Note: This is a reflection by Mrs. HijabMan on part 1 of “How I Met My Wife (And Daughter)”
Ask me a couple of years ago for a hug and if you were a guy I’d have said sorry, I don’t hug guys. I’m Muslim. I don’t touch persons of the opposite gender (heck, I really shouldn’t even be looking at you). It breaks your wudu (ablutions). And hugging… HUGGING?!! That would be one step down the slippery slidey slope to zina (fornication). I mean, how can I hug a guy without feelings of lust arising in me (and him), driving us to distraction (and more). (!!!!!)
Oh, the awkward situations that have played out when I tried to get out of a hug-in-progress… There was the time when my big professor heard I was getting married (the 1st time) and promptly came at me with arms wide open. I didn’t want to offend him so stayed rigid as a tree while he gave me a congratulatory squeeze. I have no idea if he realized how uncomfortable I was about that hug. Once I came out of the elevator in my graduate dorm and was greeted by a good friend who I hadn’t seen in a loooong time. As his arms opened wide and he came towards me, I did a kind of un-graceful pirouette under and around his outstretched arms, stumbling over myself to get out of his way. It was so awkward – he didn’t know what was going on, and I apologized profusely, explaining that while I was very happy, really very happy, really I was, to see him, it’s inappropriate for me to hug guys. Then there was my long-time labmate who helped me through Matlab coding issues and presentations and experiments; marriage and baby and divorce and graduation. When I graduated, we just gave each other shrugs and shook hands, though I’d just gone round hugging everyone else in the lab (it just so happened that only the girls were there that day).
Then one day, Hijabman offered me a hug just before he left Singapore for a 24hr trip back to Philly.
We had spent the previous 3 days talking on a couch, discussing all manner of topics including life lessons, religious thoughts, personality traits, strengths and weaknesses, future goals and dreams, quirks and silliness. His replies were strikingly earnest and never failed to be thought-provoking and it felt comfortable and easy talking to him. I did not even hesitate in receiving and returning the hug. And I was surprised by how easy and non-sexual and non-threatening it felt! Contrary to how I expected hugging a guy to feel, it did not feel uncomfortable at all. For all that we had shared in words those 3 days, hugging was a nice closing touch before potentially never seeing this man again.
In all honesty, I still wasn’t necessarily all that comfortable with the general idea of hugging a guy, and I expressed this to Hijabman as: “When I think of doing it again, or of others doing it, I think ewww! That’s so wrong! How can unmarried people be so touchy-feely?”
Hijabman explained it to me this way:
“Well, people have needs, and I believe one of those needs is to be touched/hugged/cuddled… and not in a sexual way. My thoughts veer to psychology experiments where a baby monkey was given either a ‘comfy furry’ mother-substitute, or a mother substitute made of wires/cold metal. The monkey with the furry comfy mom was much more well-adjusted. And the monkey with the wire-mom… had problems.
‘uhh, but Hijabman, there are certain people we can do that with… you can’t just go up to strangers and …. there are rules.’
“Sure. There are rules. The only thing the Qur’an says about the matter as far as I know is that we should ‘not approach zina’ or illicit sexual intercourse. That is pretty open for interpretation. And you ask great questions like, ‘Yeah but Hijabman, what are the boundaries? What is fixed, and what is fluid? And different people’s inner peace is different, so how can everyone arrive at the same inner peace?’
I know that the fixed is that fornication is wrong. Everything else is open to your own gut feeling (in my humble opinion). I didn’t feel an ounce of regret giving you the hug and expressing my caring for you through touch. Because for me that wasn’t approaching illicit sex. In fact, those touches, for me, were not sexual at all. They were warm. They were a mutually understood expression of …. good vibes, for lack of a better description. And yes, everyone’s boundaries are different. That is why I was sure to ask you if ‘this was okay’. Because if it wasn’t okay, I would have sat on a different couch. That is why communication is so important, because different people have different boundaries, emotions, preferences, approaches, etc. To be self-aware is a hard, steep path.“
And this explanation made, and still does make sense to me, though theoretical acceptance is not the same as practical acceptance, since baggage from previous ideas has traction. When Hijabman described his ‘Free Hugs’ banner to be put up at the Islamic Society Of North America convention, I cringed. But I took baby steps. I hugged Hijabman’s dad, and his brother, and his brother-in-law, and my co-worker, and my boss, and about 20 guys in a self-discovery workshop I went to, and… Every hug has been an affirmation of the validity of hugging as a way to express non-sexual affection.
When I met my long-time labmate again in Philly, we gave each other a big long hug. I think I even saw tears in his eyes as he said to me:
“that was a long time coming…”
— Mrs. HijabMan