“In my family, my colleague told me proudly, “we had so much hayaa’ that my mother and all the girls would come to every prayer, even when we were menstruating. If we couldn’t pray, we would get dressed for prayer and sit in the row behind the men so that when our father and brothers finish praying, they would see us sitting there and have no idea that we weren’t able to pray because of our menses.”
Hayaa’ is an Arabic word that is often translated as modesty, but it has the broader meaning of “a respectable sense of shame.”
In Islam, true hayaa’ does not involve women being ashamed of their normal bodily functions nor does it involve women putting on pretenses to appease males or to maintain a false image. But unfortunately, in many cultures of predominately Muslim countries, the term has been so misconstrued that not only does it refer almost exclusively to the actions of women, it also defies the guidelines of Islam itself.
Narrated Abu Huraira:
The Prophet (PBUH) said, “Faith (Belief) consists of more than sixty branches (i.e. parts). And Haya (This term “Haya” covers a large number of concepts which are to be taken together; amongst them are self-respect, modesty, bashfulness, and scruple, etc.) is a part of faith.” (Bukhari)
Abandoning False Modesty
We Are All New Muslims Perhaps, one effective way to overcome the false modesty that is rampant in many Muslim families and communities is for us all to embrace the idea that, on some level, we are all learning about Islam for the first time. Whether we accepted Islam on our own or were born into a Muslim family, living as a Muslim must be a conscious choice.
Thus, if Muslims genuinely wish to live according to the guidelines of Islam, we must take time to study the religion for ourselves and filter from our minds and hearts false teachings, whether the falsehood came from anti-Muslim media propaganda or from the sincere efforts of our parents and cultural community who thought they were teaching us Islam.
Talking Sex: Embracing True Hayaa’
Sex is likely the most misunderstood subject pertaining to hayaa’ in Islam. Perhaps the misunderstanding has occurred because by nature sex is such an intimately private act, or perhaps the misunderstanding has occurred because when sex is engaged in outside the marriage bond, personal and social disasters can result, thus making sex one of the most feared and avoided topics in many Muslim communities.
However, the one whose very life embodied Islamic hayaa’in the most exemplary form, Prophet Muhammad himself, did not fear or avoid this subject. In fact, in an effort to teach the proper understanding of this subject and the Islamic guidelines of physical and spiritual purity, he customarily discussed sex with both men and women, even when both men and women were present.
Concerning men’s sexual intimacy with women, Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) said,
“When anyone sits amidst four parts (of the woman) and the circumcised parts touch each other a bath becomes obligatory”. (Bukhari and Muslim).
Also, the Companions of the Prophet customarily asked about this subject, as in the famous narration when Umar ibn Khattab asked the Prophet about entering a woman from behind (through her vaginal area), and Allah revealed a verse on the subject (Sunan Al-Tirmidhi, 2980).
Additionally, the female Companions also asked the Prophet about this subject. The female Companion Umm Sulaym said, “O Messenger of Allah, surely, Allah is not shy of the truth. Is it necessary for a woman to take a ritual bath after she has a wet dream?” The Messenger of Allah (peace be upon him) replied, “Yes, if she notices a discharge.”
The female Companion Umm Salama then covered her face and asked, “O Messenger of Allah! Does a woman have a discharge?” He replied: “Yes, let your right hand be in dust, how does the son resemble his mother?” (Bukhari).
If Allah, His Messenger, and the male and female Companions were not shy to discuss truth, even in the subject of sex, why then are we? Do we imagine that our personal and cultural hayaa’ is greater than their personal and spiritual hayaa’?
Glorified Ignorance and the Dangers of False Modesty
“I thought I was dying,” my friend told me as she recalled her first menses. “I had no idea what was happening to me.” Another friend told me how a family member ran from her husband on wedding night because she had absolutely no idea what he wanted from her and why he was removing his clothes.
One of my female teenage students asked me, “Why do some girls sit outside the prayer area when it’s time to pray? And what are pads for? What do you do with them?” And this student already had the physical signs of puberty, which means she could start menstruating literally at any moment. Though some of us might find these incidents “cute” or funny, the truth is that they represent a very dangerous trend of “glorified ignorance” in some Muslim communities.
The glorified ignorance trend defines modesty as an exclusively female trait, and the more ignorant a woman is about her body and sexuality, the more revered and “evident” her modesty is.
However, men are expected to be anything but modest, often to the extent that they are expected and even encouraged to blatantly disobey Allah’s command to come not even close to Zina (fornication or adultery). What has resulted is cultures of controlled, subjugated, and oppressed women, where the honor of the family or tribe rests with the “glorified ignorance” and asexuality of the women adhering to cultural codes of modesty.
But even in members of these cultures who have immigrated to the West and sought to abandon misogynistic definitions of honor and modesty, the negative effects of culturally-reinforced false modesty continue to disrupt marriages.
Often, both men and women remain sexually unsatisfied because while a woman’s ignorance of her body and sexuality might be sexually arousing to some men on wedding night, this glorified ignorance gets old and tiresome over time, especially for those who wish to stay within the limits set by Allah and derive sexual satisfaction from only their spouse.
Tragically, the women themselves suffer psychologically, as many feel ashamed of their sexual desires and view it as “inappropriate” to speak about what arouses them or to initiate any sexual contact.
Unmarried girls (and sometimes boys) from cultures that glorify ignorance often pray while they are in janaabah (a state of ritual impurity) because when they have a wet dream, they have no idea they need to make ghusl (ritual bath) before praying. Many of them do not even know what sexual ejaculation or orgasms are. And naturally, if a young married woman from a culture of glorified ignorance has no idea about sex on her wedding night, it is only natural that, after having intimacy, she won’t know that she has to take a ritual bath before praying again.
Moreover, some Muslim girls are shunning Islamic relationships altogether in favor of the “less judgmental” non-Muslim culture of male-female interaction. “I would rather deal with non-Muslim guys,” a teenage girl told me. “At least with them, I won’t feel judged for what I think or feel.”