The complexities of Muslim gender interactions

Recently, I happened to be in the same vicinity as a couple of Muslim guys. We’d just left the same event, but I was now on my own with some time to kill. After a short and somewhat stop-start conversation, the guys promptly walked off in the opposite direction without so much of a backward glance or a parting salams.

For some reason, I found myself reflecting on this incident more than I probably should have. I’d initially found their behaviour discourteous and unnecessarily awkward, but I was also annoyed at myself for not knowing precisely how to interpret it all. Maybe I’d just expected too much. Maybe I was being a bit of a weirdo to have even made conversation in the first place. Maybe I’d just been around too many non-Muslims, old people and hipsters lately.

Modernity is a game of unintended consequences. My interest has always been in the place where politics and religion meet the personal, that grey fuzzy mess where no one is quite sure how things should work anymore. How people interpret edicts such as ‘keep it to what’s necessary’ will depend very much on factors such as their religious leanings, their family and community expectations, their cultural sensibilities and their innate personal habits and character traits. Let’s examine some of these issues in more detail:

1.) Boundary-building

As mentioned above, there are any number of variables when it comes to setting boundaries. Certain environments have their own pre-established boundaries, such as classes with physical partitions down the middle, but in other places the boundaries are not quite as defined. For example, at some Muslim events men sit on one side and women on the other, but the space outside and around the refreshments section is unsegregated. Some MSA members are friendlier than others with the opposite sex, but MSA events are often heavily segregated. Someone who you see at an Islamic class may ignore you completely, but then if you see them in a different context will be super-friendly.

I find the minutiae of Muslim gender boundaries fascinating. It’s definitely not ‘necessary’ to like people’s posts on Facebook, but a lot of people do. It’s not really ‘necessary’ to add people of the opposite sex, but a lot of people do. In some circles it’d be completely normal for a Muslim guy to offer a girl a lift home, while in others it’d be seen as odd or even offensive. Some friend’s husbands are fine with having a chat, while others will run for the door if you enter their house.

If you stay in one, maybe two, social or community spheres, you tend to know and observe the rules of those spheres. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with observing the conventions of the environment you’re in or even modifying your behaviour to respect its confines, but switching in and out of modes of being can lead to interesting and unexpected consequences, which brings me to my next observation.

2.) Switching in and out

Part of the complexities of gender relations is a type of dissonance, a little two-step, between the spheres constructed by Muslims and those constructed by non-Muslims. Immediately after my little encounter with those Muslim guys, I went into a (women’s) clothing shop to kill some time. The male sales assistant approached me and started a brief but friendly conversation, asking how my day had been and what I’d been up to. The exchange barely lasted two minutes, but I couldn’t help but unflatteringly compare the behaviour of the Muslim guys with this one.

 Of course, this is hardly a fair comparison to make. The sales assistant probably just wanted me to buy that shirt I’d been eyeing, but more importantly, the sales assistant wasn’t Muslim. The bizarre condition of the 21st century Western Muslim is that we’re often far more certain the conventions of how to behave around non-Muslims of the opposite sex than we are around those of our own faith. We’re more relaxed, less guarded and watchful. I’m not saying these are good things, but we’ve all either done it or seen it in action. (I’ve heard many complaints about Muslim guys being a lot less ‘cool’ than their non-Muslim counterparts, so take that as you will.)

3.) What goes on behind the screens

I find a type of behavioural convention particularly common in the uni crowd: awkward in person, chatty behind computer screens. Some people won’t even say salams in person, but they’re happy to comment on your Facebook status or send you a private message. I find this somewhat irritating, but I do understand that for many people, online spaces seem safer, more ‘natural’.

The problem with this is that online interactions can be misleading. People may talk to you on Facebook chat for hours on end without wanting to pursue a serious relationship. People may seem really cool and funny based on their social media persona, but in person may have all the personality of a wet firecracker. You might think someone is interested because they interact with you extensively online, but they could also be doing the same with several other people of the opposite sex. It’s so easy to say things behind a screen that you’d never say in person, which is problematic for any number of reasons.

4.) Overthinking overload

The complexities and blurry grey lines of Muslim gender interactions leads to a type of second-guessing, a paranoia about being misinterpreted or judged. If I say salams first, will he think I’m being too forward? If I send her a message about something, does she think I’m interested? Was that joke I just said inappropriate or kinda hilarious? Am I really just being friendly or do I want something more here?

Of course, some kind of internal auditing system is desirable, probably even necessary. But it can be exhausting to constantly take yourself to account, to constantly read subtext beneath subtext beneath subtext. This is compounded by the fact that you’re never quite sure who’s single and who’s not. If you know someone isn’t single or isn’t looking, you’re bound to interpret their friendliness in a different light. There is so much unspoken that it’s no wonder the spoken space can become so fraught with difficulty, awkwardness and unease.

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Some people I’ve spoken to about this issue find it easy to navigate between different social circles, to maintain a consistent demeanour and manner of engagement. Others give the matter little to no thought whatsoever and just say and act however they’re feeling in that particular moment. Sometimes I think people should just plainly state their boundaries (i.e. no, I will not meet up for coffee with you because I don’t do that sort of thing, or yes, we can talk about Game of Thrones without it leading to a proposal), but then again, maybe half of the fun lies in the unknown, in the guessing games and the carving out of parameters. Or maybe not.

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20 responses to “The complexities of Muslim gender interactions

  1. I’m a muslim guy and sometimes when i see a muslim girl with non-muslim ,in a relationship my blood boils. FIrst of all muslim guys are clean, smell good( some don’t) and there is so much common in culture and values and the fact that non-muslim don’t even wash after taking a shit is something fucking unbelievable to comprehend. Besides religion doesn’t take part in their lives much as compared to us. For us religion comes first and then relationships. There are majority of muslim guys finding their partners for relationship or marriage while many of their opposite sex are simply getting laid with non-muslims. If youu thinnk muslim guys don’t do “cool” things than you should prolly ask some professional prostitute. I became friends with a shemale and it was all a serendipitous thing ( she studies in my uni) and she told me majority of her clients were either arabs or muslims. That explains that all those girls who believe their muslim guys won’t do sex, THEY WILL FUCK YOU 24/7 with all the those unused testerones if u say so. Besides muslim guys are lot more handsome than those filthy goras and i’ve seen muslim guys fucking ugly indian chicks to quench their lust.

    • I’m sensing a lot of a lot of anger here…Muslim guys do get with non-Muslim girls too. It’s not like it only happens the one way around.

      • thats coz when u try to approach a muslim girl and be friendly they somehow freak out or give u a cold repply esp pakistani girls…Im from pakistan too and ive noticed paki girls wherever they go in the world, they ould take this attitude with em..I know some girls r sensible but its the majority that makes the whole image/impression so the reason those guys just went away is a testament to the fact that they know Pakistani/muslim girls by heart and they knew if they even try they will end up disappointting themselves…

  2. Most guys who get laid with non-muslims eeither have no moral values or simply cant get any muslim girls..im sure if its a muslim girl they will be in a non-sexual relationship coz then its mutual restraining and also as in out of respect n shit…I know few of my friends who have muslim girls and they have never done sex but still enjoy spending time together and it actually hepls too for both the sexes…this way their sex desire is in control as they can talk to each other and better off controlling then having no gf or anyone to understand and end up doing the unthinkable Zina…

  3. Mohamed from Sydney

    I don’t think Ahmed Ali should be allowed to comment with terrible language and repeatedly stereotyping using anecdotal evidence. That being said, it’s not my blog.
    I don’t think that online mixed-gender interaction should give much index to in-person interaction. Lots of personal factors are stripped from the interaction online. Some people might comment frequently on the opposite gender’s Facebook but they most likely comment on FB frequent in general; or just don’t possess inhibitions in general. I believe I’m posting a message to a site, and that others can read it. I don’t believe I’m breaching the rule of necessity if I have a subject to speak about. Aka, purposeful speech.

    I will usually not go out of my way to give Salam to females except out of necessity (walking right past them sometimes doesn’t count for me since I have such task-based tunnel vision, this is not gender exclusive) in a learning environment, in a food environment, or any other place which I’m there for a purpose. My time and intention is focused, I’m not looking to change it.

    And we’re kidding ourselves if attractiveness doesn’t fit into the equation. Some people will, some will not, give you the time of day, if they think you’re attractive. I’d like to consider myself the latter most of the time – it’s just a really risky Salam. IRL ‘risky click’. Some days men dress up really well. Unfollow them from your facebook for a while. Some days women dress really well. They didn’t look this good last time you gave Salam. Abort friendliness!

    • I think you’re right in saying that attractiveness is definitely a factor. If someone finds a person attractive, it can change the dynamics completely. But then again, talking to someone could introduce an attraction which may not immediately be present.

      Also, I think there’s a distinction to be made between ‘necessary’ and ‘purposeful’. The threshold of what constitutes necessity is probably a lot higher than the second one.

  4. Good Take on the topic and the photo is hilarious and so true!

  5. those guys who saw at some even were lowering there gaze 😉 .i think it’s more of a fikh issue for how to communicate with opposite gender , be it online or in person. guys who are attending these events most likely not “moderate” and are introverts. and the “moderate” one’s are else where.

  6. Hahaha I love how Ahmad Ali commenting above has managed to insult so many subgroups of people – transgender, Muslim girls, non-Muslim girls and non-Muslim guys but the Muslim guys come out rather well. And he does it whilst being so classy and respectful as well.

    But this article is right. I can’t even express how annoying it is trying to figure out how this specific Muslim guy is likely to react to you simple saying Salam or smiling which is something I just automatically do to every person I meet without thinking about it. Like you, I also (rightly or wrongly) interact more easily with non-Muslim guys. To be fair I bet Muslim guys also interact more easily with non-Muslim girs

    • thats the irony and thats why im soo disgusted …whhy on earth do u girls feel comfortable talkin to a non-muslim guys.. the only person not giving the proper response or “friendly” attitude is girls…do u really think a muslim girl would say salam n the guy would say ” Ya Bint(sis) I’m not your Mahram so plz back off”…I meann common gimme a break.. ahh now i understand why there is a sooo many muslim girls here iin sydney whose parents r unable to find a good match for their daughter..the reason they ” interact more easily with non-Muslim guys” and hence don’t even realize its the muslim guuys they would b marrying one day..

  7. Sorry I was speaking for myself, not other girls. I don’t know if other girls are more comfortable. My experience is that (some) Muslim guys are so harsh and rude when they come across sisters because there is that belief that we really shouldn’t be sitting there having a chit chat. Nobody wants to be called the bad Muslim and That’s perfectly understandable but why is that behaviour only when you come across Muslim girls? Im sure Muslim guys actually speak with non Muslim girls in a way that isn’t awkward and abrupt but they never do that with Muslim girls.

    And I think that’s actually causing a real problem in our society. Muslim girls then start to generalise and assume all Muslim guys are uncool or rude or whatever and Muslim guys assume Muslim girls are stuffy.

    What we need to do is be consistent and genuine. If you follow the ‘not speaking to members of the opposite sex’ school that’s fine. If you’re the type that says hi to everyone that’s also fine. But apply it both to Muslims and non-Muslims. The lower your gaze requirement is not just in relation to fellow Muslims.

    And really, you just seem angry at all girls.

  8. Haha, I think you may be right there Muna.

    It is very difficult to maintain differing standards of behavior with different groups of people. Difficult, and tiring! We should be more at ease with Muslims than non-Muslims due to shared values, but the reality is that Muslims of the opposite sex are having a real hard time communicating with each other. There’s too much subtext and not enough openness and honesty.

  9. Nuriddeen Knight

    Love this article and I thinking its something we all think about and still not something I know how to grapple with. These days I just allow the men to take the lead, if their friendly I’ll be friendly and if their not I’m not. It just easier than being mistaken for being “too forward”. Also on the other end when a Muslims guy is too friendly most of us automatically wonder, “Is he interested in me?” Which is another annoyance. Ideally I think a kind of formal friendliness would do our community some good. A smile, hello and a few superficial exchanges shouldn’t be the end of the world. But also it’s a fiqh issue so people should do whatever they think is most pleasing to Allah.

    • It definitely is an area where there seems to be a lot of confusion. It can be hard to know how to interpret people’s behaviour when there’s so many potential variables at play.

  10. I think there is hikmah in treating people of the opposite gender who are of different faiths in different ways. That is, if you choose to not look or talk to a Muslim brother when you walk past him he will most likely understand the appropriateness of you doing that as it’s acknowledging that there should be a respectful distance between a Muslim and muslimah. At the end of the day, they are a potential. Right?
    If you were to ignore a non-Muslim guy if he was to look at you, it may come across (in some contexts or situations) as cold or harsh to them and so when you can gauge the appropriateness of it, saying hello may be seen to be something more beneficial. My personal opinion anyway. I used to ignore everyone who was male initially but realised a lot of non-Muslim males had no idea why I was ignoring them so I am never one to initiate conversation but if someone looks at me or asks me a question I will now acknowledge them in a way that is straightforward.

    • Of course, everyone is a ‘potential’ in that sense 🙂 but I suppose the confusion arises when switching between contexts where modes of communication may be different. If you’re in an environment where the expectations are clearly defined it’s fine, but that’s not always the case.

  11. Muslim mixed gender interaction should not be complex or difficult or awkward, how about just treat everyone the same, rather than think ‘oh no, better not talk to her/him incase she/he thinks I want to get married to them. If muslims keep that type of mentality aside, things would be better in my view. If you can have a civil conversation with a non muslim, why cant you do the same with a muslim. Get of your high horse ppl no ones proposing, we just want to interact as you we do with colleagues at work or uni or anywhere else

  12. I love your blog posts. They speak about very real issues that people try to pretend do not exist. Keep it up 🙂

  13. I feel that the problem with muslim gender interactions is that people generally have no idea where to draw the line. Some people are too cautios whilst others are far too liberal. Interactions between the opposite sex can only occur in circumstances where it needs to occur like when there is work to be conducted or in an educational setting or when participating in a meeting of volunteers or the like of it. However when interactions lead to jokes, casual chit chat then it begins to transgress the sharia and that is where it should stop if you fear Allah. I have been to events where men and women (married and not) casually chit chatting as though it is a normality. I truly believe that a married man has no business casually chatting to a woman who is not his wife without an adequate reason and vice versa. To compound this problem further there is the advent of Facebook which I would put closer to being Haram than Halal due to the relaxed gender interactions that happen between people. Facebook has produced a whole generation or two of people who are not able to be effective communicators but keyboard warriors and casanovas. In person their personas are completely different to how they are online as rightly pointed out by the author of the article.

    On the other hand you have ultra religious muslim men who physically turn their backs on sisters as they pass by as though they are being passed by filths whilst at the same time would not have any issues conversing with any woman who is non-muslim be it at work or whilst shopping in a store. This ultra conservatism only serves to justify their desire to be seen as having “taqwa” in public but from what I have seen these men are often hiding a hidden department of their lives which I will not even attemp to get into.

    The solution is to return back to the principles of the Sharia and the example set by our beleoved Prophet Muhammad, may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him. I think a lot of young men and wormen these days in these sort of circles (MSA, volunteer groups etc) are not well versed in their deen and should really make it a priority to seek authentic sacred knowledge from the traditional scholars and apply the sharia in their lives. There is no baraka to attempt to get to a halal end through haram means. I was young once and made the same mistakes. May Allah reward the author abundantly and bless her for her writings.

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