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Borders of privacy

It’s not news that modern technology is becoming more integrated into our lives. It is obvious that the more comfortable we get with modern information technology, the more we lose our privacy. One reason to explain the boundless interaction on the various communication platforms including social media is the fact that the technology allows people to do things faster and with much less effort. The question, nonetheless, is whether women should have unrestricted interaction on all communication platforms availed by the internet.

Unregulated interaction of a Muslim woman on social media platforms is something we should begin to worry about as it allows intrusion beyond the limits set by Islam. The questions on our lips include: should women engage in video calls and Skype or interact on Facebook and Whatsapp platforms with persons who are not in any way precluded from marrying them? Is it in order especially for married women to, without restraints, make friends on Facebook profiles and twitter accounts, which today is the norm? Is it permitted for a wife to belong to email groups that have nothing to do with her matrimonial home or office work or business? Group membership calls for concern because it is neither gender sensitive nor have restrictions as to the topics of discussion among members.

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Whatever a Muslim woman must do in her use of internet facilities or resources, it must be within the limits set by Islam as delineated in the Qur’an and Sunnah of the Prophet (SAW). For example, she must not interact with a person who is not her relation or precluded from marrying her without the knowledge and consent of her husband (if she is married), or parents/guardian if she is not. Even when she has the authorization to do so, it must be done in accordance with the Islamic rules guiding women’s interaction with men. Of course, a woman has right to privacy particularly over certain categories of personal information such as passwords into her devices including phones, emails, bank accounts, ATM cards, drawers, etc.

Where the interaction involves appearance as in the case of video calls and Skype, she must be decently dressed. If a wife requires the express permission of her husband to engage in business or office work, attend public functions or leave the home for any legitimate reasons; the husband by the same token retains the right to know which Whatsapp group she wishes to belong or join. Although these issues may sound trivial and may be taken for granted, they have weighty implications for the modesty, courtesy, integrity and respectability that are generally obliged in marital relationships. Islam defines certain ethical principles and practical social codes that serve to regulate, consolidate and sustain inter personal relationships within family members and with other members of the society. There are rules of decorum in Islam even among family members that regulate our interactions within the family circle.

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The hands, eyes and ears are the major parts of the body with which we usually intrude into the private lives of other people. However, the eyes remain the most frequently used part by which man ogles or goggles into other people’s privacy. It is with the eyes we look at women who are forbidden for us to gaze at. The rule of modesty is the same in both men and women even though Islam gives greater amount of privacy to women than men especially in the matter of dress and uncovering of the bosom.

Whether physically or on the phone, the cheeky stare by a man at a woman (or even at a man) is a breach of refined manner and violation of the person’s right to privacy. Some people look at a woman so analytically that they could tell the colour of her eyes and size of her ear-rings. Eavesdropping to telephone conversations, no matter who is involved, is also prohibited. We must learn to manage our eyes and ears well. Allah (SWT) says in Qur’an 17:36 that every act of hearing, or of seeing, or of (feeling in) the heart will be enquired into on the Day of Judgment.

Allah (SWT) states in Qur’an 24:58 that children and those whom our right hands possess should seek permission before entering into our presence on three occasions: before Subhi (morning) prayer; when we doff our clothes for the noonday heat; and after the late-night prayer because these are the three times of undress. Some people also take their relationship with others for granted. They believe though erroneously that as a relation, friend, colleague or an in-law, they could without any compelling reasons walk into your room at any time of the day or call you on phone even at midnight.

Privacy goes beyond one’s personal life in the house, in the room or as details on the mobile phone. It extends to personal issues of confidentiality that may require others to seek and obtain permission before accessing them with the eyes, ears or hands. It is not right to open and read other people’s diaries without permission. It is wrong to open handbags or wallets without the express permission of the owner. Authorization has to be sought before accessing the mobile phones, diaries, wallets, drawers and wardrobes of others as they may contain items or information that pertain to the personal life of the owner which he or she would not want unauthorized persons to get to know including bank account details. Respecting the personal rights of others is a basic requirement for Islamic fraternity, paying due attention to which ensures strong friendly relationships. The Prophet (SAW) said “The eyes of a person who looks into the personal infomation of other people without authorization will be in fire”.

It is a violation of other people’s privacy to post photographs of other people on the internet especially if they pertain to their private life. It is equally a trespass to reveal employment details of staff or medical records of patients without any official authorization. Persons who handle files in offices and hospitals must preserve and protect the privacy of workers and patients respectively. It is not right to discuss or disclose the nature of the ailments of a patient to unauthorized persons. It also amounts to a breach of the privacy of customers for a bank staff to disclose account or transaction details of a customer without the authorization of the accountowner. It is untrustworthy for anyone who knew of or managed internal crises of a particular family to discuss such with unauthorized persons. All these are unethical and a breach of trust in Islam. May Allah (SWT) guide us to respect privacy in our private and public lives, amin.

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