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“Interaction is attraction” – can men and women ever just be ‘friends’?

Sakeena Suliman – Opinion | 03 October 2013

With the number of studies done to answer this question one could say it’s taken a beating over the last two decades. And yet it continues to be backed into a corner to be dealt a flurry of more punches even though psychological studies and documented experience have said … no.

Never mind that 1400 years ago Islam explained to us the extent to which men and women can interact, Muslims today seem to battle answering this timeworn question.

Twenty two year old Abdullah says, “Although friendships may not be based on sexual motives there will always be an unavoidable attraction making a platonic friendship almost impossible”. He explains that our “default setting” as men and women is to be attracted to one another and “even though most of us have been desensitized to much of this attraction due to constant intermingling, it does not mean that it is not there”.

A 2011 study published in Psychology Today showed that 62% of 1450 people polled said their cross-gender friendships became more than just that. Recent studies explore that men, more than women, have a particularly hard time being “just friends”.

Anas Ayaz and friend Suhaib Abbasi, both 23, don’t think it’s possible for men and women to be firm friends. “Interaction is attraction,” says Ayaz. Abbasi thinks there are limits in cross-gender friendships formed by “some sort of awkwardness between the two mainly because they are the opposite gender. This may sound cliché but opposites attract”.

Taiseer on the other hand says men and women can be friends “only if their love and sexual interests are placed elsewhere, like in other people”. The 22 year old does however say guys and girls can’t be the “best of friends” because “feelings of attachment might grow”.

The results of a 1997 study by Daniel Kaplan and Christopher Keys concluded that a significant number of women and men – the number of men being higher – consider entering friendships as the first step towards developing a romantic relationship.

“Shaytaan is the third person,” says 30 year old Ayesha Khan about why cross-gender friendships are not possible. But 17 and 20 year old sisters Aneesa and Aaisha Dadi Patel think the onus is on each person as a Muslim to enter friendship with clean intentions.

“If you know and always remember you are Muslim and keep your intentions pure… I feel like sometimes you want to know people because of how they think or what their views are on something or just because you get along and I don’t think that gender should be an issue in such a case,” says Aaisha.

Aneesa feels a good balance of both genders as friends is good for personal growth. “It’s wrong to assume that everyone is just hormonal and can’t control themselves around the opposite gender,” she says.

Many men and women interviewed agree that the danger of one person in a cross-gender friendship wanting “more than friendship” always existed.

Thirty six year old Jameela says Islam has already made it very easy, “In Islam one can’t mingle with a non- mahram, so that’s the answer.”

Living in a Western society means we’re faced with situations where we have to explain Islamic laws. Instead of facing possible ridicule Muslims sometimes keep silent about their way of life and “go with the flow”. A new thought that is common practice is as long as we are not doing all the “other wrongs” and we’re innocently “socialising” all is ok.

For example frequenting bars or haraam restaurants in mixed groups with the reasoning that as long as one isn’t in a haraam relationship with anyone, isn’t consuming alcohol or haraam meat and one is dressed modestly in terms of Western standards it is permissible.

This could be why questions with simple answers have become topics of lengthy discussion amongst Muslims.

Contrary to non-Muslim perception the prohibition of cross-gender friendships is not a cultural practice to make women subservient. And neither does making it permissible make men and women equal.

Everything we do as Muslims is with the intention of gaining the pleasure of Allah SWT. We are constantly supposed to be aware of the Allah’s presence. Our love for the Sunnah of Muhammad SAW and endeavors to practice upon it get us closer to Allah.

This is where the concept of hijab extends to more than modest dress for both men and women. All forms of hijab – that is lowering our gaze when interacting out of necessity with non-mahrams and respect – are for the purpose of making us conscious of Allah.

“Hanging out” and “socialising” with non-mahrams because it’s the “normal thing” to do go against the teachings of hijab which is put in place to safeguard us from becoming victims of sin. No matter how pure our intentions may be none of us are immune to shaytaan’s efforts of leading us down his twisted path.

Even the guidance behind forming friendships – within the same gender – teaches us to surround ourselves with friends who will help us get closer to Allah.

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