Growing up in America it is customary when you enter a home to greet all that are present male or female. The type of greeting differs depending on the region, culture and class of the individuals involved. As an example, when I was growing up a simple hello and a nod of the head or handshake would suffice; but if you move in the Globo circles or some others of either the wealthy or those looking towards Europe, it is customary for people to give one another’s kisses on the cheeks regardless of gender.The etiquette of Muslims is much different as it is discouraged for us to have physical contact with those of the opposite sex we are not married to or are not related to by blood. As Muslim men we are encouraged to be modest in our dealings with women; but this is nothing unique to Islam. Traditional American men, like those I grew-up with, did not go around hugging other people’s wives and girlfriends and definitely did not give them those French pecks on the cheek. You will also find that these types of greetings are not practiced by many devout Christians in American churches or by more observant Jews. It is when you go into the areas of the secularized elite or the classless you will find these types of kissing and overt hugging between the sexes ( but with today’s young people whose minds were formed by the thought-police at MTV and there teachers who graduated form Woodstock this may be common among all groups).
As a Muslim man I always try to show respect to a brothers family when I enter his home; but one of the problems is I do not always know how to do this. There is a good friend of mine who is a white American convert to Islam and is married to a non-Muslim woman who is an attorney. When I first met him I had not visited the home of a non-Muslim not in my family socially in years and I did not know how to act. Because I was in the habit of ignoring women and not speaking to them in the home of Muslim friends of mine, because that is what they expected, I did not speak to his wife. I forgot about this brief encounter, but the brother’s wife was mad at me for years because she felt I had disrespected her. In a similar situation my ex-wife was livid when two Muslim brothers came into my house to watch a sporting event and did not even recognize her when they entered the home. I tried to explain it to her and clean it up but she never got over that and it gave her a bad impression of the opinions of a lot of Muslim men who she felt did not respect men.
I had come from a place in the Muslim community where you not only did not speak to other Muslims wives or look at them, but the majority of the time you did not even know their name, but as I moved into other circles within the Muslim community I discovered that there is a wide range of practice and opinion on male-female greetings.
As an example, many of the more progressive or traditional Muslim types you will find that if you do not greet the wife by giving her salaam and engage her in conversation the sister and brother will be upset with you and feel disrespected. Unlike other Muslim homes I have been, including those of close friends of mine, the women will join the brothers at the dinner table and be seen and join the conversation (if she does not dominate it).
That was something I had to get used to as a Muslim. I was told when you see a woman look down and don’t talk to her and when you go to a Muslim home there should be complete separation. Now, some of this is good and we are commanded to lower our gaze (but as I tell brothers be careful when lowering your gaze from the back), but some of it is negative in the long term.
I know of Muslim brothers who were born and raised in this country and later converted and grew up mixing with women who now cannot behave in a normal manner in the company of women. This is not unique to Muslims, I have known men who grew up in Catholic boy’s schools behave in this way as well, but I think Muslims have it the worst. A brother I know once ejaculated in his pants in market after an attractive woman spoke to him and another Muslim brother I know said he got dizzy at the smell and voice of an attractive women talking to him. They were devout Muslims and spent most of their time not at work at the masjid or at home reading Islamic books and fantasizing about their future wife. The most minimal contact with a woman could set them off.
That kind of reaction to women is not healthy or normal in a society like ours where in order to succeed you have to be able to interact with women and by the numbers a lot of those women are going to be attractive. In other words we have to be able to discuss our business with women in the workplace without busting a nut during the middle of the conversation.
With regards to Muslim women the greeting depends on the Muslim and the family. Some women get angry if you do talk to them and others get angry if you do not talk to them and it can be kind of a minefield. Bottom line is I think that we need to be balanced. While there are people who go too far, such as a Saudi man I know who started trembling in rage about to pop a blood vessel because a brother asked him what his wife’s name was, the flip side is you have events at ISNA that look more like a night club than an Islamic gathering.
There is also the issue that with polygamy that any time you greet a Muslim woman or try to be polite you are either the sister thinks you are trying to marry her or your wife thinks you are trying to pick up a deuce. Do I have any practical advice on this matter? No, not really, I am just throwing this out there for conversation.