The issue of photography is a contentious one in Islam, with there being a difference of opinion among the contemporary scholars about its permissibility. However, as Shaykh Faraz Rabbani summarizes, “the scholars who hold photography of humans and animals impermissible generally make exception of situations of need – such as documentation and educational purposes” and “the scholars, who permit photography of humans and animals, condition this with the images being within Shariah limits (such as no nudity or vice).”

The provision of ‘Shariah limits’ encompasses not just the content of photography, but also the people who are allowed to see these photographs. With the advent and widespread popularity of digital cameras, it has become much easier to share photographs than it was previously possible with traditional film photographs. Unaware of or unconcerned about the dangers of the unrestricted access to private photographs, people happily post pictures of virtually every aspect of their lives on the Internet.

Although Facebook and similar websites have privacy settings, many people don’t use them – be it genuine ignorance or callous indifference. Sidrah Ahmad says: “It is important to have a look at your privacy settings and be aware of who can search for you and what they can find. For example, I posted an album that had photos of my cousin’s children, and her cousin (who I was not friends with on Facebook) was able to see this album. Though she was no stranger to the children, I understand the harm in having photos on display for public view. [After this] I restricted all my albums to be viewable for ‘Just Friends’, which I recommend to everyone posting photos on Facebook.” Sidrah believes that major breaches can be prevented by making use of the settings available.

However, other people disagree. Amina Ahmed contends that “digital pictures can be very dangerous,” not simply because they open the floodgates for non-Mahrams to see the photographs, but also because digital pictures can be easily manipulated with. “People who can access your account may be able to copy/paste and then change the pictures. No matter how private the settings are, there are still risks that the pictures can be seen by strangers.”

This is a valid concern. We may be sure that our friends are trustworthy and will not misuse our photographs, but what if they do not observe the same levels of Hijab? Will they then show the necessary discretion if they are viewing the photos, especially when their brothers or father are around the PC? Also, once you agree to the terms and conditions of most of these websites, you give them the license to share your photos with third party businesses and customers. Even if that does not happen, the fact remains that the webmasters of any website can access all the user accounts, and this includes the uploaded photographs. That is why some people are completely against the idea of uploading pictures on any website, even if those photos are with Hijab.

So what can be done? The safest option is to never have yourself photographed without Hijab, especially from someone else’s digital camera. Try and use email when sharing photographs, and even then, remind people that you are very particular about who can view those pictures. Steer clear of uploading photographs on social networking websites, whether they are of yourself or your friends.

A similar policy needs to be adopted while organizing or attending segregated events during which otherwise Hijab-observing women will take off their Hijab. As an organizer, it is your responsibility to ensure that no pictures are taken by random guests.

If you are planning your own wedding and know that it will be impossible to discourage people from taking your photographs as a bride, go one step ahead in the planning phases and have a “no cameras allowed in ladies section” rule printed on the invitation card, so that people know beforehand not to bring their cameras. I personally know two families who printed such a caution on the wedding card. Even then, it can sometimes become necessary to ask a family member to make sure that no one is taking any pictures.

This is not to advocate that no pictures should be taken at all, but only to emphasize that there are dangers in being lax about who can take your pictures and who can see them. That seems to be the bottom line regarding digital pictures, no matter when they are taken, or how they are shared.