TORONTO (WOMENSENEWS)–When Ada shook her male friends’ hands farewell at her eighth-grade graduation, her Muslim parents frowned in disappointment. They’d told her countless times to limit interactions with the opposite sex.
Now 17, Ada still stresses over this reprimand by her conservative parents who have instilled the need to be a good Muslim.
Toronto is home to a large Muslim community and plenty of its girls are completely comfortable mixing with the opposite sex at school.
But Ada is one of many who finds it hard to adhere to her parents’ interpretation of Islam, which imposes strict rules regarding gender relations, while fulfilling the necessity imposed by her co- educational setting to interact with boys.
“I don’t understand how it could be reasonable or realistic to think that you can’t be friends with people of the opposite gender while living in the West,” said Ada, who, like others interviewed, asked that her full name not be used for fear that her parents may find her expressing a rebellious viewpoint.
She often talks to boys outside of the classroom, to her parents’ disapproval. “They are always trying to persuade me not to spend time with them or talk to them,” she said in an interview on the school playground.
After years of their reprimanding, she eventually wore them down. Now her parents do not bring up the topic, at least not so often. Occasionally, though, they still forbid her to exchange greetings or hold a conversation with boys outside of school.
Although Ada insists on being friends with boys, she also expresses some guilt about it. She is aware that her parents worry about her crossing the line and forgetting her values of humility, chastity and modesty. But she feels talking to boys is a necessity for her at school and treats them as she would treat girls, with kindness and respect.
Ada, who wears a hijab (a veil covering her head and chest), also notices a double standard.
While adults are apt to frown on girls for talking to boys, it doesn’t seem to her that boys get such a disapproving message when they try to talk to girls. “My parents never seem to get as mad as they do with me when my brothers talk to the opposite gender.”
“The rules that the parents of Ada and other girls are setting are unnecessarily strict,” said Imam Jaffer H. Jaffer of the Masumeen Islamic Centre in Brampton, Ontario, in an email interview.
Islam allows different genders to interact for greeting or for work but is cautious of more because of “natural humanistic tendencies of attractions, flirtations, infatuations between genders,” said Jaffer. He said the more conservative parents reprimand permissible interaction out of fear that the lines of a simple friendship may cross the rules of religion.
Free of Religious Tensions
Rafia, by contrast, is one of numerous Muslim teens who feels free of such family-social-religious tensions. For instance, she doesn’t feel bad at all when she hugs boys.
“I don’t think I’m going against my religion,” the Toronto-area teen said. “My Islam promotes making people feel better. I know some people would frown upon me even talking to boys, but I honestly don’t think it’s a big deal because it’s not like I intend to do something un-Islamic with them.”
But Yasha is more like Ada. She and Rafia too asked that her last name not be used to avoid her parents’ attention. Yasha has male friends and talks to them on a regular basis outside of school. Her parents are aware and approve with caution.
“If your intention is pure, you are not going against Islam,” she said in an email exchange. “For example, you’re not supposed to flirt with them.”
An avid soccer player, Yasha plays the sport at lunch and after school with boys on the school field. She shakes hands with her teammates and exchanges high-fives but she constantly reminds herself of the line she must keep from the boys, limiting some of the fun while competing.
These challenges are among the many Yasha faces daily. “As a Muslim living in a Western society, I am constantly surrounded by temptations to do things that go against my religion. In order to combat these temptations, it is important for me to uphold my religious values through prayer and reading the Quran, which serves as a constant reminder of God’s messages,” she said.