Modesty in Men

Nikhat Sattar

An interview of young Middle Eastern men was uploaded on Facebook some months ago, with the aim to assess their views on their wives and sisters. It was tragic but not surprising to hear that they were willing to kill them if they ever ventured out of their homes to earn a living. A girl who posted her traumatic experience of being harassed on the road in front of her brother was trolled: Why was she out anyway?

These are but two examples of the widespread misogyny and controlling behaviour among many Muslim men, as well as their misguided belief that they have the right to determine what a woman should or should not do or wear. Literature, sermons, and instructions from Muslim men to women, about their need to wear the veil and observe modesty as defined by them, can be found in abundance.

It might surprise people to know that modesty and shyness are basic requirements for men and women equally. “Modesty (haya) is part of faith” (Al Bukhari). This sense of haya is to be demonstrated in dress, speech, and action. In fact, it must be as evident or more, in privacy as in public, because it is important to be modest in front of God. If one believes that modesty is the best approach to reduce fahashi (obscenity) and to establish a ‘moral’ society, then it is incumbent upon all members, regardless of gender or age.

For some reason, the burden of modesty seems to fall upon women. Not only are they required to be strict with themselves, they are also bound to obey demands of the larger society, especially of the men around them. Women are restricted to the most horrific cage-like garments, within walls and refused permission to breathe fresh air — all in the name of modesty.

The Qur’an gives instructions to men first to be modest: “Say to the believing men that they should lower their gaze and guard their modesty: that will make for greater purity for them: And Allah is well acquainted with all that they do” (24:30). A complete code of interactions with women and prevention of sexual harassment is encapsulated within this verse. Not to stare at women, regardless of what they are wearing or how attractive they are; guarding their private parts so that there is no question of sexual assaults; attempting to achieve more taqwa, fearing their own desires and God. It is only later that God gives a similar injunction to women.

Note that nowhere does God enjoin men to enforce laws related to modesty upon women or to restrict them in any way. In fact, as per the Qur’an, each person is responsible for her/his own deeds and shall be accountable to God. The Qur’an does, however, ask people to invite others towards good deeds and avoid evil, but equally it demands self-correction first. Once, when the Prophet (PBUH) was with a companion, a beautiful woman came to him with some complaint. The companion stared at the woman and the Prophet turned his face away from her; he did not ask the woman to cover her face.

As with general ethics in other walks of life, Muslim societies have suffered decay and decadence in men-women relations. This ranges from fiqh and personal laws to practices detrimental to the well-being of women and their social and economic status. Patriarchy has taken away or reduced decision-making powers from women. Within this environment, many men (and even women) concentrate on the behaviour of women.

In many homes, modesty and respect towards women would be taught to boys, but girls are restricted at every stage. Girls are trained to ‘save’ themselves from the predatory eyes of men, yet boys are not taught to be less predatory, although they do become self-appointed ‘moral police’. Stories of sexual harassment even in holy places are plenty and these acts are committed by men who would otherwise seek pure, veiled and well-hidden women as their wives. Books written to train people for Hajj ask women to stay away from places reserved for men, but no men are required to keep a distance. Despite the lack of space for women, men are found to be ensconced in Masjid-i-Nabavi; women are scuttled away even from the Ka’aba and told to remain within the small enclosures reserved for them in Makkah.

Instead of promoting traditions rooted in gender bias, prejudices and wrong interpretations of Islamic teachings, as many are wont to do, our fingers should point to perpetrators of harassment and not the victims. It is time that the focus of societal development and moral training shifts towards boys and men, without which our moral uplift will remain a dream.

The writer is a freelance contributor with an interest in religion.

Posted November 10, 2018. This article was first published in Dawn, October 19th, 2018. It is posted here with the kind permission of the author.