What Is Hayaa and Why Is It Being Defined by Men?

Your very existence as a Muslim woman is a form of resistance.
If you’re shy and quiet, you’re a prude. You’re boring. If you’re loud and outgoing, you’re attention-seeking. If you are a Muslim woman that doesn’t don the hijab, you’re asked why you don’t by Muslims — or why you would follow such a barbaric religion by bigots. If you do wear the hijab, every aspect of your hijab is criticized for not being “hijab,” white feminists want to liberate you, men want to test you and see how pure you really are and whether the hijab you’re wearing is just a front.
Because of your hijab, all of a sudden, you become the spokesperson for more than one billion people. Even when you don’t want to answer the questions you’re bombarded with, you feel obligated because the very act of wearing hijab is a form of dawah, and the words you leave with this person can change their perspective on Islam. And in the middle of all of that, everyone has something to say about your hayaa.
Hayaa isn’t something someone can look at you and see. Similar to your iman (faith), it is purely between you and Allah (SWT). The word hayaa, is derived from the word hayat, which means life.
Hayaa can mean many things, the most popular definition of it is shyness, but it also means modesty, humility and self-respect. There are different types of hayaa, the social one and the one you have with Allah (SWT). The hayaa (shyness) that has to do with Allah (SWT) has to do with feeling embarrassed about committing a sin, no one knows how you feel about committing a sin except for Allah (SWT). That is solely between you and Him.

When it comes to men, hayaa can be talked about without bringing up their chastity because in a hetero-patriarchal society, a man’s virginity isn’t intrinsically attached to their worth.

The societal one is the tricky form of hayaa. When it comes to men, hayaa can be talked about without bringing up their chastity because in a hetero-patriarchal society, a man’s virginity isn’t intrinsically attached to their worth. A woman’s hayaa is always spoken about in connection to her modesty, how appropriately she hides her beauty from the unlawful gaze of men — and after 1400 years of Qur’anic exegesis, it amazes me how hayaa has been reduced to how docile, de-sexed and nonthreatening a woman can be.
Hayaa for the woman in Islam is defined many times by men — and each time, it has something to do with hindering the man’s fragile, ravenous sexual appetites by contorting the Muslim woman into something that’s impossible. Likeable, but not loose or flirtatious. Quiet but not too quiet. Delicate but strong. Confident but not boastful. Intelligent but un-intimidating.
Celibacy until marriage is also stressed when it comes to a woman’s hayaa, along with hijab. Sex before marriage is haram, or forbidden, for both men and women — yet when we speak about a man’s hayaa, this is left out. When you consider how hayaa could also mean self-respect, hayaa is put into a better perspective.
How you treat yourself, your body and the space around you is all a part of your self-respect. As a Muslim, your body has rights over you for you to treat it well while you’re on this earth. One can’t tell someone that they have no self-respect because there is truly no way to know if someone has respect for themselves.
Khawlah bint al Azwar was a warrior, fought alongside the sahabah, or the companions of Prophet Muhammad (PBUH), and they mistook her for a man because of the way she fought. She was confident, fearless and humble about her abilities as a warrior. Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) even recommended that she be in the front lines in the fight against the Romans.
When one of the Roman generals tried to pursue her for marriage she said: “I wouldn’t even accept you to be the shepherd of my camels! How do you expect me to degrade myself and live with you? I swear that I’ll be the one to cut off your head for your insolence.” — and that’s exactly what she did.

The idea that women have to be shy, quiet and wear as much clothing because women have to hide themselves/their bodies is not Islamic, it’s patriarchal.

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Many times, when Muslim men and women speak about the great women in Islam, they bring up the loyalty of Khadijah (RA), but they won’t bring up that she was a hustler. They’ll bring up how charitable and softhearted Ayesha (RA) but they don’t bring up how knowledgeable, articulate and intelligent she was. The strength, the intelligence and the might of Muslim women aren’t brought up because that threatens men.
The idea that women have to be shy, quiet and wear as much clothing because women have to hide themselves/their bodies is not Islamic, it’s patriarchal. Our modesty as Muslim women, or our hayaa, is not directly attached to our hijab and how subservient we can be. The moment a woman doesn’t wear hijab or she’s too confident and “loud,” people start questioning her iman (faith).
Women in Islam are given agency over their bodies and whether they wear hijab or not, in the end — it’s a choice. The issue is, hijab is personal. What one considers modest, and what one believes will please Allah (SWT) is different than the next person, regardless of how you interpret the Qur’an and what you believe is right. Not wearing hijab doesn’t diminish one’s hayaa.
When hustlers like Khadijah (RA) existed and warriors like Khawlah fought for Islam, it can’t be more obvious that Islam encourages women to be self-assured and confident — not shy. Hayaa is not about how invisible you can be or how quiet you can be, because all of the great women in Islam have been the exact opposite of that.

Written By Najma Sharif. Najma is a Minnesotan, living and studying in New York City. You can find her on Twitter @overdramatique.
Image: Qahera The Comic

View Comments (24)
  • After reading this article that does not have any hadeeth or verse of the Quran or saying of one of the four scholar’s of Islam,
    Except the opinion of the writer that does not memorize two juz of the quran, I would like to advise the blogger and who is reading that you will be asked by Allah for what you are writing, you are trying to say men and women are same, they are not, and I will give you few example in islam women they don’t run in Safa and Marwan and the reason is haya, because of thief phisical appearance their are restricted from certain thing, in the story of Mousa, the daugthe of the prophet shoaib the verse sais she came walking towards him in Hawa, I belive this blogger is a victim of the fake western liberation of women that wants it without Hawa, the prophet one day was sitting laying down when Othman entered he PBUH changed the way he was sitting so the companions told him why you did this only when Othman entered, he PBUH replied Ishould have Hawa in the presence of a men who the Angeles have Hawa in his presence

    • I think you misread the piece. The author is not saying men and women are the same at all.
      Please also provide the sources for your two examples? You complain that this article doesn’t have any hadith, yet you didn’t provide the sources for your examples yourself, i.e. what ayah of Quran and what hadith? The way you describe them is very confusing and as written have little to do with the subject of the piece. The last one about Othman and the Prophet (saws) concerns two men and has nothing to do with haya in terms of gender relations.
      Also, you continually use “Hawa” and I think you mean to say “haya”. Hawa was the wife of Adam (as).

  • I can honestly say as a guy, I do hate the double standard. I’m sure I’m guilty of certain assumptions that are brought up – especially as someone not used to being around Muslim girls/women outside of my extended family and family friends. Now with social media, and interacting with Muslimahs much more than I would have otherwise, sometimes when a swear word comes up, it shocks me (though I know it shouldn’t , everyone swears after-all, putting aside that all of us are discouraged from doing so).
    Shyness is a good thing to an extent of course, but very true, us guys can’t expect women to be shy 24/7. There are instances when maybe it’s appropriate to be on the shy side (and maybe only temporarily at that) but there are so many great outspoken Muslim women out there and I wouldn’t want it any other way, whether they are well known activists or the sisters in my community/at my masjid. Great piece. Let’s pray both men and women contribute to doing away with the double standards that pervade our communities. My two cents.

      • Salam sister…I think I’ve completely misunderstood your article. Correct me if am wrong, does it say that hijab is a matter of choice? I completely disagree with you on that because understanding that hijab is an identity and a way of life is key for every Muslim woman, our inability only leave us with great explanations with our creator. And yes, actions are judged according to intention and everyone shall be judged according to that which he intends.

  • You do know Islam is a patriarchal since men are the leaders of women and men are also the leaders of the Muslim nations and that four rightly guided Khalifahs who the Prophet salAllaahu alayhi wassalam said to follow their way were men.

  • An interesting article that is sadly true. However my one qualm would be I don’t believe Khadija (RA) was a hustler I believe she was an astute business woman operating in a patriarchal society,where business women were extremely rare or nonexistent.

  • “Women in Islam are given agency over their bodies and whether they wear
    hijab or not, in the end — it’s a choice. The issue is, hijab is
    personal. What one considers modest, and what one believes will please
    Allah (SWT) is different than the next person, regardless of how you
    interpret the Qur’an and what you believe is right. Not wearing hijab
    doesn’t diminish one’s hayaa.”
    Your article and its tone identifies a problem in society and attempts to solve it in a totlally unislamic and erroneous manner.
    For example, your quote above is completely wrong. Hijab it is not a choice-it is an obligation upon the women and upon the Islamic society. A muslimah with an Islamic personality will never consider the rules of hijab and jilbab as personal choices. You have completely misunderstood the shariah rule and its objective. The law of hijab is a rule that forms part of a larger social system whereby the concept of womanhood and the interaction between men and women in society are regulated in a productive manner, that reduces the sexual aspect. Along with hijab men must cover certain parts of their bodies, lower their gase and not interact with stranger women except on an as needed basis as part of normal societal activity e.g. buying and selling etc.
    The idea that women assert their identity by showing their charms is a western concept that has nothing to do with Islam and doesn’t not fall under the category of legal agency over ones own body because in an Islamic society if a woman does not wear hijab (whether she is muslim or non-muslim) she will face prosecution, indicating that it falls in the realm of societal rules.

  • A very important hadith to quote about Hayaa is Prophet said ““Among the things that people have found from the words of the previous prophets was: If you don’t feel Hayaa do whatever you like.”
    In a YOLO (you only live once) mindset, and people trying to accomplish their bucket lists by any means necessary, this is a very important hadith to consider. This is an eye opening hadith and goes deeper into the meaning of what it means to have Hayaa. Since Hayaa is part of Emaan (faith) a Prophet would never say do whatever you want unless to give a clear warning. I would say a great translation of this comprehensive word in this context would be shame. If you don’t have any SHAME then do whatever you want. Dress the way you want to, speak the way you want to speak, present yourself the way you want to, hang out at places you want to– without any regard to how you represent yourself as a practicing Muslim. You are not only representing yourself you are representing your family. Big responsibility to bare but with knowledge comes the idea of actually practicing the knowledge. We as Afghans use these two word interchangeable and together “Ba sharm Ba Hayaa” (No shame no self respect).
    Here is the definition of shame:
    “a painful feeling of humiliation or distress caused by the consciousness of wrong or foolish behavior.”
    Here is the antonyms for shame:
    Honor, Grace, Courage, respect, esteem, praise

  • Great piece. And while I understand the one of the definitions of hustler is “an enterprising person determined to succeed; go-getter.”, there are a lot of negative connotations for this word. It might be fitting for every day colloquial usage, but doesn’t seem to go with the strong, honest, respectable personality of our beloved Khadijah (RA).

  • Definitely what I have been thinking. Very well written mashaAllah, I can see there is already a back lash, but that is expected.

  • mostly good until ‘not wearing hijab doesnt diminish ones haya’
    im willing to be educated though so hit me!
    How does one not covering themselves (which applies to men too of course) according to allahs criterion not decrease ones ‘self worth’ ‘modesty’ or ‘shyness’ when for a muslim the standards are set by allah and not a personal decision. Dont get me wrong, i dont think ill or dismiss people because of how they dress etc but surely a man or woman who dresses according to sunnah has more hayah by the shari definition than kim kardashian?

    • Women wear hijab, but still dress immodestly, same is the case when women do not wear a hijab but dress modestly. In any case, Allah is to decide who is right.

    • Hijab isn’t just the scarf we wear, it is what we wear from head to toe. How we hold and present ourselves. How we work rest and play. A peice of cloth does not make the hijab and definitely does not prove your hayaa.

  • JAk sis. Can you please reference the khawlah story please. Especially “Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) even recommended that she be in the front lines in the fight against the Romans.” Just wanted to look more in to it.

  • Not all men think like that, I find this to be a bit one minded. As a 26 year old male if I was to lose my virginity in the haram I’ll be very shamed by it. I disagree with this article tho it has elements of truth but her approach is one minded, sexist and wrong.

  • This is a great discussion I love it. I never heard of the word “Hayaa” I guess that’s is a cultural affectation?
    Anyway great.

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