There’s been a lot of outrage recently over revelations of sexual harassment and sexual assault. My question is, why has it taken so long?
The programs and movies I grew up with reveal what some considered to be “acceptable” behaviors toward women. From Pepe le Pew, the over-amorous cartoon skunk, chasing a feline, to secretary-chasing executives in 1960s movies like The Apartment (a comedy about executives sharing a place used for trysts), the message was clear and consistent. Such programming was thought of as harmless fun, but it shaped what became acceptable interactions between men and women.
While society made light of manhandling and coercing women into sexual situations, religious ideologies forbid it. Ironically, many view religions as backwards and too prudish. All religions address proper behavior between men and women; some rules are more stringent than others and people adhere to those rules in varying degrees.
Islam, which I follow, has specific guidelines regarding non-familial male/female interaction.
Both men and women are required to lower their gaze. That doesn’t mean it’s not permitted to look at someone of the opposite gender; it means not to have a prolonged gaze. Think about all those romantic movies/novels: “Their eyes locked from across the room.” Whether it’s intended or not, holding a gaze for a prolonged period of time can send the wrong message.
According to Islamic, as well as Traditional Jewish rules, cross-gender hand shaking is not permitted, but there is a wide range of interpretations about this. Some say no form of cross-gender touching is allowed, while others believe it’s permissible to shake hands in a professional setting, as long as it’s not a lingering exchange.
An Islamic adage says: “When a man and a woman are in seclusion, the third party is the devil” (referring to non-familial situations). This concept, similar to the “Billy Graham Rule” to never be alone with a woman who is not his wife, causes some to shout sexism. However, in light of recent sexual harassment accusations, there are some who adhere to similar principles.
As with everything Islamic, there are varying interpretations and implementations. Most agree it’s permissible for men and women to conduct business together, if there is a purpose to the meeting, if they meet in a public space or if the door/blinds of an office are open and if they are not secluded. Doing so protects the reputation of both the man and the woman, while not barring career advancement.
Another Islamic ruling dictates that both men and women dress modestly. Men are required to wear loose clothing and be covered, at minimum, from navel to knee. Women are to wear loose clothing covering arms, legs and hair. Again, there is a wide range of interpretation and adherence. Personally, I choose to follow this edict as a form of worship; it’s something I do to please God. However, Muslim women who choose to cover are often thought of as oppressed.
It is absolutely true that following these and other rules of modesty isn’t a guaranteed protection. Whether it’s suggestive innuendo or rape, it’s not the fault of the victim and what she wears. Sexual harassment and assault is always the fault of the aggressor, and they are the ones who should be held accountable.
With recent news, there is a need to re-examine socially acceptable male/female interactions. I’m not suggesting everyone follow, or even like, Islamic guidelines; however, I hope people who choose to do so will be treated respectfully.
Rose Hamid of Charlotte is president of Muslim Women of the Carolinas.
To learn more about why Muslim women choose to cover, attend MWOC’s Hijab Fest Jan 27 2-4 at 4301 Shamrock Drive. You can also pick up a free hijab if you plan to participate in World Hijab Day on Feb 1. World Hijab day is an open invitation to both Muslims and non-Muslims to don the Hijab for a day in support of women who choose to wear it.