I am a young man in my late twenties, studying in a professional medical college. My educational environment entails mixed gender situations, and sometimes I feel highly uncomfortable with my fellow female students, especially when we have to work closely. I understand that Islam expects me to maintain my distance, but how can I do this, if there are no segregated medical colleges for males?
Answer: Maintaining distance between genders does not necessarily mean shunning one another or existing in a segregated society. If we are raised in a modest environment, it is indeed natural to feel uncomfortable with members of the opposite gender – so be glad that you do.
Allah (swt) has made both genders in this world, so that they may coexist peacefully. For this purpose, he has set down certain injunctions, which must be followed during necessary interactions. Khalwa, being alone with a non-Mahram individual, is strictly prohibited. A Hadeeth, which clearly states that in such a situation, the third is Satan: “Whenever a man is alone with a woman, Satan is the third among them.” (Tirmidhi)
In public settings, if interacting with the opposite sex is an absolute necessity, certain rules must be followed: lowering the gaze, maintaining a business-like tone and ensuring that no physical contact (be it shaking hands, a friendly pat on the back, etc.) takes place. At the same time, these commands are not intended for robotic behavior.
For instance, lowering your gaze does not mean that you are never allowed to look at a girl during a discussion. It simply means that you should not make a sustained eye contact or stare at her. You can glance at her, then avert your eyes and repeat this with discretion. Similarly, talking in a business-like voice does not entail that you are not allowed to smile or laugh. Rather, you must not at any point become flirtatious. If you sense such an intention from a girl, change the topic or make an excuse and remove yourself from the situation. Worse comes to worst, request your professors to put you in a different group.
Do make sure that your behavior never arouses suspicion, even when surrounded by other people. For example, having a meal alone with a female classmate at a fast food joint is not allowed. It can lead to much speculation among people around you as well as in the mind of the girl herself. The concepts that ‘we’re just friends’ or ‘it’s only for fun’ are alien to the Islamic code of modesty between the two genders. (Likewise, if the intention for such outings is dating, then it is clearly forbidden in Islam, although unfortunately it is quite prevalent these days.)
Given your circumstances, do not forget the real reason you are at college: to gain knowledge. The girls are also there for the same reason. When you become a doctor, Insha’Allah, you will have to deal with female patients as well. Consider this a preparation for the future. Understand that one can interact with members of the opposite gender and yet maintain a distance figuratively. Internalize the commands set by Allah (swt) for such interactions and, Insha’Allah, He will make your task easier for you. And, of course, always make Dua that He keeps you on Sirat-e-Mustaqeem.