It is from the prophetic guidance that when someone looks to get married, they should take a good, critical look at their potential spouse and make sure there is nothing physically repelling to them. Better yet, they should see what is attractive in the other person. This is in the case of suitors who are pursuing marriage. In all other cases, Allah subhanahu wa ta`ala (exalted is He) commands:
“Tell the believing men to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Indeed, Allah is Acquainted with what they do. And tell the believing women to reduce [some] of their vision and guard their private parts and not expose their adornment except that which [necessarily] appears thereof and to wrap [a portion of] their headcovers over their chests and not expose their adornment except to their husbands, their fathers, their husbands’ fathers, their sons, their husbands’ sons, their brothers, their brothers’ sons, their sisters’ sons, their women, that which their right hands possess, or those male attendants having no physical desire, or children who are not yet aware of the private aspects of women. And let them not stamp their feet to make known what they conceal of their adornment. And turn to Allah in repentance, all of you, O believers, that you might succeed.” [24:30-31]
Alhamdulillah (all praise and thanks is to Allah), this commandment is a part of the Muslim community’s social expectation of respect and modesty. Yet in lectures and classes, we often hear the emphasis on the brothers to lower their gaze, while not much emphasis and examples are given for the sisters to lower their gaze. Recently, a sister (Sister Y) shared her frustration in an email, saying:
“… I’ve been hearing sisters talking about brothers and how they look, and I’ve had sisters come up to me and tell me how handsome my brother looks. I don’t understand why it’s […] “OK” for sisters to do this, but when a brother does it, we all pounce on him – saying that he’s a perv or whatever? Sisters have pics of actors, basketball players[,] etc. on their facebook pics, but imagine if a brother had a pic of Beyonce or something in his pics… what would we think of him? I don’t think it’s right for anyone to do this, sister or brother, but how come we think it’s cute/funny if a sister does it, but so horrible when a guy does it? … I really get annoyed when it’s done with my brothers. SubhanAllah, imagine if a guy did that [to] your brother, went up to him and said, “Wow your sis is so beautiful…” The guy would be in a cast. Maybe I’m just extra protective over my brothers but it really makes my blood boil!”
Sister Y asks a very good question. Why is it socially OK for sisters to check out the brothers, but not vice versa, even though it is Islamically forbidden in both cases?
There may be many factors to this social phenomenon. One of which could be naiveté – since men pray in front of women, and the imam (one who leads prayer) is a brother, it is not so much of a taboo for a sister to look at brothers in front of her. Yet the Prophet ﷺ called our attention even to this and described the best lines in prayer for both genders when they are praying (in the same room):
Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Messenger of Allah ﷺ said, “The best of the men’s rows (in prayer) is the first row and the worst is the last; but the best of the woman’s row is the last and the worst of their rows is the first.” [Muslim].
Another factor may be that oftentimes speakers, when discussing hayaa’ (translated as modesty), often attribute most of the sexual boldness to the men and do not address the women’s boldness in checking-out and approaching men. In more traditional societies, the shortage in reminders is not as problematic for it is a gender expectation for women to be more modest in their demeanor. This, however, is far from the reality we experience in contemporary Western society, and the shortage in reminders to the sisters is evident in many stories like that of Sister Y.
The degree that women (and men) fall short in fulfilling Allah’s command to lower their gaze and be chaste is only a manifestation of the disintegrated hayaa’ in the community. Modern disapprobation of modest demeanor and dress and the Western influences on Muslim-majority cultures may be contributing factors, but the main agent of disintegration is Muslims’ distorted definition of hayaa’. Hayaa’ is the modesty or shyness one feels to do anything sinful or distasteful in the presence of Allah, the All-Hearing, the All-Seeing, the All-Knowing. So even if a sister is modest in her dress and demeanor, to have complete hayaa’ she would need to be modest in what she looks at, in what she thinks about, and in what she talks about.