Pre-Marital Distancing of Men and Women under Islam
Art Madsen, M.Ed.
When discussing the nature of relationships between men and women under Islam it is important to recognize that all three major faith groups of the Western World originated in the Holy Land, now essentially the Middle East. Therefore, the customs and traditions that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam share are fundamentally similar in many respects, in spite of certain Euro-Christian changes and modifications made over the centuries. It would be wrong, therefore, to assume that Islam is any more or less "sexist" or "conservative" in its teachings than the other two monotheistic religions (Caldwell, 1990). Keeping this in mind, it is possible to move forward with a reasonably in-depth, formally researched analysis of the symbolism, reasoning, and justification for avoidance of premarital promiscuity or sexual involvement under Islam, a policy that has led to de facto distancing of young men and women in Moslem countries.
Research Results Pointing to
Justifiable Imposition of Pre-Marital Distancing under Islam
Fadwa El Guindi, an Islamic woman writing from the University of Southern California, has taken a modern and somewhat enlightened view of distancing and assesses the current attitudes of nations like Egypt and Turkey in liberal terms, based on the clothing that Moslem women wear. Veils, for example, have always served as a means for distancing the sexes in Moslem countries. El Guindi describes how thoughts have been evolving in this regard and how shifting attitudes are reflected by dress codes in a wide range of Moslem nations. She acknowledges that dress codes are mandated in The Hadith, a non-divine source, as opposed to The Holy Qur’an, which would have to be absolutely obeyed:
"In the Qur’an (…), but mostly according to the Hadith (a worldly source), evidence suggests that the Prophet Mohammed had paid much attention to the dress code for Muslims in the emerging community…" (El Guindi, 1999, 6)
This recognition on the part of contemporary Moslems has led to uneven enforcement of the restrictions in The Hadith, but there is a new trend, now, toward the veil, and, by extension, strict separation of the sexes. Her insightful article mentions that, in Egypt, many university women opted for the veil although no secular law required it. This demonstrates, even in a progressive country like Egypt, that women are willing to accept the distancing of the sexes, prior to marriage. This has as much to do with issues of social reputation as it does with religious obedience. It is interesting to note that the Arab feminist movement in Egypt in the 1970s was the force that spearheaded a return to traditional values among women. These attitudes overflowed into neighboring Arab nations where they took root in even firmer adherence to the dictates of The Hadith.
Clothing as a mirror of religious distancing is the first indicator of prevailing beliefs among both men and women in most Moslem nations today. These beliefs incorporate the separation of the sexes along rather strict lines in all but the most liberal Moslem nations, such as Morocco or perhaps Malaysia, and Indonesia. Although even in these countries, there is a growing movement to return to distancing of young people on the basis of gender. Interestingly, there is evidence suggesting that Coptic Christian women wore the veil well into the 20th century along the Nile (El Guindi, 1999), lending support to one of this paper’s contentions that all three major western faith groups dressed conservatively in recent memory, although standards of separation and distancing differed.
A similar theme, further justifying the distancing in Western culture of virgin women and men, is raised in Caldwell (1990). He claims that most societies in the Mediterranean Basin have subscribed to this practice over the centuries, with lingering traces of it in Greece, Macedonia and points farther west (Caldwell, 1990). In Catholic Churches, as late as the 1960s, women’s heads were veiled, whether these women were married or not. Other vestiges of distancing were also apparent in various Orthodox Churches, thus reconfirming that, socially, this practice was acceptable and mandated by a variety of major institutions for long periods of time. Under Islam, therefore, these restrictions are not necessarily unreasonable and provide the basis for durable marriages and stable families.
It is essential to reiterate, in spite of uneven enforcement in some nations, that the distancing of men and women in Islamic society is, from a religious and often legal perspective, considered a very serious matter. In Pakistan, for example, premarital sex and marital infidelity are punishable under the same law as murder and theft (Mansura, 2000). It is certain that the death penalty for unauthorized sexual conduct is a strong deterrent. Under Islam, not only is distancing obligatory, but tremendous penalties are imposed for any fraternization or unacceptable physical involvement. Obviously, there can be no boyfriend/girlfriend relationships as in the West, or even parties or drugs where such temptations would arise (Mansura, 2000). Because there is an expectation that Islam will one day dominate the earth, it is important that the laws under which Moslems live are fair, just and necessarily strict, so as to protect young girls, who will be the mothers of future generations, from exploitation (Madany, 1997). Even the Judeo-Christian outlook, ideally, would accept this restriction. In practice, of course, there has been laxity and unwillingness to enforce many of these laws under Judaism and Christianity. Under Islam, the actual implementation of these teachings is far more advanced, even enforced in most places.
From a Western perspective, there seems to be an extremely hard line taken against premarital distancing of the genders in Islamic Society. However, it is important to recall that all three Faith groups required these restrictions at one time or another in their history. Furthermore, in order to ensure that both women and men are protected from promiscuity and exploitation, it has become necessary to enforce the laws of The Holy Qur’an and The Hadith with respect to dress codes, distancing and, hence, intermingling prior to marriage. Islam certainly provides the proper channel for exercise of natural longings through marriage and the raising of offspring. Premarital distancing, it has been seen, is realistically enforceable and desirable in countries that are currently Moslem. Even when Moslems travel outside their native lands, or in nations where they are in the minority, these rules and prohibitions apply.
Caldwell, P. "Lifting the Veil: Shared Cultural Values of Control", Weber Studies Quarterly, Fall 1990.
El-Guindi, F. "Veiling Resistance: Innovative Revisiting of Egyptian Feminism and Its Connection with Islam and Veiling", Fashion Theory, 3:1 51-80, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, 1999.
…… "Islam Meaning and Message: Sex and Society", Secretariat, MANSURA, Lahore, Pakistan, 2000.http://www.jamaat.org/islam/WomanSociety.html
Madany, B. "Missions to Muslims in the 21st Century", The Christian Reformed Church, Escondido, California, January 1997.