10 points for leaders on engaging with the opposite sex

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Those in religious training seldom receive adequate training/counselling in how to operate in the religious realm and overcome challenges in engaging with the opposite sex. The issue of spiritual abuse in confessional spaces is a real one, and obviously it’s not exclusive to Muslims. There is a lot of discussion on this topic and it’s about finding a balance that allows a scholar to fully benefit the opposite sex, but with safeguarding measures in mind. Often, these safeguards are often thought about in the superficial sense (niqab, partitions, etc) and merely address symptoms, which is why it remains a problem.

The following are 10 points of consideration for those in the field, although it’d be good for all of us to think about them. This post is gleaned from scriptural sentiments, personal experiences (of mine and others), and the insights of Muslim women – the other side. Of course, the starting point is God consciousness, and much is said/written on the subject. So assuming this to have been covered, here as some other brief points to consider:

1. Although people turn up saying they require a fatwa or religious advice, it’s usually the case that they’re looking for a shoulder to cry on. Being empathetic is one thing, but very quickly, the scholar becomes the hero giving attention to those who might desperately covet it. Counselling and problem-solving are two different realms, and if you’re not trained in the former, including how to avoid someone becoming emotionally dependent on you, it can be murky waters.

2. ‎Awareness of the particular people you’re dealing with: Living in a multicultural society means that there is no one way of dealing with all people. Ethnic culture and age often play a big part. People from certain cultural backgrounds tend to have a limited experience of dealing with the opposite sex which means the simplest of things can be misunderstood, or that passions can be inadvertently aroused by things that’d be innocuous to others. Similarly, younger people tend to be more hormonal (or starry-eyed) so the method of engagement that is appropriate for certain topics can depend on the age/level of maturity of the audience.

3. ‎Change your attitude: Muslim women cover up for a purpose, so looking for ‘features’ from one who clearly doesn’t want to be seen, is simply perverted (and no, we’re not saying it’s fine otherwise). There is also something to be said about hypersexualised religious subcultures that obsess about sexuality – often an issue isn’t one until you make it so. Mostly, people aren’t even thinking in a sexualised way until a point about the presence of the opposite gender is incessantly made. Normalise your dealing with people and reframe your mind to engage with all people where sexualisation is completely removed (as if they were ‘sex-less’). If you can’t, and feel every woman is a ‘fitnah’ for you, then stick to a niche where you only deal with men.

4. ‎Professionalism: being in scholarly mode is like stepping into the workplace. With it you’re meant to bring a high degree of professionalism and impersonality. So just like a highly professional workplace, some conduct is simply inappropriate, even where it might be totally acceptable in another setting. Keeping it business-like is key.

5. ‎Understanding the ethics of public office: it’s perfectly ethical to look for a partner or be engaged in polygynous unions, but given the sensitivities around sex and money in public life, taking a public position should mean voluntarily closing the door on those things that might not place you beyond reproach (i.e. the way you interact with the two). If the two are primary drivers in your material life, that’s fine, but then perhaps Islamic public life isn’t an appropriate career to pursue.

6. Never be afraid of a career change. Some people only come to know of their debilitating weaknesses once they’re in the job. That’s understandable, but if it happens, the next step should be a good and quick exit strategy.

7. You’re at war and it’s mostly against the devil, so temptations aren’t merely just that, but Iblis’s strategy to destroy your credibility and ability to fight on. Furthermore, it is known that intelligence services in many countries use women to entrap religious personalities; your weaknesses will be used against you. Stick to your experiences, if you weren’t a ladies man back in the day, it’s possible that there’s more to the picture than women simply falling at your feet for your self-perceived good looks.

8. Allegiances and loyalties: the spouses of scholars are their confidants and greatest supporters, perpetually picking up the slack and voluntarily bearing the brunt of their poorly-met personal responsibilities. Such spouses literally put their interests on hold for the greater cause, which deserves nothing but the greatest respect, admiration and loyalty. A scholar’s spouse is their most loyal lieutenant, in one’s personal life s/he is your ‘right-hand man’. To undermine that loyalty or prove disloyal in return is simply low and despicable. And if one cannot grasp the notion of loyalty as a branch of decency, then a scholar is the last thing you should be. Furthermore, there are usually many other people who help scholars for the sake of the greater cause, whether it’s by supporting them financially or through human resources. To jeopardise what they have worked for/supported for some low and selfish gain is equally despicable and demonstrates a lack of decency.

9. ‎A healthy sexual relationship in the framework of a legitimate partnership does a lot to stave off temptations, and I have witnessed first-hand how bad sexual health tends to negatively impact on people servicing the public. Stay in shape to be healthy and look good for your better half (and vice versa). Set aside quality time, including intimate getaways, to remind you of what, and who, should be the focus of your passions.

10. ‎Live by this rule: the grass is never greener on the other side. No matter how much your urges tell you that things with another woman will be better, or life will now be more enjoyable, its nearly certain that’s not the case. Little but drama, pain, let down and destruction is caused, all for a bit of ‘fun’. Furthermore, scholars and/or religious leaders are extremely busy people (given the ratio of how many competent practitioners there are versus need) so if you have the time for all of this you’ve phenomenally failed to fathom how much there is to do, and clearly, you’re not serious.

(Note: Obviously, these points do not go for everyone. Some manage to navigate these issues really well, and kudos to them.)

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