ever use that word) but who doesn’t publicise it.

The issue of what constitutes ‘publicising’ is an interesting one. Some couples are so overt about it that I wonder sometimes if they want everyone to know. (Maybe they do, just so everyone gets the ‘hands-off-my-future-spouse’ message.) They’re the types of people who normally stay ten feet away from the opposite sex, but suddenly they crack a joke with a certain girl and bam, it’s as clear as daylight. They do cutesy things like post random things to each other’s walls on Facebook and even leave sneaky little love hearts in strategic online locations, but as long as they’re not about to change their relationship status, people are content to look the other way. We’re expected to keep their ‘secret’ long after they’ve outed themselves to any casual observer.

If we were to ask this person about their relationship, they’d have a very careful, ‘Halal’ story to tell. ‘We’re getting to know each other’, they’d say. Even if it’s been going on for months or even years, by which time I’d think they’d know each other pretty darn well, it’s still ‘getting to know each other’. Or the other popular one is ‘we’re waiting to get married’. As long as we hear the word marriage in there somewhere, we’re happy to let it slide. Even if the link is somewhat tenuous, we continue to assume the best. But if a person can’t or doesn’t make those connections with marriage people want to hear, they’re immediately thought to be having a ‘Haram’ relationship. They’re courting disaster; they’re now outside the bounds of what is socially and religiously acceptable.

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The other interesting thing is that the more overtly ‘religious’ the couple are in question, the more people are willing to look the other way. For example, if a person is constantly posting Islamic things online and dresses very conservatively, we’re more likely to deem their relationship to be socially acceptable. We assume that people with beards and abayas are unlikely to misbehave, and so their relationships are ‘Halal’ in the eyes of the community. If they write on each other’s Facebook walls with an ‘inshaAllah’ thrown in there, we breathe a sigh of relief. If it quacks like a duck, we’re happy to feed it bread crumbs. We give them them 70 excuses, and then some, simply because we have a squeaky-clean image of them in our head.

This forgiving attitude towards people who maintain a shiny public persona isn’t just to do with relationships. If someone posts a selfie just for the fun of it, people tend to think they’re vain, but if someone else posts a selfie with some kind of Islamic caption, they’re all good. They’ll be rewarded with endless ‘mashaAllahs’ and no one will think the worse of them for it. If someone posts up some achievement of theirs, people think they’re attention-seeking, but if they chuck in an ‘alhamdulillah’ with it, they’re seen to be glorifying Allah swt rather than their own achievements. If someone posts enough Islamic content online, no one really notices if they have a joke here and there with someone of the opposite sex. It all gets washed away under a foamy sea of overt religiosity.

In writing this, I don’t intend to advocate for the doing away of public moral standards. In fact, they’re necessary if we’re to prevent the normalising of unwanted behaviours. But it’s always helpful to bear in mind that appearances don’t always equate to reality. The ideal is to have both the outward appearance of good as well as the inward manifestations of it, but one is far easier to achieve than the other. Therefore, it’s important to keep working away at the inside long after we’ve donned thawbs and abayas. It’s also important to separate semantics and frameworks from the hard truth. If I’m doing something wrong, calling it by another name doesn’t make it any less wrong.

Do you ever feel pressured to act a certain way to keep up appearances? Have you ever experienced a case where appearance greatly diverged from reality?

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