Woman on a train

Woman sitting on a train. Man sits down opposite her. He takes a photo of her on his phone, without permission. He tells everyone on Facebook what a hero he was. Forty-four thousand people give him thumbs up. Four thousand share his post. The Sun, Daily Mail, Express Tribune and obscure newspaper in far-flung backwater make room for the tale in their pages.

Don’t be so judgemental we’re told. But who’s judging hearts here? Who’s to say the other passengers were ostracising her? Who’s to say they weren’t respectfully giving her space? Or just hadn’t even noticed she was there?

Interesting fact: I’ve moved amongst Muslims for 20 years, but I often don’t know how to behave around Muslim women even now. That’s because they’re individuals. Everyone has different expectations. For some, the hijab and the niqab are barriers of sorts. For others they’re just items of clothing.

Try as you may, you will invariably exhibit the wrong behaviour around just about anybody, despite the best of intentions. Suffice to say, I’ve done and seen it all. I have been judged “hater of Muslims” because I lowered my gaze too much or too consistently in the presence of hijab and niqab wearing women. But I have also been judged disrespectful of culture, of those unspoken rules and ambiguous expectations when a host or a guest, when greetings exchanged are almost a sin or when to emerge from banishment in another room is an unholy affront.

In our mosques we consign women to a separate prayer hall, in our homes we ask male and female guests to sit in separate rooms, in our lectures we make women sit at the back of the room or behind a screen… and yet we claim not to understand why non-Muslims might be confused how to behave around us.

How should one react in the presence of another? It all depends on the individual. Perhaps we’re all guilty of over-thinking things: perhaps we just have to be ourselves and behave as we see fit, not as we believe we’re expected to. Perhaps some of us are too worried about causing offence, or crossing an undefined line in the sand. Perhaps we should just sit down, or say hello, or acknowledge the other in our midst.

I have no idea if the woman on the train felt ostracised that morning. Perhaps she was just grateful to find a seat and catch a few winks of sleep. Perhaps she was grateful not to be jammed between an overweight businessman reading the Metro and an uncouth youth with his iPod blasting out tunes too loud for a change. Perhaps she was thinking nothing at all.

Of one thing I’m pretty certain though: she didn’t expect to have her photo taken as she snoozed on her way to college, to be shared en masse with millions of strangers worldwide. The young man with the camera phone may have been a hero momentarily: perhaps the unknown passenger felt momentarily relieved, her loneliness assuaged, by the random act of kindness of a stranger in her midst. Perhaps. But does she feel that way now, or does she just feel that her private space has been invaded by a speculative drifter, presuming to speak on her behalf?

None of us can read the hearts of others: to see what others think, to understand their decisions, to judge their intentions. There are appearances and there is reality. It’s best that we don’t confuse the two.

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