Cultural perspectives on shyness and how shyness is perceived in Islam

According to Susan Cain, author of “Quiet: The Power of Introverts, ‘Shyness’ is the fear of negative judgment. In her article on “Are you shy, introverted, or both or neither (And why does it matter)?” , she mentions that a shyness and introversion may interlink to one another. A shy person may become more introverted and may tend to prefer the pleasures of solitude and other minimal social environments. A calm introvert are different from a shy extrovert because they are afraid of speaking up (due to being afraid of the negative judgement) compared to the shy extrovert who sits quietly in a business meeting who may be over stimulate.

In my opinion, an introvert prefers to observe and understand the things discussed in the meeting and often seem to not have anything to say unless it is important for them to speak up and express their opinion. Often they are seemed to not say anything unless they are asked for their opinion or really do have something to point out. Most of the time, their input are mostly sought for and give very good insight of the issue being discussed because it has been thought through rather than simply giving an opinion.

A shy kid, may be afraid of giving opinions because they fear of being judged, but an introverted kid do not speak up unless there is a need to do so. When the need comes, they are often the ones who has the best idea or solution since they have analyzed the problem from all aspects before they give an opinion.

In western culture, being shy has been perceived as a weakness. The culture pressures children to participate in all activities as a sign of an active students. If one do not be active in sports and school activities per say, they may not get good mark in extracurricular activities. Therefore students who prefer quiet activities such as reading, walking and find solitude in activities that doesn’t sports such as playing chess, jigsaw puzzle etc will not stand much chance to get good marks in extra curricular.

However, in the East or Asian countries, being shy is appreciated because it relates to being humble and knowing where they stand. In Malay culture, those who doesn’t have a sense of shyness in themselves are considered as ‘tidak tahu malu’ which means, people who have no shame. These people are negatively perceived as rude and disobedient who do not respect the elders or the people around them. Interestingly, there are also proverbs such as “Malu bertanya, Sesat jalan” meaning that if you are afraid to ask, you will lose your way.  Therefore, being shy doesn’t necessarily mean all the time, when it comes to things that we don’t understand. So it is okay for a person to ask if they don’t know or understand what they are going through. Whether if it’s asking for help, or if they don’t know how to do something.

As Islam came to the Malay Kingdom, so does the values of Islam integrated within the Malay culture that is the Hijab. There are many theory of how Islam came to the Malay archipelagos, but gradually Islam are well assimilated to the culture among the Malays specifically in Malaysia. Gradual changes in the way the malay’s dress and how hijab is perceived by different scholars and the Malay society itself. I recall a story from my mother that at one point it was acceptable to wear only the ‘kain batik’ or the batik sarong as head covering with some hair. But after some time the Malay started to cover more and more as Islam have been well integrated within the society. If during my grandmother time, it is still acceptable to cover using batik sarong, while some may prefer the ‘kebaya’ dress without any covering or with a ‘selendang’ or thin scarf in the 50’s or 60’s. By the time it was the 70’s many Malay women have started to wear proper head covering and some choose to cover even longer ‘hijab’ based on their understanding of Islam at the time.

In terms of shyness that is not related to physical appearance, being shy is still highly valued and respected. For example, some may not show off their knowledge so that they do not appear to be showing off. This can also be seen in the art of Silat, a martial art practiced by the Malays until now whereby the ‘Bunga Silat’ or opening of the Silat is actually a hidden message of a person skill in Silat to their opponent. A person’s knowledge and skill in Silat can be seen from the way they show off their ‘Bunga Silat’ and indirectly tells the opponent not to mess with them based on how good they move. The Malay culture is a unique culture that is too ‘shy’ to show off what they have unless the need requires for them to show their skill. Therefore, whenever a very good person are being complimented as being shy, it usually means, they are too humble to show off what they know and thus wins their respect.

Therefore, shyness in any culture are perceived differently, they may be appreciated by one culture or undervalued by other culture. Either way, in Islam, a sense of shy is required among the believing man and women. Sadaf Farooqi wrote on “Haya: Showcasing shyness of a sheperdness”  that the manner of a shepherdess who shyly approach The Prophet Musa a.s , is seeking ‘haya’ which also means ‘seeking forgiveness’ proves that when the need arises,  a women can become an intermediate if it is for a noble or good cause. The shepherdess who is also the daughter of the old man who owns the sheeps also gives advice to their father in helping Prophet Musa a.s who was on the run and homeless. This implies that despite being shy, a women can and should, give their opinions to their mahrums in their house when major decisions are being made. Her father took her advice and her testimony on Prophet Musa’s physical strength and his trustworthiness in handling the sheeps well.

This shows that, in Islam, shyness should not become a barrier in sharing of knowledge, in consultation, and decision-making, or when the negotiating the terms of contract. Even the Prophet Muhammad SAW wife, Saidatina Aisyah RA are the most sought for in Hadith and Sunnah by the scholars at the time. Therefore, shyness does not stop one from the daily life of muslims and perhaps compliments the values that have already embedded in Islam.

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