I have several Muslim guys on my Facebook friends list. Some I met through Muslim community projects, some I met socially and a few I added just because I like reading the things they post. If you asked me why I have male friends on Facebook I wouldn’t be able to provide you with a definitive reason. It’s not like I hang out with them as I do with female friends, nor is there any real need for it. A lot of us will add people of the opposite sex from our uni MSA or from community projects, but we can easily conduct all necessary interaction over online groups or at meetings. If there is a burning need to speak to someone one-on-one, a PM would suffice as opposed to an actual friend request. I must therefore conclude that if we do have friends of the opposite sex on Facebook, it’s because we’re okay with it to some extent.
The interesting thing I’ve noticed on Facebook is that a lot of the most overtly ‘religious’ people actually tend to have the most friends of the opposite sex. I can guess why. Their profiles generally don’t feature any photos of themselves, and their posts are all Islamic in theme. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think their profile was run by a spam-bot programmed to churn out Islamic phrases and links. But there is a person behind the impersonal online persona. Their feelings may be obscured behind endless status updates about the beauty of nature and the sufferings of the ummah, but they are still there. This means these people are as susceptible to forming attachments as anyone, and because they most likely are also the type of person to avoid free-mixing in real life, their Facebook profile can in fact become one of the main ways of meeting a potential partner.
Online communication has the potential to get very personal very quickly, due to the simple fact that it’s so much easier to type words onto a screen than it is to say them in real life. I’m sure we’ve all been in a situation where we’ve found ourselves saying things online and then wondering later why we didn’t put a sock in it. Some person we would barely consider an acquaintance sends us a PM or starts a chat about some random thing, and before we know it, bam, we’re onto talking about why we’re not married yet. Also, because a lot of conversations online take place at odd hours, people become less inhibited. If it’s much easier to type personal things onto a screen than it is to say them in real life, it’s much, much easier to type them onto a screen at 2am than it is at 1pm.
These types of interactions happen so frequently, and in far more insidious ways than the example I just mentioned. Social networking has made cheating far easier; people can look up old flames with a click of a button and thus indulge ancient longings. We can stare at the profile pictures of someone attractive for far longer than our one allowed glance. There’s no one looking over our shoulder like there is in person. We can stalk someone’s status updates from 2009, look at the 500 photos they’re tagged in and go through their friends list with a fine-tooth comb. Online, we’re free to set our own private limits, and this again makes me wonder why it’s not more common amongst Muslims to cyber-segregate.
People just don’t do the things they do online in real life. In real life, we’d never we just go up to an acquaintance, male or female, and start talking about personal things. As Muslims, it’s likely that if that acquaintance is of the opposite sex, the opportunity would never even come up. If we do mix with males in an Islamic context, we’re all too aware of conservative social convention and the knowledge that to flaunt it entails social suicide. But online, there are no prying eyes. There are no interruptions and no one to tell us when to stop. It seems to me then that if we’re looking to avoid developing attachments, cyber-segregation may be even more effective than real-life-segregation. But the majority of us don’t do it.
Some of us take measures like restricting access to photos where we’re dolled up. Some have female-only lists for when we post a particularly silly status. I even saw one hijabi post a photo of herself without a hijab because she’d restricted the setting for that photo to only females. But many of us don’t take any measures at all to filter our content on a gender basis. If we’re uncomfortable with the idea of someone staring at us for an extended period of time in real life, we have to realise that by putting photos of ourself online, we are giving our ‘friends’ free reign to do it behind their screens. A pretty scary thought, especially for those of us who accept people we barely know. It also raises questions about our responsibility as Muslims, both male and female, to maintain modesty and decorum.
If I reflect on the reasons why we don’t cyber-segregate, one which comes to mind is that Muslims are open to using Facebook as a means of getting to know a partner. Most Muslim community events don’t provide the opportunity to do more than exchange a quick salams, so for people looking to dig a bit deeper a friend request is the perfect way to do it. That way, we can scope out their profile, see their likes and dislikes and whether they can string a proper sentence together when they update their status. It’s an easy, non-threatening way of going on ‘the hunt’. No one will be able to tell if our cyber-friendship with a member of the opposite sex is initiated with the intent of marriage or simply because we work together on some Islamic project.
Facebook seems to somewhat legitimise free-mixing in the eyes of the community; it’s socially acceptable to comment on people of the opposite sex’s posts, but not to hang out with them in real life. It’s socially acceptable to use emoticons when talking to a person of the opposite sex on Facebook, but we’d never engage in playful banter to the same extent in real life. But beware: I’ve been able to guess that some people are in a relationship based purely on their Facebook interaction. If we’re looking to keep a relationship secret, it’s probably not the best idea to be constantly posting on the person’s Facebook wall and liking photos of them. There may not be the same barriers as there are in real life, but there are easy ways to spot when people are a little more than just (Facebook) friends.
Maybe we keep the door open online in the same way we keep our front door open for door-knocks. I certainly know of several people whose relationships arose through online contact, and I would make a fairly safe (and Halal) bet that these will only increase in the years to come. But recently, I’ve come across a few profiles whose owners only had friends of the same sex. Two, to be precise. I wondered how they managed it. Do they PM every person of the opposite sex who tries to add them, explaining their reasons? Did they have friends of the opposite sex, and then delete them all? Whatever their strategy, I have to admire them for sticking to their guns.
Why do you have friends of the opposite sex on Facebook? Do you tweak your Facebook profile to ensure people of the opposite sex only see certain things?