Cyber-segregation

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.

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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?

10 responses to “Cyber-segregation

  1. Really interesting, I have been thinking about this lately actually! I have friends of the opposite gender, but only because I like what they post and I only accept the trust worthy brothers (those who are very well known in the community). If there is reason to speak, it is only out of necessity, which is rarely. But sometimes there are those brothers who are well known etc, however they may PM using some emoticons. I find that uncomfortable because I feel like it’s being too friendly, but I am sure they are like that with everyone, and sometimes I find it hard to just be to the point as I feel I am being rude, however I have to sort of keep the to the point thing going in case I get a bit carried away and start joking around. Also, I tend to like everyones posts and by me liking a brothers posts I hope that doesn’t look like I am interested in him. :S It is also difficult to not act too friendly because at times if you know you are never going to marry the brother, you can tend to joke around as you feel there will be no consequences as you have no attraction whatsoever.

    But I do agree it is strange that we find it socially acceptable online. All the brothers and sisters (including myself) are extremely awkward in real life (well the ones on my friends list that is) and it is very strict with even a Salams being weird, lol. But I always try to remind myself whenever I talk to someone of the opposite gender; Number one, would the way I am speaking to them online now change if my father or mother was next to me? If so, then I need to re-evaluate the way I speak, also including would I be happy to show my parents what I am talking about without feeling guilty? If I feel guilty etc, then that could be a sign that I need to change the way I speak. Number two, is what I am saying online to this brother something I would say to their face? If not, why should I say these things online? What is the point of doing so?

    Of course we all mess up, it can be difficult. So this is a big reminder to myself first, and JazakAllah khyr for posting, this has served as a great reminder subhunAllah!

  2. It is hard to maintain any kind of universal standard because as you said, everyone has different ways of expressing themselves. To some people, using emoticons comes as second nature, whereas other people may find it too friendly and perhaps inappropriate. I know I personally use a lot of emoticons so I am definitely guilty of this one lol. Some people comment and like everyone’s posts, whether male or female, but others feel it sends the wrong message. It’s easy for things to get misinterpreted!
    Those are some good guidelines you’ve come up with. Asking whether you’d say this in real life is a big one because a lot of the time, the answer is no. As you said a lot of people are very reserved in real life but when it comes to online interactions, they become different. We all do it to some extent.
    Wa iyyaki, glad it resonated with you 🙂

  3. This post really hit home with me. I come from a very conservative family so my only means of getting across to the opposite gender was through social media. I’ve made a LOT of mistakes in this arena, so I really would be the last person to judge someone else who is sinning/has sinned like this. Like you said, there’s no one to stop you and you get carried away.

    I don’t think the parents test is a good one (personally), because there’s a lot of things I wouldn’t do in front of my parents simply because I don’t want to give them a heart attack, not because I think there’s anything wrong with it in the religious sense. I think a better method is renewing our intention before we begin any contact with the opposite gender, thinking about exactly what our purpose is and then later reviewing whether the purpose has been achieved. I also think having one or two trusted friends to share everything with helps. If you’re okay with letting them know about every detail of your life, they will be able to tell you whether you are crossing the line or not. Its also important to develop an attitude to receive constructive criticism well.

    • It’s definitely easy to overstep barriers online as you said. Muslims are particularly in danger of doing so because they are often inexperienced when it comes to gender interactions, as you yourself found. I think talking to friends is a good idea as they can provide an indication of what kinds of behaviors are normal online more so than your parents could.

  4. With respecting to posting photos and restricting it to friends of your gender – people should bear in mind that all facebook photos are accessible to anyone via the JPEG URL so privacy settings are a pretty weak barrier, just thought I would put it up here for the record.

    • I agree, the photo I mentioned of the sister without hijab could actually be seen by people who weren’t her friends, which is a bit scary.

  5. (I had many different thoughts so, hey, I numbered them! Responses don’t have to be numbered!)

    1. Truly fascinating, excellent observations. I think if a scholar read this they would think deeply about the Fiqh of such matters! At the moment there seems to be the school of “no talking in IM’s because it’s khalwa” and those who don’t consider it khalwa as long as it is appropriate conversation. This throws so much more into the mix.

    2. I think it’s worth emphasising a bit that most ‘friends’ are general, innocent online links… (Unmarried) guys’ minds do often flit to the idea of “potential?” with girls but it isn’t so bad in reality I think, and should be given some credit at least. Even if an interaction is with the intent of marriage… is it so bad? It’s not like physical free mixing exactly, although the emotional effects most certainly can be similar.

    3. You mentioned about the online guy-girl banter that would never occur in real life… I think this is something you could write on in itself, cos it is really confusing. And really awkward and painful. Eg. There was a person who somehow who became like that, but in person conversations were short and rare. I cut it off because I felt it was unfair to her almost as much as because it was kind of inappropriate from a conservative standpoint! Even online ‘banter’ – when I know I am being innocent – I now try to restrict with opposite gender, and even then never with the more conservative sisters.

    4. This is a minefield of confusion and, as mentioned, we mess up, so we shouldn’t judge others ever (which is exactly what people do do with social media).

    So many flying thoughts!

    • Thanks for numbering them, it makes them very easy to work with 😀
      1.) I’ve heard as well that private online communication is considered to be seclusion, but I think the issue needs a lot more consideration from scholars given the constant developments in technology! E.g. can you like photos of the opposite sex? What are the implications of that?
      2.) Well, as I said, in some ways online communication can go a lot further than real life communication because of how easy it is to type things over a screen.
      3.) Definitely, it’s a funny topic. You see people at events who interact fine online but they’re so awkward in real life! Always interesting to note.
      4.) I think it happens to all of us to some extent because our real life contact with the opposite sex is so limited. Online, we’re just so unsure of how to behave, and because there aren’t as clear Islamic guidelines, we can push things a bit further than we probably intend to.

      • I think one good principle to go by is thus: would you feel comfortable doing what you do (whether or not you are actually married) if your spouse was watching, or if someone else was interacting with your spouse in that way? (I guess this is a form of “istafti qalbak”, consult your heart, and of course cannot overrule set rules.)

      • That’s a good one! Sometimes we can tell ourselves certain behaviours are ‘innocent’ but if we were honest with ourselves, we’d hate for our spouse to do it. Sure sign that it’s probably not on.

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