Unraveling Heya (modesty)………….

My daughter is fortunate, she wears these:courtesy http://www.flickr.com/photos/smcdevitt/3046533843/

I am a FOB( fresh off the boat) and starting my internship in Pediatrics in New England.  As a pediatric intern one of my duties is to “catch” the baby at Caesarian delivery and resuscitate it if needed.

This entails getting dressed in scrubs, with gown and mask.

I am doing my well baby Nursery rotation at one of the seven hospitals that I rotate through. This one is new to me and I am looking for the dressing rooms. I see two doors, one says “Nurses” and the other says “Doctors” I go into the one that says “Doctors” and pull on the scrub pants and shirt, stuff my pocket with my beeper, pen, the pediatric resuscitation dose card and show up at the OR (operating Room). The baby comes and is far more slippery than I remember.

On my third visit to the OR and the dressing rooms, the head nurse approaches me and tells me that the head of OB wants to speak to me.

I of course have no clue why, but am confident it has something to do with my stellar performance as a pediatric intern.

After a delivery I walk into his office………..now so many years later I do not even remember his face just the impression that he had grey hair, and his expression was a mix of sternness and sheepishness.

I can see that he is ill at ease and then he says in a firm voice as if on stage:

“The nurses have informed me that you are using the Doctors scrubs. You need to use the nurses scrubs”

I am surprised….”Why” I ask. He stammers I think no one; especially not a foreign female intern has ever questioned him.

“……………they run out of the doctors scrubs, you need to use the “female” scrubs.

I say “okay”, thinking that surely he is worried that I may come across a half dressed male doctor in the doctor’s dressing room, as there are no female physicians in OB.

Next call I traipse to the” female” locker room with “Nurses” at the door. My ego is a little bit bruised, but I brush it aside. Inside I look for pants and there are none. Finally I end up wearing the dress that the nurses wear which comes up to just a little below my knees and leaves my legs naked. My back is tied with a single string, which also leaves me feeling naked.

I go to scrub and gown for the C-Section and wrap my gown around so that my legs and back are covered but then I can’t reach into my pocket when the beeper beeps.

It is aggravating.

Thus begins the unraveling of “heya” a precious, elusive quality in every human being, until it is deliberately stripped under the guise of work, fashion, school, sports or an untamable desire for a brown bird to look like a white bird.

In my case it was surreptitious and gradual over twenty-five years until I did not even bat an eyelash at wearing a skirt that showed my, legs ………until I suddenly realized with a start, how much I had accepted the culture of “peeling off your clothes”.

Heya comes from the word “Life “in Arabic. It is an essential part of our Deen. It gives life to our spirit as it protects us from the harshness of the world and keeps our heart empathic, soft and caring of others.

As Heya is stripped from us, our deen is also stripped from us. As Prophet Muhammad pbuh said and I paraphrase: Heya is an essential ingredient of our Deen.

Prophet Muhammad pbuh had so much Heya that he would not hitch up his azar (the lower part of his garment) to do manual labor because that would expose his thigh and he would be mortified.

Heya is difficult to define in the English language because I guess the English-speaking west does not have the attribute of Heya and thus it does not need to be defined. There fore Heya is absent from the English vocabulary and to a large extent from the English-speaking world.

Heya is that feeling that prevents one from uncovering oneself physically, morally or verbally in a manner that makes the inner pure spirit uncomfortable. Loosely it is called modesty.

Heya is essential for both Muslim men and women. Without heya it is difficult to understand, and embody the spirit of our Deen.

Heya is not a Chador that one can throw on oneself when one reaches puberty. It is a purity of the inner self that is practiced by our parents as they raise us they endeavor to protect us from clothes that bare our bodies as children and expose us to potential pedophiles in the street and by carefully getting us into the habit of covering our bodies out of modesty, not shame.

Then as we approach puberty we are more inclined to protect ourselves from fahsah (open lewdness) by guarding our gaze as well as our bodies and hopefully our thoughts.

Heya is practiced differently in each Muslim country that I have been too.

In Pakistan and India at least when I grew up there (thirty years ago) All girls and boys of “good” families dressed and spoke in a manner that protected their heya. Their speech and their writings also reflected their level of heya.

They were judged by the elders by their level of heya or lewdness to be good or undesirable respectively.

Now it is a different story in Pakistan where the men and women have thrown off their clothes and their heya with them, without even being asked.

In the Pakistani TV programs of wanna be talk shows the hosts use swear words and insult the participating girls and treat them like whores. To my amazement the girls still continue to show up.

In the Middle East, heya is a chador that is suddenly put on the women when they reach puberty but not on the boys. Little girls are dressed resembling the half undressed western singers, by their own mothers. They go around in tank tops and mini shorts showing off their bodies to all, in their innocence. They are drooled on by potential pedophiles and then as puberty hits they not only have to cover their mini shorts but also their hair.

In my humble opinion heya is different from hijab. Heya cannot be put on as a quick body covering like hijab. You can be a hijabi without having heya.

In order to have Heya it is the innocence of the spirit that has to be protected from all evil display, lewd and violent acts (on TV, movies etc) and the development of a pure inner self that is trained to turn away from all that is impure and destructive to the spirit.

Here is how the Pakistani and Indian girls take off their heya without even being asked………….Why? And to what end? I am perplexed:

In the United States………which is a secular country and the melting pot of many religions and faiths, if one wishes to protect one’s heya there are ways of doing so, and educating others in the process. One has to be aware and educated in ones own Deen to know and understand the significance of heya in both boys and girls before doing so.

Heya is a sign of purity in a person. Allah Subhanawataala chooses the pure of heart, the pure of spirit, those with a soft heart, and those with Heya.

Why wouldn’t human beings?

6 thoughts on “Unraveling Heya (modesty)………….

  1. Pingback: JUNE READINGS 2011: SABR, QURAN & MARRIAGE… « Siraat-e-Mustaqeem

  2. Guilty as charged. Thank you for the reminder. I am a Pakistani male and must concede you are correct in your assessment. The ‘plunged’ comment wasn’t meant for the females, at least not at a conscious level. It was just a choice of words. But, thinking back, I agree that when I was talking of media etc., my default mindset was geared automatically towards women. I wasn’t referring just to women, but somehow that was the preponderant picture in the eye of my mind. It is a good reminder, because whenever modesty gets discussed by Pakistanis, the focus is on women this and women that. Even the cursory mention of men is in as far as that behaviour of women is somehow the key and sole cause for male trangressions, and in this way, we absolve ourselves of responsibility. Dual standards, hypocrisy & sexism color our opinions. To be honest, if I were to examine men and women as genders, the truth is that we men are more guilty of immodesty. There are more women than men who practice hijab and heya. Even if we men meet the hijab part of heya as in awrah and clothes etc., our attitude is warped. As you rightly said, hijab is not the same as heya. The modesty of eyes, and the self respect as well as respect for women is missing. We do not guard our eyes and think nothing of it. The sad part is that it has become ingrained in our psyche. It is not just a specific social class or educated/uneducated grouping that is guilty of this. Even if a fully hijab wearing woman passes by, men by and large think nothing of staring at them. The commandment of lowering the gaze and not following up the accidental gaze are ignored. It is a malaise which affects our society. Harrassment, leering take it to another level, but even at the basic level of guarding our eyes, we as a gender are chronically guilty. Even a physically properly covered man peeks at women that he encounters. Our attitude in this regard is indeed in a crisis and does not seem to be improving.

    Also, your comment on that gradual loss of innocence, the unraveling of heya is spot on. Sometimes, we see something and we are outraged. Then, slowly something happens. Maybe it is a desire to fit in, maybe it is that we feel confused in our outrage. It can be murky. Sometimes, we question that outrage – sometimes we feel that the outrage is justified, sometimes we feel that are we being too rigid, are we judging others, being too closed minded and backward, suffering from superiority while not looking at ourselves. Sometimes we try to rationalize our response and fail in gaining clarity. When we first see something, we feel that is wrong. Then, a gradual desensitization starts to happen. The next time we see the same thing, maybe our response mellows. Even if we don’t subscribe to what offends our heya, we seem to be more accepting of it and gradually, if we see the same thing over and over again, it doesn’t seem like a big deal anymore. It becomes our ‘normal’ and we lose the feeling that something is wrong. We stop seeing our sins as sins at some subconscious level.

    I am a Pakistani and I am a male as well, so I have my failings and am guilty as well. Modesty is the defining characteristic of our religion. Please pray that God grants me and us all with this characteristic. satan and my nafs are ever driving to that loss of innocence. Life can be so confusing sometimes and sometimes it is simple, but our heart’s desires overpower our convictions. To submit fully to the truth, we and I proclaim it by our tongue; but sometimes we know in our hearts that we are betraying that vow knowingly. May God grant us the pure inner self free of hypocrisy.


  3. Asalaamoalaikum, Thank you for your insightful comment. An important cultural aspect that I see missing in the muslim men is that they seem to think that heya is only for women.
    Thus on the airport I will see a woman in full hijab and niqab and the husband beside her is in tight jeans, tucked in T shirt with some singers face pasted on it, and half sleeves.His eyes checking out all the blonde western women.
    We are in a “crisis of muslim masculinity” men are confused as to their role and their focus of education.
    I pray that Allah Subhanawataala enlighten us with his words. Ameen.


  4. Agreed. Especially when “enlightened moderation” was adopted as a policy, it seems to have plunged our moral values even lower than before. Be it in media or on the streets, an unfortunate shift is visible. I have also seen the “modesty and faith” video in your next post before on youtube a few times. Simple and short video, so doesn’t take up too much time and yet can be a very succint reminder of the value of heya in Islam and our duties in this regard. It isn’t easy to control nafs. Only through the grace and mercy of ALLAH (swt) can the individual have any hope of being modest to any degree.


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