The year 2020 will go down in the annals of history for years to come. It will be remembered, among other reasons, for the sadness that it brought us and for the challenges that it introduced to our ways of living. And indeed, these have been many. One of the most profound has been that of social distancing.
According to WHO this means maintaining a space of at least 1 metre (3 feet) distance between oneself and others. This is said to help prevent the transmission of the virus should a person infected with Covid-19 cough or sneeze.
Social distancing is then, an important way of protecting us from the danger that Covid-19 represents- for some severe illness and for others even death. It means that we do not shake hands with one another, or kiss or hug, interactions, all of which formed part of most Western social protocols,
Social distancing is not something that comes to most of us naturally. Handshakes, embraces and touching are part of the ways we connect to one another. The term ‘distancing’ alerts us to the real danger that social interactions can cause in the current situation. We keep our distance to protect ourselves and others against the transmission of the Covid-19 virus. Our outside worlds are now teeming with boundaries. Stores have lines directing customers how far they must stand from one another. Passengers on trains avoid sitting next to each other, and delivery men run back to garden gates after dropping off parcels.
Professor Paul Gilbert, the founder of Compassion Focused therapy has suggested alternative wording to social distancing. He uses the phrase ‘safe relating’1 arguing that ironically we are relating to each other now, more than ever. As our access to aspects of life that we have taken for granted – being able to travel freely where we want and how we want, being able to meet who we want, when we want, being able buy what we want, when we want, has been restricted, we need to rely on each other, much more than ever before. Gilbert’s rephasing of ‘social distancing’ to ‘safe relating’ changes the focus from a ‘threat’ narrative – ‘others are a danger to me’ to a compassionate reframe – ‘ I care about others and their needs’.
Gilbert’s reframe is powerful and relates to the many boundaries existing in Islamic practice and the reasons that they are there. Beginning with the subject of contamination, the Holy Prophet (sa) advised that ‘If you hear of a plague in a land, do not enter it; but if the plague breaks out in a place while you are in it, do not leave that place’ (Bukhari Kitabut Tibb). Furthermore, he directed ‘do not put a patient with a healthy person as a precaution’ (Bukhari Kitabut Tibb).
Islam also directs us as to our boundaries within social relationships.
‘O ye who believe! enter not houses other than your own until you have asked leave and saluted the inmates thereof. That is better for you, that you may be heedful.’(Holy Qur’an 24:28)
Perhaps one of the more controversial boundaries is the concept of purdah – the boundaries placed between men and women. Many opponents argue that the segregation of men and women disempowers women because it prevents them from fully integrating in society. When many European countries introduced niqab bans, they argued that these prevent true integration of women into society.
The MP Jack Straw wrote about how he felt uncomfortable ‘talking to someone “face-to-face” who I could not see’.
‘I go on to say that I think, however, that the conversation would be of greater value if the lady took the covering from her face. Indeed, the value of a meeting, as opposed to a letter or phone call, is so that you can- almost literally – see what the other person means, and not just what they say. So many of the judgements we all make about other people come from seeing their faces.’2
The current British Prime Minster Boris Johnson, described women in niqabs as ‘letter boxes.’
‘I would go further and say that it is absolutely ridiculous that people should choose to go around looking like letter boxes.’
He said businesses and government agencies should be able to ‘enforce a dress code’ that allowed them to see customers’ faces.3
Covid-19 has turned much of this upside down. It is indeed ironic that at the time of writing, many of those countries which enforced niqab bans are now enforcing the use of face coverings. Television presenters are conducting interviews wearing masks, and politicians are quite comfortable being seen wearing them. It seems that communication is, after all, possible!
So, let us return to the concept of ‘safe relating’ because this encapsulates the concept of purdah. The Holy Qur’an directs:
‘Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do.
And say to the believing women that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts, and that they disclose not their natural and artificial beauty except that which is apparent thereof, and that they draw their head-coverings over their bosoms, and that they disclose not their beauty save to their husbands, or to their fathers, or the fathers of their husbands or their sons or the sons of their husbands or their brothers, or the sons of their brothers, or the sons of their sisters, or their women, or what their right hands possess, or such of male attendants as have no sexual appetite, or young children who have no knowledge of the hidden parts of women. (24:31-32)
The ‘Me too’ movement’ highlighted how women are at risk of sexual exploitation in our society. According to a poll by ABC News/Washington Post over fifty percent of US women have experienced unwanted sexual advances by men. Twenty three percent reported that they had endured advances from men who had influence over their careers. Shockingly, within this group thirty percent said it had amounted to sexual abuse.4
A survey of 5,649 students, for the charity Brook and the student database Dig-In, found that more than half of students at UK universities reported that they had experienced unwanted advances and assault, ranging from explicit messages to rape.5
The injunctions about purdah are about ‘safe relating’. Both men and women have been addressed in the verses above. Men are to maintain their boundaries by restraining their gaze, and women are asked to do likewise and further to adopt modest attire that adds further protection for them. These behavioural and physical boundaries are there to protect both sexes from exploitation, one from the other.
The ‘Me too’ movement and the statistics on assaults on women indicate that simply asking men to respect women is not enough in many cases. If we think about parallels with the current pandemic, this would be akin to the initial instructions regarding hand washing or not travelling. They were insufficient to contain the spread of the virus and hence social distancing measures had to be imposed.
The founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), writing over 100 years ago said:
‘Many people urge the adoption of permissiveness like that prevalent in Europe, but this would be most unwise. Such unbridled freedom of sexes is the root of all immorality. Look at the moral situation in countries that have adopted this freedom. If freedom of sexes has helped increase their chastity and virtue, we will readily confess that we were mistaken. But it is crystal clear that when men and women are young, and have the licence to mix freely, their relationship will be most dangerous. It is but human to exchange glances and be overwhelmed by lustful desires. As there is intemperance and vice, despite the observance of the veil, it may be imagined what the situation will be like in case of unrestricted freedom. Look at men, how unbridled their behaviour is! They have neither fear of God nor faith in the hereafter. They only worship mundane pleasures. It is necessary therefore, that before granting such freedom as is being advocated, the moral condition of men should be improved and rectified. After men have developed enough self-temperance to restrain control their passions, you may consider whether the veil is necessary or not. To insist upon unrestricted freedom in the present circumstances would be like putting sheep at the mercy of lions.’6
As we emerge from this pandemic it seems inevitable that we will have to retain some of these measures to prevent a resurgence of Covid-19. The reframe of social distancing as ‘safe relating’ will be important in this because it will remind us of our responsibilities to one another and our role in keeping each other safe, even when it may seem as if the worst of the pandemic is over.
It is important too that here in the West, we start to reframe purdah along similar lines. This is not about the repression of women, preventing them from fully integrating with society, and keeping them at a social distance. Rather it is about how men and women can safely relate to the other and protect one another in society. As we have now observed, it is quite possible to function in society without shaking each other’s hands, and with our faces covered. If we want to create a safer and better world, this is the time to question our assumptions about personal boundaries. The concept of purdah has been articulated fully in the Holy Qur’an as stated in the verses above. It is an injunction which is easily practiced and allows safety for both men and women. This is the time to ask if there is another way that genders can relate to one another that helps us create a safer world for both men and women.
6)Malfuzat, vol. 7, pp. 134-136