10 Guidelines for Gender Relations in Islam
By Muslema Purmul and Maryam Amirebrahimi
The code of inter-gender relations comes from this noble kind of love. It is generous in giving, while conscious of Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala (exalted is He). It is full of haya.’ Haya’ is sometimes described as ‘shyness’, but misunderstood to mean a desire to hide, to be nervous, overly self-conscious, and unable to communicate.
This is not the meaning of haya’ and it’s a real shame that men and women are sometimes taught social anxiety in the name of haya’. Haya’ comes from consciousness of Allah (swt)—that a servant of Allah would feel too “shy” to commit an open and indecent sin in the presence of the Most High, that they feel humbled in the presence of the Creator, so they honor His creation. The believer is not a show-off for any of their blessings. Rather they are grateful, and hope to use their many gifts in the service of their Lord. One of the most graceful ways to serve Allah (swt) is by serving and honoring His creation, in the manner that He approves. This is our code as brothers and sisters.I was standing next to the grave, supplicating quietly to Allah for the man we just buried. He was a family relative, loved by many alhamdulilLah (praise be to God). As I stood there, a few other women came and also started to supplicate. They spoke aloud in a low voice, “We never heard anything but good from you or about you, so we ask Allah to accept all your good deeds and forgive your sins, and accept you into Paradise…” I was touched by something in this moment. I didn’t know them personally, we didn’t exchange words but I was taught by their example. They displayed the most beautiful adab (manners) of brotherhood and sisterhood for their deceased Muslim brother, who was not directly related to them. Subhan’Allah (glory be to God), when the heart is pure, the “rules” emanate naturally without effort. Everything in their manner, speech, and conduct was modest, respectful and filled with noble love.
“The believing men and believing women are allies of one another.” (Qu’ran, 9:71)
The 10 Principles
Be sincere in your interactions.
The Prophet ﷺ (may the peace and blessings of Allah be upon him) taught us, “Truly, actions are according to their intentions.” All interaction with God’s creation is a reflection of our interaction with the Creator. When a person truly relies on God and seeks Him first and foremost, they let go of the need for approval from others and seek it only from Him (swt). As a result, the way they work with others has to do with God’s approval, not that of others. When we deal with the opposite sex, it’s important to make sure we are not *needy for some form of approval from them, and especially the kind that should only be sought from a spouse (ie: sexual attention, seeking their admiration). However, God loves for us to love and respect our brothers and sisters. If we’re seeking God’s approval in our interactions then we open our hearts in a noble way towards one another with the best of manners. Facial expressions, body language, tone of voice and the general energy brought into interactions should be respectful and professional. One who is sincere in seeking only Allah’s approval and not wanting something from the people will find it very natural to follow the rest of the guidelines.
What this looks like in person: Imagine you’re speaking to a boss, a professor or perhaps an older individual in the mosque. In most situations, even if you were buddies with that person, you’d still have a level of respect in your interactions with them that would be different from your friend at school. Do the same thing when you interact with someone of the opposite sex. It doesn’t mean you need to be cold. You need not be overtly rude or intimidating. If you are typically a really humorous and laid back person, you don’t need to radically change your personality so that the person/people you’re with don’t laugh. Just be yourself in a professional and courteous way.
What this looks like online/social media: Be mindful of your online conversations and avoid saying what you would feel uncomfortable having your parent or someone you respect overhear. Question your intentions before commenting or messaging. Only you and God know if what you’re doing is for the right reasons. This is one of the most powerful and dynamic limits of Allah (swt) because it actually builds your confidence. The habit of checking and renewing the intention develops a foundation of sincerity between you and Allah, and of good-will between you and His creation.
Make your interaction purposeful and professional.
There’s an Islamic legal maxim that states, “The origins of things is permissibility.” In other words, unless there is something that is expressly prohibited when it comes to interactions and worldly issues, it is allowed. However, when it came to the issue of gender relations specifically, some scholars used a different maxim: “The origin of inter-gender interactions is impermissibility, unless expressly permitted.” In other words, inter-gender interaction, unless there was an absolute necessity, major benefit attained, major harm prevented, or something not considered harmful in a particular cultural context, would generally be avoided.
These scholars also cited the principle of sadd al-tharee’ah—that whatever leads to a prohibited act in and of itself becomes prohibited. In this regard, cultural context becomes increasingly important. This is because in some cultures, specific actions may be misunderstood as an invitation to something prohibited, while in others, it is simply a respectful interaction.
As an example, a polite joke about the weather with the cashier at a grocery store is seen as neighborly small talk in the United States but can be understood as flirting in a different cultural context. For this other culture, scholars may consider the polite joke prohibited because it would lead to un-lowered and lustful gazes and conversation that points to something more. But to apply the latter understanding to our context in the west would be a great disservice. Here, the action and words do not imply sexual interest in the least, but rather is received as acceptable, polite conversation. And even in the same context, to overdo it leads to a misapplication of the law and the creation of a sub-culture that is foreign to the spirit of Islam. Shaykh Al-Rasuni mentions that the overextension of the legal principle sadd al-tharee’ah can create extremism and turn perfectly halal situations into haram ones. So it should be applied with care, lest we turn Islam into something it is not.
If you look at both approaches—“The origin of interactions is allowed except what is prohibited,” and “the origin of interactions is prohibited except what is allowed”—they both lead to the same conclusion: Interactions should be purposeful, there should be a reason that is not suspect according to a particular culture, there are limits and it is not a complete free-for-all.
What this looks like in person: The on-campus Muslim Students Association (MSA) holds a meeting to discuss an upcoming event. There is purpose in their reason for coming together. They do not have to robotically and mechanically only ask “yes” or “no” questions, sticking to a script to ensure every word has a specific purpose. There can be polite small talk in asking about each other’s schoolwork and checking in on each other’s families. Now again, things go back to intention (point 1). On the outside things can be purposeful, but if on the inside things are not, it leads to Allah’s displeasure. A brother can tutor a study group of brothers and sisters for a class they are taking in college together in a noble way. He can also do so to enjoy the attention and admiration of the sisters and use that space for his own desires. On the outside no one may notice the difference, but on the inside Allah (swt) always does. A blessed interaction is both purposeful on the outside and pure on the inside.
What this looks like online/social media: Keep it purposeful and professional. No need to play online games with someone of the opposite sex. No need to start private conversations or comment in an over-relaxed, joking manner on posts or pictures.From emails, the messaging on social media, SnapChat, etc.—don’t do anything that you would be ashamed to do in front of someone you love and respect, like the Prophet ﷺ. Know that Allah (swt) sees you above all, and wants your honor and integrity to be protected.
Cover your ‘awra (nakedness).
In short, the ‘awra of men is from their naval to their knees. However, it is highly encouraged for men to cover beyond this. In other words, it’s not modest to show up without a shirt or a super tight one and skinny jeans, exposing a brother’s form. For women, even in the most lenient opinions, the minimum that should be covered is everything but the face, hands, and feet, in loose, non-form fitting, opaque clothing. Traditionally some scholars allowed kuhl and powder as allowable make-up, and some allowed the plucking of eyebrows in our times. There are opinions that are much more encompassing, but deliberately being shared here is the base minimum for anyone interested in following a valid scholarly opinion within our tradition.
An important point of clarification is needed here. When we think of a woman’s public dress in Islam, the Prophetic understanding was that it was a level more modest than that of men. There is an incident where the Prophet ﷺ gives a companion a thawb (dress) and later sees that companion and asks him why he does not wear it. The companion says he let his wife wear it. To this the Prophet encourages him to tell his wife to wear something under it because he fears that her form would show if she wears it without a layer under it (the way a man would). In other words, the ‘awra of a woman requires an additional standard of looseness.
Now, what does that mean for men and women struggling to maintain these general dress guidelines? Does that mean they should not be permitted into Muslim spaces when the opposite sex will be present, nor organize campus or community events? Absolutely not! All should be welcome; all of us struggle with different aspects of our worship and this is simply one that’s more obvious because it’s outer. Principle number 4 means each of us are responsible for what we see. At the same time, even if one does not normally cover the full ‘awra, when it comes to sacred spaces such as the Masajid as the Houses of Allah, we should make an extra effort to wear our most God-pleasing clothing there, as a way of showing extra deference to our Creator. This is not an act of hypocrisy; it’s an act of respect. This is simply an explanation of guidelines while recognizing each person has their own journey, struggle, and varying abilities to perform. The scholars also differentiated between `awra ghaleetha and `awra khafeefa: that some body parts or more `awra’ than others. A person may try to grow gradually in their dress hoping to ease the path toward following all its guidelines.
A couple of critical points to take into consideration:
A. Hijab for women is not about Men.
When Muslim women are asked why do they wear hijab, the simple answer is, “Because God asked me to” not “Because men asked me to.” Hijab is about Allah (swt) and submitting to His will and trusting His way. It’s an incredibly spiritual act especially today because you must strive to remove the desire for human approval completely in order to practice it well. Allah (swt) says, “that is purer for you.” Hijab is a purification. For some, hijab may help purify the tendency towards vanity. For others, it is simply a constant physical reminder that our goal in life is to please our Creator. The experience of hijab for many is described as “liberating” and “a divine gift” as it encourages us to recognize our own spiritual and intellectual center, and compels us to honor, even celebrate this most sacred part of ourselves as we deal with the world.
B. Hijab is not meant to erase physical beauty, but honor it.
What happens if a woman covers herself appropriately, and people still feel tempted by her or are attracted to her? Beauty is not a woman’s ‘fault’, and she is not asked to hide because others can’t control their feelings. Rather, they must lower their gaze and purify their thoughts.
Ibn Abbas said: “A beautiful woman, from among the most beautiful of women, used to pray behind the Prophet ﷺ. Some of the people used to go to pray in the first row to ensure they would not be able to see her. Others would pray in the last row of the men, and they would look from underneath their armpits to see her. Because of this act, in regard to her, Allah revealed, “And We have already known the preceding [generations] among you, and We have already known the later [ones to come],” (Qu’ran, 15:24).
In this incident, Allah (swt) does not reveal that a barrier be put up to block off the view of the women’s side. He does not ask the woman to not come to the masjid. She is not told to wear niqab. She is not asked to pray in the last lines. Allah is addressing the men and these are verses revealed after the command of hijab was in place. Allah is telling them that He knows what is in their hearts. Hijab is not to remove all beauty from a woman. Rather, it is to let her define her sense of beauty by donning the dress and character that pleases God.
Lower your gaze.
God commands the believing men and women to lower from their gazes in the Qur’an. The imperative word here is “from.” Scholars have commented that looking at each other in and of itself is not prohibited, for if it was the word “from” would have been omitted in the command. However, the command indicates there are some gazes that are not allowed, and this based on Prophetic guidance includes the lustful gaze as well as looking at what is considered ‘awra. Yet, it is common practice for men and women in Muslim activist settings to avoid looking at one another directly in the eyes or in the face, and they are dressed modestly. Some scholars have mentioned that this is praiseworthy as a form of respect. However, in the greater western context, not making eye contact is usually considered awkward and can be seen as distrustful and in an instance like this, we can take our general cultural custom to inform the way we interact within the aforementioned Islamic boundaries.
What this looks like in person: Therefore, in general, the best way to fulfill this requirement is to simply avert your gaze specifically if you find yourself attracted to someone, not to check anyone out, and to avoid looking at certain areas of the body you should not be looking at anyway—most especially if they are uncovered. Otherwise, it’s permissible to simply look a person in the eyes politely when having a conversation. This applies both inside of and outside of Muslim spaces.
What this looks like online/social media: When you put up a picture on social media, be cognizant of what other people are seeing. And if you wouldn’t make a crazy duck face or show certain body parts to a person of the opposite sex in person or look at those things in person, do not post that type of picture or send that picture over SnapChat or stare at those pics if they’re sent to you (which, btw, why are they being sent to you?). Do not deliberately spend time staring at a picture of someone of the opposite sex without purpose. When commenting on a picture—even if it’s of the same gender—avoid statements such as, “Hey sexy!” or “Hot!” especially when you know that person has friends of the opposite sex who will also see those pictures and those comments in their newsfeed.
Keep it public.
The Prophetﷺ taught us “…Satan is the third person in an isolated area (khalwah) where there is only a man with a (non-mahram) woman…” (Ibn Al-Atheer – Sahih).
This narration indicates that being alone with one person of the opposite gender who is not a direct relative (mahram) is prohibited in Islam. Being alone constitutes any space which is locked and opaque, or open but totally isolated.
What this looks like in person: In person: Meet in public spaces. Whether it’s in the library or an off-campus café, make sure your professional organizing happens in a public space and at an appropriate time. Even in a public space, a suggestion is to bring a respectful third person or a group of people to make sure you and the other person are not the only ones together, as a way of maintaining a professional environment. This also changes a bit as you grow in different life stages.
If you’re in high school and working on a project, you should definitely bring other people along if you meet outside of school in a café or somewhere informal. If you’re in your fifties and you’re meeting to discuss masjid board policy away from the masjid, meeting in a public space should be sufficient without needing “chaperones.” Imams, for example, have office hours at the masjid, and leave the door open or open their blinds so others can see in, if the door is closed to protect confidentiality. For non-Imams and work spaces, if what you need to meet about is private, like needing crucial advice, simply meeting in a public space should be sufficient as long as you’re both aware of being respectful and keeping things professional. If you can bring a third person who can sit somewhere nearby who is not able to hear the conversation, consider this option. This is not to suggest you and the other person meeting together, in a public space, are going automatically to do something lewd if you don’t. It’s simply to protect your hearts, words and yes, long-term actions, from going down the path of regret—and instead allow both persons to engage each other in a way that inspires true respect and noble love for Allah (swt).
What this looks like online/social media: When applicable, have a third person involved. For example, if you are a female organizing an event and you are emailing a male, yet you know that another male or female is also involved in that specific aspect you’re emailing about, then simply include them in the conversation. Some people when they have to work closely with someone of the opposite gender, simply let them know that they have given their email password to their spouse or trusted sibling, in order to allow everyone to feel like the door to the room is open rather than locked. Others choose to make phone calls when they’re around people and the person they are calling is aware of that fact. The point isn’t to constantly have yourself monitored, it’s really to just build a repertoire between one another in your interactions. By not feeling fully alone together, the relationship remains fraternal and professional.
Protect your reputation.
At the outset, it must be stated that the concept of a reputation is misused at times. Sometimes, parents do not allow their daughters specifically to do certain things that they consider immodest or immoral within a specific cultural context due to a fear of what others may say about them. This sometimes causes young women to feel angry and frustrated and often blame Islam for being restrictive when in reality, it’s a specific concept their family has about what is and isn’t appropriate. Misusing the concept of protecting one’s honor has negative and unnecessary ramifications. And yes, people should make 70 excuses for what they see or hear about others. However, at the same time, there is a place in Islam for protecting our reputation and not putting ourselves in situations where another believer may feel concerned about us.
What this looks like in person: This is exactly what the Prophet ﷺ did when walking with his wife Safiya radi Allahu `anha (may God be pleased with her). Someone saw them and the Prophet ﷺ said, “This is Safiya!” They were surprised and said, “Prophet of God! We would never think you had a girlfriend or something like that!” The Prophet ﷺ responded, “Yes, but Satan travels through people like blood through the body.” The Prophet’s ﷺtechnical circumstances were halal but he wanted to make sure it was clear and not misunderstood.
What this looks like online/social media: The unfortunate reality of a sister or brother having an inappropriate or unnecessary online relationship has repercussions. For example, with an MSA brother, a sister may become a counselor-like friend and sometimes falls for the brother. The brother sometimes though, turns to her not because he wants to marry her, but because he perhaps enjoys that relationship with a female without having to commit to her and at times, may lead her on. On the flip side in another example, a sister may enjoy informal, intimate conversations and a certain brother’s attention; she may not be interested in marrying him, but enjoys the relationship and may sometimes lead him on. In both scenarios, the sister and brother may get a reputation for being easily used, desperate or whipped. Brothers and sisters: this is about respecting yourself enough that you do not allow yourself to be put in suspect situations that can harm your well-being and reputation in your specific context.
The Messenger ﷺ stated, “It is better for an iron rod to be driven into the head of a man, than for him to touch a woman who is not permissible for him.” (Mu’jam al Kabir) Though the word ‘touch’ here is understood by some scholars to be a euphemism for fornication, generally the principle is applied for all unnecessary (non-medical, etc.) touching, as derived from the Prophetic biography.
God tells us, “And do not come near unlawful sexual intercourse.” Not touching is a preventative measure as to what can come that’s greater. The Prophet ﷺnever shook hands when he took the Pledge of Aqaba from the female companions, though he did with the men. This shows at the very least that touching, even by shaking hands with the opposite gender, is not generally encouraged. There should be no casual high fives, no hugs, no physical interaction between sexes who are not closely blood related or married. Not even if you’re “promised” to one another and going to be married soon. Unless you have your written marriage contract (known as the “katb al-kitab” or “`aqd” or “nikah” in different cultures and sometimes considered an engagement after the contract is signed), no physical touching should happen.
But what about shaking hands in our specific context,, as a known form of greeting and professionalism?
Consider Shaykh Yusuf Qaradwi‘s and Shaykh Abdullah bin Bayyah‘s discussions on the issue. His allowance, with caveats, must be read and understood, as it provides an alternative to the typical discussion on prohibition. If you choose not to shake hands, make sure you politely decline with class and creativity. Ensure it’s done in ways that would help hearts feel closer to you rather than turn away in aversion.
Be respectful of people’s personal space and levels of comfort.
We deal with different Muslims from different backgrounds. We do not want to impose our gender interaction cultural norms on them. We should try to engage them with what is comfortable for them, without giving up our own rights. This is just basic consideration for how others feel, male and female. Once the Prophet ﷺ even changed the way he was sitting out of his consideration for the modesty of Uthman (ra):
Aisha reports: The Prophet ﷺwas lying down in his house with his thighs or his calves exposed. Abu Bakr asked permission to enter and was permitted while the Prophet ﷺ was in that position and he came in and spoke with him ﷺ. Then, Umar asked permission to enter. He was granted permission and came in and spoke with him ﷺ while in that position. Then, Uthman asked permission and the Prophet ﷺ sat up and straightened his clothing. He was then permitted and came in and spoke with the Prophet ﷺ. After he had gone, Aisha said: Abu Bakr entered and you did not get up for him or worry about him and Umar came in and you did not get up for him nor worry about him but when Uthman came in, you straightened out your clothing! The Prophet ﷺ said: “Should I not be shy of a man around whom the angels are shy?” (Muslim)
This is a true act of love for Allah (swt), and such consideration for the comfort levels of the other should be practiced across genders as well.
What this looks like in person: Some people from other countries or ways of thinking do not talk to unrelated members of the opposite sex for any reason (unless an absolute emergency) and are even uncomfortable giving salam (greetings of peace). In our western context, scholars have encouraged men and women to spread the salam to build a sense of support and community especially as a religious minority. Generally speaking, it is praiseworthy to initiate the salam and an obligation to respond to it, regardless of gender, unless you have good reason to believe it would be understood as flirtatious to do so. If you know someone is uncomfortable, do not put them in an awkward situation—even with something as simple as the salam. At the same time, a man from such an environment may feel uncomfortable with women in the same prayer space and want them to leave. For this, women should ***not*** be expected to leave because of someone else’s discomfort; women should take their Islamic right to worship in the House of God. In this example, it is the other person who needs to practice consideration of her rights.
Another example is to not stand too close to each other when you are talking. If you can smell their breath, shampoo, or deodorant then you are standing too close. If someone takes a step back everytime you take a step forward, then realize they prefer a bigger gap between themselves and you and stop inching forward.
What this looks likes online/social media: If you friend request someone of the opposite gender on Facebook and they don’t confirm, respect their privacy. If someone always CCs a third party when they email you, try to reply all and respect that. When we treat each other with nobility, it fosters trust.
Speak in a decent manner.
Perhaps there is no single behavior that more clearly defines our manners than speech. Allah (swt) has many commands about speech in the Qur’an. Its content should be good and decent (2:235). Its tone should be straight-forward (33:70). It should not be made soft on purpose (33:32). It should not be loud and arrogant (31:19). There should be no vain or excessive speech (23:3).
This is interesting as 90% of communication is non-verbal, and most perception comes from our tone of voice. And nothing affects tone of voice like intention. When the intention is good, speech is naturally unaffected and straight-forward, good in both content and delivery. The best way to examine our own hearts sometimes is to use our speech as a window to ourselves so we can ask, “What is going on inside?”
What this look likes in person: Speech is normal. This may appear humorous but as a dear sister once asked, “Why didn’t anyone just tell us to be normal?” In her situation, she was working and wanted to make da`wah (call to Islam) to her co-workers by showing how friendly and extra helpful a Muslim can be. Slightly sheltered in her upbringing, she went out of her way just to be very excited and supportive all the time and it was unfortunately understood as something else. Her version of ‘nice’ was over the top. She realized later that co-workers of the opposite gender, according to the advice of the Human Resources department, simply were to engage each other in a straight-forward, ‘normal’ way which is what Islam encourages anyway. Her speech was simply a mistake; but others actually make the mistake in their intention too. Don’t deliberately try to use an attractive sounding voice, don’t deliberately laugh and giggle for the purpose of drawing flirtatious attention, don’t extend conversations endlessly just to stay in the presence of another person. In other words, just be normal!
What this looks like online/social media: Don’t flirt, don’t be excessive in praise, or dismissive and disrespectful in joking. Use language that you wouldn’t feel shy of the Prophet ﷺ witnessing, knowing Allah (swt) always does.
Ensure your circumstances are safe.
One of the conditions for allowing women’s travel alone is safety and ensuring the place of stay. In general, for both men and women, Personal Safety (life, health) in itself is considered one of the greater objectives of Islamic Law. Keep in mind, two people don’t need to be in complete isolation for it to be unsafe.
What this look likes in person: If you’re a sister, going to a brother’s apartment, or a brother going to a sister’s apartment to study for example, even if it is shared with others—that is unsafe. Going into a public parking lot that is empty to get class notes at an odd hour of the night is unsafe. The point is, whether man or woman, be smart about where you meet, choose an appropriate time, and ensure it’s in a safe space.
What this looks like online/social media: Do not put personal information like where you live on your Facebook or other online site. If you’re “checking in” somewhere online, let it be somewhere public and attended by people. For example, if you are at the beach when it’s deserted at night, do not “check in” live on sites or social media where your location can be tracked by strangers, or even people you don’t know well.
Finally, the pursuit of marriage is the reason many young people get involved in relationships or put themselves in situations they later regret. Marriage is a noble intention, and should be pursued nobly. A guiding principle is the ends don’t justify the means in Islam. The space of Islamic work may be a place where people meet potential spouses, but the work should not be used as an excuse to get attention under the guise of being interested in marriage. Once a person realizes their interest in marriage towards someone is a sustained interest, they should take a respectful and responsible approach. That means, be like Musa, `alayhi as salaam (peace be upon him), and talk to her family. Or be like Khadijah (ra), and talk to a reputable friend, preferably married, who can find a tactful way to recommend you. It is permissible to approach the person you’re interested in directly, specifically if you know that’s their personal preference as well since not everyone has a supportive or present family. However, make sure it’s done with respect. When you’re respectful in both means and method, you can pursue your intention for marriage through its blessed path, and continue your Islamic work/volunteering on its own blessed path.
Inter-gender relations can be tricky, but remember: Just be normal! With the right intention, with purpose, and with efforts to try our best with the general guidelines God has revealed for our work together, we can focus on ensuring that our relationships lead to benefiting ourselves, our families, our societies and the world at large, with God’s will.
It is hoped that this inter-gender relations summary be of service to brothers and sisters everywhere. May Allah (swt) ennoble our character, manners, and disposition with what pleases Him most. May He allow us to practice both the spirit and letter of His guidance for us. May He forgive our many shortcomings and mistakes. May Allah increase us in His remembrance, gratitude, guidance, and beautify our worship. May He accept from us all. Ameen.