Originally published in May 2013.
I recently moved to a country in which cat-calls and invasive comments (in certain areas) have become a part of the norm. While walking down the street, it is expected that a girl will be commented at and called out for anything she is wearing. But that’s not the part that was strange to me. What really stood out to me was the fact that these men would make these comments as if they were entitled to say these things. As if the mere existence of a woman gives them the pure right to say (but not do) whatever pleases them. It was almost as if the message behind their words was actually “If we don’t look at them, and comment at them, what’s the use of having them around?”
At first, when analyzing the situation, I thought it was a young male problem. I thought that perhaps these youth just hadn’t matured yet or hadn’t realized the manners in which a woman should be dealt with. But then I realized that wasn’t the case. It was more than that. I began to notice that some of the women would actually take pride in getting commented at (and I don’t mean corny-at times funny-pick up lines, I mean full out disgusting comments). I also witnessed grown women laughing and nodding approvingly at men whistling at “nice looking” women. As a woman, it is natural to want to look attractive. It’s in a woman’s nature to want to look nice and feel nice. But is that the same thing as wanting to be looked at by strange men? Is it the same thing as wanting to be ogled at and commented at by men who have no relation or duties toward us?
I was perplexed at first, but then I realized that this was a much bigger problem than what I first thought. It was a problem of self-worth and self-definition. And I began to realize that this problem is not just one that lies within the culture that I was witnessing first hand, but also in our entire lives as women. So many of us women have begun to define who we are by the comments from others, the pleasure of others, the opinion of others; so many of us have forgotten where our true worth lies. It’s like there’s an emptiness inside that we scramble around trying to fill in any way possible even if that way is normally degrading and humiliating. And the sad part is we don’t even realize that that is what we are doing. And we don’t realize that the approval of God or focusing on the approval of God would fill up that aching emptiness better and faster than any of those comments that are received on the streets or in restaurants or even just that look in someone’s eyes. Our validation should come from one source, and one source alone. Charles Upton beautifully sums up this concept in his book Virtues of the Prophet by reminding us that “If we know for certain that God sees all we do and all we are, we will not be tempted to ask others to validate us by displaying our virtues, nor will we tempt others to judge us by displaying our sins. Only God can validate us; only God can judge.”
When we go out seeking the approval of others we are not only harming ourselves but we are making relationships and normal interactions difficult. We are allowing our own intimate space to be invaded and by doing that, we are actually invading the personal space of others. But if we are self-sufficient and we know that no matter what is said or done, when we walk out the door, our self-worth comes only for God, we allow ourselves and others to actually experience life. Charles Upton says that “this is the root of Courtesy. If we are not just intellectually but also emotionally certain that we are always in the presence of God, if we understand that He has first claim on our intimacy, then we will not demand absolute intimacy from others, which is something that no-one can really give. We will no longer try to command other people’s attention; we will stop prying into their affairs.” When we grant ourselves the courtesy of intimacy only with God, we naturally grant this courtesy to others.
But I also realized that the issue of women’s self-definition/self worth is not the only problem. The problem is also in some men, (note: I said some men. This does not pertain to all men just as my comments about women do not pertain to all women), in the sense that they feel like they have the right to look, the right to comment and the right to be pleased by anyone in their presence. They act as if they are the center of the universe and women are placed in this world simply as an enjoyment to them. I was once riding in a taxi with some family members and the (older) driver began to explain the concept to one of my male relatives. He explained, in what in his mind was a fact, that “when you look at a car and make comments about a beautiful car, what do you take from it? Nothing. What hurt comes out of it? Nothing. You are simply admiring it and making it known that you admire it. It’s the same thing with women: as long as we don’t touch, it’s not a problem.” And the truth is that this absurdity is not the problem that must be fixed, it is a symptom of an ever bigger problem: distance from God. Charles Upton addresses this issue highlighting the root of this evil, and similar evils: “To ogle and peep at other people, whether or not this is sexually motivated, is to treat them as objects. It is to say, in effect, ‘I am the one who is real, the one who is conscious; this other one only exists through my consciousness of him; he is not a person in his own right; he is nothing but a part of my experience.’ When a given society loses its belief in God, or at least its concrete sense that God is actually watching, people turn each other into objects in just this way. We forget that we are dependent for our very existence upon God’s attention to us; we treat our separate individuality, our ego, as if it were God. And when we no longer experience ourselves as dependent upon God, we become dependent upon each other for our very feeling of existence. We include the other within the circle of our ego as if he or she were a personal possession, and then demand that the other do the same with us. All this is a violation of Modesty. In the Prophet’s words, ‘Allah has mercy on the slave who feels true modesty in the face of his Lord, who protects his mind and what it perceives.”
In the end, this is what this well-rounded group of issues comes down to: we have forgotten our dependency upon God. We have forgotten that regardless of the opinion of man, if we don’t have the approval of God, our time has been wasted. We have forgotten that our self-worth is to be based purely on our relationship with the creator. And because we have forgotten this big part of our lives, we have begun to scramble around like a lost puppy searching for his mother, taking any kind of validation we can get from anyone who wants to give it. We try to get our humanity from the words, gazes, and comments of others. We try to feel alive by the opinion of others. And this, in and of itself, is a recipe for disaster because we will never please everyone. When we place our lives in the hands of the creation, we will live in a constant roller coaster—moving left and right with the whims of others. But when we place our lives in the hands of our Creator, our lives will then begin to even out. Our emotional state will not be based on the unstable opinion of humankind, but will be based on the stable opinion of the Ever-Lasting Creator. And really and truly, He’s the only one that matters anyway.
Great topic and insight!
maasha’Allah I found the last paragraph provides so much insight for life…extending beyond the topic of attention from the opposite gender..jazaakum Allahu khairan
“If we don’t look at them, and comment at them, what’s the use of having them around?”
Thats your fundamental question in a way. Even the West around 50 years ago some of this stuff would have been totally unheard of. Beyond the question of self worth, what IS the actual role of each gender? I’m not talking about the spiritual role of wordhip which is well defined but of the actual responsibilities that have been assigned to both male and females. Each had its own protected and secure roles and rights but when you ‘tear up’ the rule book you end up with the attitudes being displayed in your piece.
Beyond awesome…very insightful and eloquently put
Fantastic article, Reehab! 🙂
MashaAllah very insightful
Sums up some very basic issues so simply and neatly. MashaAllah
Alhamdulillah, that was a great read! This is a crucial matter because we don’t realize the detrimental, yet extremely subtle effects of the illusion of independence from Allah (SWT).
This topic applies to so much more than just self-worth based upon others’ valuation. The idea of treating others, even complete strangers, as people makes me think of businesses that will cut corners and mislead customers just to make a profit. جزاك اللهُ خير for posting this.
I think the problem is that Islam has become mere rhetoric and just words that sound islamic coming out of people who look religious. I have trouble believing some people who show outward religiosity has even actually internalized the messages they’re preaching to others. And the cycle continues. The ones who do not look outwardly religious look at these people and think that’s what Islam is about. They too do not internalize the message from Allah and treat it as mere rhetoric. It’s the “yeah, yeah, I’ve heard that one before” attitude over and over.
What a beautiful article….
MashAllah amazing Reehab, and so true!
Firstly, I’d like to thank you from the bottom of my heart. This article came just at the time I needed it most. May Allah reward you and your family profusely.
Secondly, I’m requesting you to write more on this topic. I am a practicing Muslimah and staying away from strange men was easy before because in my school girls and boys have a separate building. For nearly 6 months though, we’ve all had to go for tuition classes. Now all my friends, except me, have guy friends. Some of them are really close to each other.
I’ve recently been trying to increase my spirituality but the jealousy, the horrible burning jealousy, of my friends who have guy’s approval has been taking centre stage in my life and my thoughts always fall to wishing I had men’s approval too. I know its a vicious cycle but I’m unable to go to anyone I know for help(its completely impossible).
Please advise me…
Assalamualaikum wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh
They’ll regret it and wish they were like you, i.e. without guy friends, sooner or later.
wa la adhabal akhirah akbar law kaanu ya’lamoon
Walaikumassalam wa rahmatullahi wa barakatuh,
My intention wasn’t to degrade my friends, we are all responsible for ourselves. I have my faults, they have theirs. But Allah is Oft-Forgiving, Most Merciful.
I just wanted advice on how to fix my fault, its MY shortcoming that I feel this jealousy towards them.
Also, could you tell me the meaning of the verse(its from the Qur’an right?) you quoted at the end? I googled it but no results showed up.
yeah I’ve been there. i’m not sure whether you are jealous of the attention they get for their appearance, or the relationships they are able to attract from males.
for the former, the best i can tell you is to persevere, because in not too long you will live long enough to see that this kind of attention fades and had no deep meaning; there is nothing to be missed, and much danger.
the latter is by far the harder envy to overcome, because humans crave relationship with others as fitrah. this envy eats at you, making you feel that you cannot be loved, making you despair that God can give you the partner you will be pleased with, because you are discontented over not having what your friends have. it will eventually create a wound in you that badly craves fulfilment by attachment to another human rather than merely seeking it as fitrah.
you have to work on the sufficiency of your own character, drawing from Allah alone, completely trusting that you will not ever be left alone for He will provide you with someone, or with Himself. a person of purpose who is not craving the intimacy of another, is able to be gifted with a mate who also has purpose and is whole. if you are not whole, then you could be given another who is also not whole, in order to learn to depend on Him the hard way. and then if you do learn, you might have to move on from that person if he has not also learned – very heartbreaking.
expand your circle of friends, seek people who have as the centre of their lives a higher purpose, take up martial arts and other activities that can expand your perspective and help you build a whole self. hope that works out; trust me, the hard way is painful and wastes your best years.
assalam u alaikum
I went through quite a similar situation few years back and now that I’m out of the vicious cycle you’re talking about, I can’t thank Allah swt enough for guiding me towards the right path.
Honestly Fatima, there’s no gain in having a guy approve your looks or sense of style. A guy who has nothing to do with you whatsoever. Although, the compliments make us feel flattered but trust me the feeling dies out in no time. The feeling soon turns into disgust and aversion. We as women need to realize that our beauty and virtue don’t need to be admired by random men Allah’s placed in our lives as tests. We don’t need to hear them say things like “hey you look so sexy today” or “thats sucha hot pose”. There’s definitely a lot more to us than a face and a body which an ordinary man fails to acknowledge. simply cause he’s not just meant to. 🙂
So don’t let that jealousy deviate you from the awesome path you’re on! Stay the way you are and hey there’s an amazing dua to help you keep steadfast:
Rabbana la tuzigh quloobana ba’da idh hadaytana wa hab lana milladunka rahmah innaka antal Wahhab.
Our Lord! (they say), Let not our hearts deviate now after Thou hast guided us, but grant us mercy from Thine own Presence; for Thou art the Grantor of bounties without measure
I understand what you’re going through, I had to stop myself from falling into a deep friendship (that would have very likely ended up as a relationship had I not suddenly seen where I was going!) with a guy before.
I know that it feels really hard sometimes that these guys aren’t paying attention to you, even though you may admire them and want their approval. And it hurts when you see your friends enjoying such intimate relations.
The main way that I cured myself from this, is by constantly reminding myself that my self esteem comes from me, and I depend on my Creator for love, not some boy who I can live well without. And believe me, the pain and heartbreak that come from allowing yourself to develop an emotional dependency on someone who is not obligated to return that love, is more than enough to make you turn away. There are reasons that Allah SWT made marriage our way. 🙂
To stop being jealous – stop thinking about the boys, or about your friends’ friendships. Throw yourself into living YOUR life the best way possible – read books, make morning duas, go exercise, find new hobbies (knitting rocks!!!), spend the best time possible with your friends, go hike together, talk about global issues…
Whatever it is, just realize that Allah SWT loves you and wants you to live your life for Him. Don’t allow yourself to become chained to the ‘love addiction’ that these friendships can be – you don’t need someone else to be you, or to validate you. You may not see it, but your friends probably aren’t having a hunky-dory time with these guys. As soon as you have friendship, you have hidden attractions, anguished feelings, and it all leads you into the haram much, much faster than you would expect.
Hope this helped. 🙂
To all the sisters who’ve given me advice; my heartfelt and deepest thanks to all of you. Alhamdu lillah with Allah’s help and mercy, my condition has improved. I still have a long ways to go, but all of your comments boosted my motivation(and I still reread them if I need another boost). May Allah reward you all immensely and bless you all in this life and the next.
Words aren’t enough to capture my gratitude, thank you all very very much.
Thanks alot…maybe that’s just what I needed, assurance that I’m not gonna regret being this way later on in life. And the dua is wonderful too! May Allah bless you and your family, raise your ranks in Jannah and keep us all steadfast upon the straight path. Jazakallahu Khaira.
The Qur’anic ayah you were asking about above: And, indeed, the punishment of the hereafter is biggest, if only they knew.
It is a loose translation (I’ve been learning Arabic for some years).
Soul Searching and Heartmoving account of Human frailty… We must be mindful and present or cultivate the attribute of Ar- Raqeeb and connect to higher Consciousness. Allah ‘s Grace and Guidance is there if we strive InshaAllah… Love to All
What a great early morning inspirational read!
Jazaki Allahu Khayran for this amazing article Sister Reehab.
The scary part is that this distance away from Allah, and the resulting negative attitudes that Sister Reehab mentions are not just confined to this generation (or past). Kids are watching…and will grow up following their elders’ behavior. The cycle will continue generation after generation unless there is a dramatic shift in the conscience of society.
May Allah help us all…
One of the BEST articles I’ve ever read on SuhaibWebb.com.
Thank you for sharing the knowledge and viewpoint with us!
I once looked for validation in all the wrong people and places only to be left feeling empty and frustrated. It wasn’t until I really began to research who my Lord is and all His capabilities that I fell in Love with Him. The more I loved Him the more he validated me and the more He validated me the less attention, validation, and approval I needed from others. I now feel whole, complete, full and loved by Allah and I’ve never been at so much peace. If you really want to find peace through Allah’s validation you need to know/research who He is and what better way to do so than from Quran and Sunnah! Excellent article. I enjoyed it immensely!
Alhumdulilah Ukhtee for your stance in this article.Self-Worth isexactly what it boils down to.it seems to me we are also reaching for non-modest beauty standards advertised by the media and the shaytaan influenced media or “tricknology”as they call it,fools the brothers into thinking the dress of women is solely for their entertainment purposes.we have been set back by almost 1500 years for Allah sent our nabi Muhammed saaws to teach us and show us our true status as anNisa .alhumdulilah may Allah bless you for your good work Sis ameen
Re-reading this article, I realize that this awful, awful societal problem of complete and disgusting disrespect for women has permeated the street culture in my country as well. It’s really saddening, because it often becomes used as an argument against hijab, because people become furious with the arguments and excuses that are used for this disgusting behavior, such as saying ‘she’s not wearing a hijab, I can catcall her, she deserves it’, not realizing that this all too soon turns into ‘she’s wearing a niqab, who does she think she is, hiding everything, she deserves it’. Unthinkable to you? I wear full hijab, that the strictest of people could not find fault with, and I found that walking on the street could often turn into a fight for your safety and dignity. How could people claim to be following Islam by making women terrified of walking the streets?
What I needed to hear not in this context but my focus on life should be my creator! Not anyone else or anything else! Much needed reminder for me in a time I’m feeling like a lost puppy!
one of the best articles ive read mashaAllah.
I think the article completely glosses over the fact that the “cost of marriage” in many of these countries is insanely high. Whilst many men are struggling to find a job, the few that can simply cant afford to get married as the girl demands a perfect wedding and house kitted out with full mod-cons. Ok some of this may pressured by the bride’s family aswell.
These social problems are also killing the society you mentioned. It is not by coincidence that the Prophet (saw) stressed the importance of focusing on taqwa for marriage and ensuring couples married at a young age (as was reasonably possible). Amazingly deep insight.