How can the home be a sanctuary for women if they are still forced to dress and act as guardedly as they do outside?
Wearing only her underclothes, Idil* reached towards her dress laying on the bed. Suddenly she noticed her brother-in-law’s face clearly reflected in the bedroom mirror. Quickly, she slipped the dress on while moving to the other side of the room out of his line of sight. Who knew how long or how much had he seen? Idil, a young mother who was working full-time and going to university, had hurriedly showered during an hour in which her live-in brother-in-law was not supposed to be home; still, for many years after she would blame herself for not having shut her bedroom door. Even when sisters shut their doors, many have had similar experiences – the non-mahram males whom they live with have walked (or burst) in on them during moments when the women should have had absolute respected privacy.
Though the ruling on who are and aren’t mahrams is clear – step-siblings are not mahrams – many families remain in the dark or are misinformed about this challenge of blending families. Another common problem (also an area of sweeping ignorance) is sisters living with their non-mahram brother-in-laws and extended family, but not recognising and acting on the relationships as rightfully guided.
Only breastfeeding can make step-siblings mahram to each other. The remarried husband and wife are mahram to each other’s children, but the bonds of marriage do not make the children mahram to each other. When the children come of age they are to respect hijab and the unrelated males and females should not be left alone without guardianship. Obviously this could make domestic living a challenge.
“The brother-in-law is death” (Bukhari)
Before marrying, and moving in with extended families, Idil and Fatimah did not know that their brother-in-laws are non-mahrams to them and that it is best to not live together. Idil was a new convert when she married at 17 years old. She took to the deen quickly and thoroughly, thriving in acquiring Islamic knowledge. Though she never told her husband about the disturbing incident with her brother-in-law, soon thereafter Idil learnt about her rights to housing and the rulings on non-mahram interactions, and began pushing to move into their own place. Though Idil’s husband is also very knowledgeable of the deen, he comes from a culture where extended family living is expected and he did not take well to her pressure. Though they eventually moved out, they also eventually divorced. Allah knows if her pressure was related to the divorce, but “cultural differences” were their most pressing marital problems.
Fatimah was raised Muslim in a culture and family where extended family living, including living with non-mahrams, is the norm. Even though she had studied the deen considerably, at the time of her marriage she also did not know the rulings and rights around a woman’s physical place in her married home. Fatimah’s right to observe niqab in the home was hotly debated by her husband’s family: several members felt it was improper for her to wear it in front of her brother-in-law and husband’s uncle, who she was expected to sit with and serve. Though Fatimah’s husband fully supported her to wear niqab in front of his brother and uncle, it wasn’t until she read Sadaf Farooqi’s book, Traversing the Highs and Lows of Muslim Marriage, that Fatimah learnt her rights to accommodations, and guidance about dealing with non-mahrams in her husband’s family.
For many families, the solution to living with non-mahrams is over-simplified with the suggestion to just have the females wear hijab all the time. Not only is this unrealistic and unfair, it is even dangerous – consider the 67 year old mother of three in the UK whose scarf caught fire, even with decades of experience wearing hijab while cooking. She died from her injuries (inna Lillahi wa inna ilaihi raji’un). Conversely, some families, such as Fatimah’s, consider it shameful to cover in front of a man they insist is her “brother,” and hijab is then often compromised due to the family pressure or logistics. How can the home be a sanctuary for women if they are still forced to dress and act as guardedly as they do outside?
I talked to several sisters who live with their step-brothers and non-mahram in-laws, they offered some solutions that worked for them:
Know and explain your rights to all household members
For Aisha, it was a great comfort to at least understand her Allah-given rights to privacy and respect, even when her step-brothers and other family members continued to follow their cultural leanings. Wives, such as Fatimah, appreciated the support when their husbands understood the wife’s rights (regardless of current accomodations) and especially when he campaigned for her to the other family members.
Create physical boundaries
Though many of the sisters I talked to do observe hijab in their own homes, some found ways to establish other boundaries. Scholars advise that separate living quarters be provided for the wife, ideally including a bath and kitchen, though this is obviously not always possible. Minimally private rooms, such as bedrooms and bathrooms, but also kitchens, should have locks on them to prevent accidental or intentional meetings. Do not put all the pressure on the women to maintain and protect her hijab or haya; non-mahram men need to respect boundaries. If harem (women only) spaces can be created within the home, such as a salon or kitchen area that men are to be excluded from, non-mahrams (especially growing young men) should be taught to respect these spaces: “Be aware of entering upon women.” (Bukhari)
When one sister’s step and biological children were coming of age, she began placing a chair outside her son’s bedroom door while he had guests so that they would remember to ask permission before entering the family’s shared spaces. Likewise, it is best to create a space or agreed upon way for non-mahrams to enter the home. They should be asked to announce their arrival before entering, perhaps having a foyer area that is out of sight to the rest of the home or simply always keeping the front door locked and asking that they do not open it until they have a clear indication that it is OK to do so.
Idil isn’t alone in her suffering from pushing for her own living space. In her book, Sadaf points to the growing phenomenon of couples getting out of the extended family nest by taking jobs a great distance from home, offering a surefire excuse to move. This creates a new challenge for the husband who still has obligations to his parents and is also an unfortunate situation for all family members to not have more frequent in-person contact. An ideal situation occurred for Aisha when her mother purchased a home directly across the street from her step-father’s house, now mum and the girls live separately from the males but see them throughout the day. Fatimah and her husband are strategically plotting their exit, though they have not yet informed his parents who they suspect will be hurt and uncooperative.
It can be hard to balance everyone’s rights, but Allah (SWT) has given us clear guidance about how to best do it. Acquiring knowledge is always the first step, even though we can’t force others to act upon it. At least knowing you are in the right and trying to do the right thing is a great comfort. Sadaf Farooqi’s book, Traversing the Highs and Lows of Muslim Marriage, is an excellent resource for understanding the issues around living with non-mahrams, and she has related articles available to read on her website, http://sadaffarooqi.com.
Brooke Benoit is the SISTERS Content Director and family business-runner living in Morocco with her seven unschooled children.