I confess that, with the exception of my wife, I don’t really know how to behave around women—and practising Muslim women, in particular. I have a long history of putting my foot in it, with that eternally awkward and self-conscious behaviour of mine.
I don’t know if it is because my interpretation of “lower your gaze” is just too literal, or because unawares to me, my face accidentally contorts into an ugly scowl, exuding hatred and contempt. Does my interpretation of the lowered gaze verge on “I’m blanking you”? Really, it happens so often that I can only conclude that I have got it all completely wrong.
By nature, I think I’m quite a smiley type. As I am descended from Northerners, I still greet complete strangers in the street with a “Hello” when I pass by, then mutter curses at myself when they wander on obliviously, as if I am a weirdo from another planet. In my normal interactions, I would keep eye contact with whoever I am speaking to, being friendly and kind. I have a good working relationship with my female colleagues at work; I know they consider me a bit of an eccentric, but I am perfectly approachable and never gruff.
But something goes wrong in the presence of Muslim women, other than the frequent visitors to our home. Yes, the Turkish ladies are used to my sense of humour now, and the old Pakistani auntie is capable of having a chat with me unperturbed. Even the niqabi sister will manage a salam before I hide myself in a cupboard. Yes, but beyond the forcefield of my home, I perpetually seem to transform into a gibbering wreck, capable only of causing communal tensions and consternation.
I think it all started at university in 1997, before I was Muslim, when I penned these lines of verse in consideration of a student I shared study space with in the library:
Have you ever read the polished floor?Me at twenty
I read it every day
When I see you.
Is admiration wrong?
Because I admire,
But it is nothing more.
There are words on the polished floor,
Invisible to your eye,
But I read them.
Beyond a hidden world,
There’s something there.
And I wish I could share it,
But the words on the floor say, ‘No.’
I say, ‘It’s not fair.’
The floor says, ‘Life’s not fair.’
I say, ‘Well I don’t care.’
The floor says, ‘You’re reading me,
Of course you care.’
Is the longing for friendship wrong?
Because I long,
Though I know it’s an empty want.
Words on the polished floor:
‘Your isolation is your due,
Beyond this space, less of you,
Care and admire even more,
But the polished floor, never ignore.’
Could I have been extreme in lowering my gaze even then? Had I got it all wrong? Well maybe, for we later struck up conversation. She was the one who once asked my why I had said I could never be a Muslim. Alongside fear of hypocrisy, I had said this:
Fear and weakness. I would rather lie and pretend, and cover up where my faith truly lies, than take a stand for the sake of truth. Fear comes from the knowledge that my truthfulness will hurt my family. And so to weakness. The weakness to overcome that fear of hurting them and of them rejecting me. There it is: the stark truth. I do not have the strength to do the right thing.Me, also at twenty
That student was also the one who encouraged me to fast my first Ramadan, months before I was Muslim. As it happened, I did just that, managing a week all alone, until a book in the library by a Christian evangelist blew my nascent faith to smithereens. I have always been grateful to that kind student who witnessed my early days as a Muslim.
Yet there was another student who shared our study space. Over the course of the year, she started practising as a Muslim and took to wearing hijab. Perhaps because I had been the friendly nerd in the library up until then, she took umbrage to my lowered gaze when she began clothing herself in modest dress. So of course, I wonder: was I not lowering my gaze, but blanking them? Had I got it all wrong?
To be sure, my ability to cause distress was not limited to Muslims. When I moved up to Scotland to study Publishing, an overseas student became utterly convinced that I was an awful racist who refused to look at her due to my unending hatred of Indian people. That was until one evening when she bumped into an outgoing friend of mine from the Muslim prayer room, who on learning that she was studying Publishing had said, “Oh, so you must know my brother.” After that, we got on fine. She explained to everyone she had previously told I was a rabid racist that I was not a rabid racist at all, but was in fact a very worldly Muslim. I’m not sure that helped very much, but at least we were friends from then on.
Over the years since then, I have somehow managed to upset nearly every Muslim woman I have ever come into contact with, with the exception of my wife (that’s all that matters). There was the young hijabi lady I would encounter at the school gates when I went to collect my children from primary school. Standing in the scrum of waiting parents, of course, I would follow my tried-and-tested lowering the gaze routine, which despite bringing me nothing but grief for years, I observed scrupulously.
“That white man is very arrogant,” she once told her pious sister in Islam, pointing at me after months of my horrible behaviour.
Fortunately I had been married to that pious sister for nearly fifteen years, so she kindly replied, “That man is my husband. He’s not that bad.” (I paraphrase, naturally).
I will be the first to admit that the problem is mainly me. I never got around to reading the manual, “How to behave around Muslim women.” I find it easier to make huge detours to avoid anybody who might get upset either because I was too friendly, was not friendly enough, lowered my gaze too rigorously, or accidentally caught their eye. Likewise, I will avoid all social gatherings as far as possible, because I know with absolute certainty that I will get the balance wrong, and then I will over compensate in one direction or the other, only to cause further embarrassment and ill-feeling.
If I thought it acceptable, I would just be my normal friendly self and chat away, making stupid jokes while acting like a complete buffoon. My friends are well used to my role as court jester and have probably come to expect it of me after all these years. No, but instead I get all self-conscious and awkward, my eyes reading the polished floor once more. Time after time, I get typecast as the evil racist villain who hates all Muslims. Perhaps the time has come to try something new. But what?
Perhaps it was a great blessing that the only woman I did not manage to wind up this way was my wife. I think it helped that she was utterly exhausted from work when we were first introduced. And, yes, that I had been given permission to speak to her. That helped too. We were young and naive back then, and were quickly married. Well, I must have done something right, ending up with a woman like her from half a world away, alhamdulilah, mashallah, subhanullah, Allahu akbar. Of course, she is the only woman whose opinion should matter to me. As for the rest? I give up.