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:
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.
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.)
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 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.
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.
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.