The Muslim Women Conundrum: You Must Guarantee No Man Will Touch Us

One semester, I was teaching a Dramatic Literature course at a major public university on the East Coast, when I was approached by four women after the first session.

The four walked up to me and one of them told me they were Muslim and that I had to guarantee them no man would touch them during class.

I was stopped for a moment by their request.  When I looked up from my desk, I saw they were all dressed in traditional Eastern clothing and their heads were covered and they were deadly serious.

“We thought this was a literature class,” one of them said.

“It is,” I replied.


“But you just said we would be acting out scenes.  That isn’t reading literature.  That involves moving around the classroom,” said another.

“Some people teach dramatic literature by sitting around discussing only the text, and other teachers, like me, believe in integrative learning: Plays are not meant to just be read.  You only get the real meaning in the context of a performance and you start to get there by acting out parts and scenes and becoming characters.”

Another one replied, “Yes, but that means we might be touched by a man.  That is unacceptable to us.”

The last woman spoke up to add, “You must guarantee us that no man will touch us.”

I was puzzled.  I’d had Muslim women in my other classes and I never had this sort of issue.  The other Muslim students appeared to observant and they covered their heads as well.  They interacted with the non-Muslim students in class and they might have even been inadvertently touched by a man in class.  One female Muslim student even played three parts in one scene and two of those roles were male; when she was a young boy, she put a baseball cap over her hijab and gave a memorable, outstanding performance.

“I can’t guarantee no man will touch you,” I said.  Their faces twitched a bit in a dismissal of my answer.  “I understand your concern,” I continued, “and I can guarantee you that you won’t have to act in a scene with any men; but I cannot guarantee you that a man won’t inadvertently touch you, or unintentionally brush by you in the chaos of setting up a scene or in the preparation of moving sets and lighting equipment.  I can’t control the unfettered, free movement, of the class.”

The group of women thanked me and left the room.

As they walked away, I wondered how they managed to walk down the crowded hallway they were entering — or along a busy street — without being “touched” by a man. I seem to always get bumped into by all sorts of people on the train and the bus and the sidewalk.

The next day, I was disappointed to learn all four women dropped the class.

I still think the loss was massively theirs, and not ours.

21 comments

  • At one point I was extremely stringent about the laws of Shomer Negia — that I would not intentionally come into contact with a woman to whom I was not related or married. However, I came to learn about so many exceptions that even very observant Jews took into consideration. For example, if I went in for an interview and the interviewer were a woman, I could shake her hand because not doing so would cause a much greater problem than doing so. If I saw a woman slip and fall on the ice, I would not even hesitate for a moment to go and help her up. It’s a shame that the women dropped out of the class.

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    • Yes, it’s too bad people attend a university where tolerance, understanding and acceptance are the hallmarks of the intention, and then those experiences are ruined when personal, rigid, values refuse to bend in order to consider something new. That leaves the rest of us wondering if the learning process is genuine and authentic or if something else is in play.

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  • I think that’s an unrealistic if not unreasonable expectation when you are attending a secular institution. I am returning to study in a few weeks and am dreading the pushing and shoving that I recall being part of uni life. There is no recognition that you are male or female, just someone in the way. My fellow students don’t know they are touching a Jewish woman, just someone in their way. And why should they know? They are there to get an education, as am I. Religious observance has nothing to do with it.

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    • Good points, Kathe! In the USA there is a over-exertion on respecting any sort of religious conviction — especially in public education. Some students use that willingness to respect religious obligations to get out of doing course work or even coming to class. I definitely felt there was an undertow of a threat from the women — if they weren’t absolutely accommodated, they would leave the class — and that sort of “all or nothing” jockeying just doesn’t work in a shared, secular, classroom.

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  • I’m in general agreement with the views expressed in the post and by the commenters. We should remember though that the ultimate enforcers of these strictures are Islamic men. A woman who is accused of having deliberately put herself in a position where a man might touch her, may be beaten, disowned, raped, or killed. Very logical. Does make one wonder. Even questioning the authority of the rules and the enforcers is a crime.

    The women were the “losers” by dropping the class, but they faced real risks by taking it.

    We can respect religious convictions without twisting ourselves in knots about it—those who hold the convictions have to realize that there may be some things they cannot participate in.

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    • Thank you for your comment.

      I don’t know how, or why, you would attend a public state university — and not expect to have some sort of interaction with the opposite sex — just because everyone’s together in classrooms that are too small and hallways that are too crowded. Unwanted bumps and stumbles are part of the process. If you don’t want the risk, then don’t wager the emotion against the intelligence. I do understand the women were under a non-malleable force — and, in retrospect, that makes me pity them more than respect them for dropping the class.

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      • Did you even ask why, or just assume that you knew the answer to that? It seems you had made up your mind that you shouldn’t have to accommodate their requests without actually bothering to understand what they were.

        I am from a western culture and I felt your post to be condescending and full of assumptions towards a culture you don’t understand – something a university teacher should be aware of so as not to pass on your bias and ignorance to others.

        Your response to the only post here which questions your ignorance is aggressive and even more condescending than the original post. You assumed it was religious because they were muslim and you justified your ignorant assumptions by exaggerating … “one cannot expect the institution to bend to every religious requirement”.

        4 women had the courage to come to you and ask a question.

        You didn’t bother to ask why, but publicly broadcast an attack on their religion instead.

        I feel sorry for your students if you think that letting them get up and move around a classroom makes you an ‘open minded’ teacher.

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        • You need to go back and read the article:

          The four walked up to me and one of them told me they were Muslim and that I had to guarantee them no man would touch them during class.

          What else is there to need to know? “Why” doesn’t apply. If a student told me they were Jewish or Purple or Sensitive or something else, the why of it doesn’t matter — only the “is” of it does — and when I offered them an accommodation, but without the impossible guarantee they demanded, they responded by dropping the class. They weren’t asking me a question. They were making an unreasonable demand at a secular university.

          If you choose to post another comment here, you need to use your real name and link your personal website address so everyone reading this knows precisely who you are — those are our commenter rules. We also don’t publish attacks on other commenters — so stop the name calling and the irresponsible labeling, too.

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  • One-sided comments that do not understand the concern of these women about the ignorance regarding the space that has to exist between the sexes in Islam compared to the no holds barred that exists in Western society. It used to be in Emily Post that a man does not extend his hand to a woman unless she first extends hers but now revised for modern life style changes, allows it. In one school of law, touching requires renewing ones ablution for prayer while another considers the intention. Perhaps the students misunderstood his not being able to “guarantee’ their request as not taking any extra precautions to inform the male students regarding their sensitivity of being touched by strangers. Apparently, they may have had some experiences before that made them seek such a request. Mutual respect and understanding and a sincere effort to accommodate without compromising the teaching method is all that is asked for and not condescending remarks by a superior culture

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    • Ameer –

      I appreciate your insight and your reply — but when one chooses to attend a public, non-secular, institution of higher learning in the USA — one cannot expect the institution to bend to every religious requirement of every student without affecting the core teaching in the classroom. Religious ultimatums do not really work that well here.

      Accommodation has to bend both ways — not just one — and if a religion demands an unbending brittleness in the offer of a clear accommodation, then the believer is at issue and not the methods of the teaching.

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  • I don’t think it’s their loss..
    Somehow, I understand them..
    And I think, they did the right thing(in Islamic view)

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  • Some very interesting comments here but I will not agree with all of them.

    As your item pointed out, you have had Muslim women (including in Hijab hair covering) that had no difficulty. What has happened is that you have come accross either those with a more conservative view or as someone pointed out, their husband’s point of view.

    The only important thing here is to remember that they represent themselves and neither Islam as a total or the Muslim world as a whole.

    I live in Gibraltar as a barrister (lawyer in your language) and I travel to Morocco often and have a habit of representing Moroccans in Spain of which I am also licensed. I enjoy traveling to Morocco many times and have many Moroccan Muslim friends. I can tell you that you can run your class over there with great support but yet again there will be a few strong-conservatives who will say they will not participate and everyone basically accepts it and forgets them – in the most polite way.

    My concerns always come down to three factors:

    1. Those that try and push their view as the only one – such as Salafist and Wahabist Muslims who tell other Muslims your women must cover even their faces and not go to school. We can add other faiths’ ultra conservatives as well….
    2. Those agenda-based groups that capitalise on such ultra-conservatives and try and demonize their faiths for their own benefit, be it political, cultural or even for prostheletizing reasons, and lastly …
    3. The general media and especially the tabloid press that want to only show scandals to get more “copy” and thus support 1. and 2. above when they in fact represent a minority.

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    • Thanks for the great comment!

      I understand this is a sticky and unfortunate matter with no easy solution. I don’t think that giving instructors ultimatums works very well in a secular setting. Sure, one can be unbending at home and in the practice of a religion, but a mainstream university can’t abide multiple “my way or I quit” arguments from disparate students. There needs to be a generalized sense of we’re all in this together and while it is imperfect, we have to try to make it work for as many people as possible.

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  • I am a muslim woman. If I needed surgery, emergency or not. I wouldn’t care if it was a man, woman or both at the same time. Not to disrespect any one else’s level of belief, but some things go a little bit too far. If I’m in a stor making a purchase, and the male clerk hads me my change and touches my hand, I’m not going to drop my money and run out of the store, that’s a little much, in my opinion. It’s also cultural.

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