Hijab: A Protective Factor in Women’s Body Image Issues?

Although many people in the West know little about Islam, the veil is one exception that everyone is familiar with.  Although the Western perception is that the veil serves as a form of oppression (I also used to share this view), Muslim women see it as quite the opposite.  Some researchers have taken the debate a step further by putting the veil and its effects to scientific testing.

Although I found very few studies done on the effects of the veil, the handful I did find seemed to have mixed results.   I found it curious and wondered what other factors were affecting the outcomes.   Anyone familiar with the Middle East can attest to the fact that despite the veil being a requirement in many countries, women still suffer from body image issues, which can also result in depression, eating disorders, and low self-esteem.  Thus, the act of simply wearing the veil does not seem to automatically protect women from body image issues.

However, I found another study (Rastmanesh, Gluck, & Shadman, 2009) that was much more telling.  In this particular study, the researchers took three groups of Iranian women, all of whom are required to wear the veil by law, and separated them by those wearing the chador (full coverage, beyond the requirement), those maintaining the basic requirement of veiling, and those just under the requirement, wearing tight clothes and a loose veil with hair still showing.  The researchers measured participants’ answers on a variety of instruments, such as the Beck depression inventory, the body shape questionnaire, the eating disorders inventory, the Rosenburg self-esteem scale, and questions on the importance of slimness.

The results yielded that women who veiled above and beyond the basic requirement scored far better than those in the other groups, with the women in the third group scoring the lowest.  What this indicates is that indeed, simply wearing the veil does not safeguard a woman from body image issues, but wearing the veil willingly does.  The results also should not be interpreted to mean that covering oneself from head to toe should be strictly enforced – nor does it mean that Muslim countries should abandon the veil requirement – not at all.  It simply indicates that those who 1. cover the Islamically required areas, and 2. do it because they believe in it and desire to do it, are the ones who benefit most from the veil.

So essentially, the veil is not only a physical practice.  Rather, the veil must be both physical and mental in order for it to serve as a protective factor against body image issues in women.  In fact, if a woman doesn’t believe in it, she risks being even more vulnerable to the mental health issues that plague women, as her sole source of value – her body – is covered and she has no way of competing against the other women around her, either in real life or in the media.  Her value is invisible and shielded from view, so from her perspective, she has nothing else that gives her worth.  Obviously, when you believe that you have nothing to offer, it is easy to fall into low self-esteem, depression, and so on.   Such women may even attempt to go to more extremes to make their sole source of currency visible, by wearing tight clothes so as to show off as much as they can, engaging in disordered eating in order to make their body more noticeably slimmer than those around them, and what reportedly is becoming a quickly increasing phenomenon in the Middle East, undergoing facial plastic surgery.  If the face is the only thing still visible, altering it in order to make it more appealing makes the most sense.  Apparently rhinoplasty enjoys great popularity in Iran and other places, and anyone who watches Arab media knows that Arab women (and other Middle Eastern women) wear a great deal of make up (not all of them of course, but those who have adopted the idea that a woman’s worth is in her appearance).

One of my Saudi friends has often told me stories about how Saudi women, who have to cover their faces (with the exception of the eyes), often go to great lengths in order to have very extravagently made up eyes.

He said there are many jokes about a guy being lured in by a woman’s eyes, only to later find, after pursuing her for marriage, that her eyes were the only thing appealing about her – at which point it was too late to back out!

The lesson in all this is that the West is not the inventor of female sexual objectification and oppression.  Isolating oneself completely from the influence of Western countries does not mean you will be safe from all things evil.

No, on the contrary; the abuse and mistreatment of women is something that we are all capable of; its potential lurks in all of us.  This is why God has first asked men to lower their gaze, and second for women to cover.  If one fails, the other protective component will still be in place.  But, as shown by this particular study, Islam also emphasizes the importance of knowledge and intention behind each action.  Actions that are empty and ritualistic are worthless and a waste of time.  But actions done with full knowledge and understanding of the purpose and benefit behind it, and with the right intentions have reward both in this life and in the hereafter.  A woman who veils simply because she has to will not experience the full benefit of it.  In fact, any benefit she does receive may be viewed negatively (i.e. men aren’t staring at her lustfully anymore, which she perceives as negative since her value is increased and measured by such attention).  In contrast, a woman who veils because she wants to and because she understands and desires its benefits will indeed reap the full reward in this life by being treated for who she is as a person and not as a set of body parts, and will receive the reward in heaven as well.  Correct knowledge, pure intention, and action comprise the optimal combination we all should strive for.

With all that in mind, should a woman who covers merely because Islam has asked her to give up and refrain from doing so?  No, because she still receives benefit from it even if she may not recognize it as such.  Plus, as Imam Ali bin Abi Taleb (in Nahjul Balagha) has sagely stated (Bihar Al-Anwar, p. 196)), there are three types of believers.  The first is one who obeys God from fear of punishment.  The second is one who obeys from the desire for reward.  And the third is one who obeys God simply because they want to, not for any reward or escape from punishment, but because they recognize and fully understand that this is the right and true thing to do.  All of these are still believers, and all of them will go to heaven, but their outcomes are all slightly different.  The first will escape punishment but may not have collected much reward in heaven (although there is still reward for doing the right thing), the second will gain a great deal of reward in heaven, and the third will gain reward both in the world and in heaven (despite not seeking either one!).

Indeed, God is the most merciful and the most wise.

Advertisements

Some Advice for American Mosques

So… today while I was running on the treadmill, since it was overlooking a large gymnasium, I was passing the time by watching a scrimmage basketball game.  My mind began wandering and I began thinking about how churches are so efficiently organized, as so many of them have organized basketball teams, softball teams, volleyball teams, and so on.  They provide an essential aspect of life for the community: social connectivity.

The mosques I’ve been to in the US seem to be very disorganized, with ethnic in-fighting causing overwhelming disunity.  I even visited the largest mosque in North America, and felt very disappointed by the disorganization, lack of decent sound equipment, and overall disrespect by those listening to the lecture.  I had a very hard time hearing the speaker because I was surrounded by chattering women, with kids running up and down the aisles.  When the lecture finished, everyone began pushing and shoving in order to get outside; it was a frightening experience!  This mosque probably had several hundred people in attendance, but I’ve been to churches equally as big, if not bigger, and never have I seen pushing and shoving!!

I’ve often wished that mosques would just take a look at how churches are organized and run in the US, and follow suit.  Why not, after all?  If they are doing something that works, why not model your organization after it?  Churches are extremely well-run and provide an important social function in the lives of many Americans.  Growing up in church, I can personally attest to the fact that a lot of people go to church and church events, not because they’re particularly religious, but because they enjoy connecting with others in a clean environment, having their physical, spiritual, social needs met, and giving back to the community as well by donating their time and specific skills when needed.

Unfortunately, in the US, people are so isolated and distant from each other that their social outlets are confined to only certain situations: bars/clubs/parties, work (which has limitations), or church.  People who don’t go to church, but don’t want to participate in the club scene (such as Muslims), are highly ostracized and separated from the society at large as they have no way to integrate and connect with other people.

This is why I think it is imperative for mosques to step up and provide a social support system similar to what the church provides for so many Americans.

First, what mosques should do is address the physical needs of Muslims: have two fully functioning fitness facilities for both the women and the men – and don’t skimp on the equipment for the women (particularly the cardio equipment)!  Giving the men a place to exercise that is free from the distraction of half naked women would be a refreshing alternative from the regular gyms.  Providing women with a secure place to work out and being able to wear whatever they like will help women to branch out physically and not be inhibited due to the requirements of modesty.  I exercise in a fitness facility 5x a week, and I can tell you that wearing pants, long sleeves, and covering my hair while running at a brisk speed for lengthy period of time is HOT AND HARD.  If mosques provided such services for their members, it would fulfill a huge need.

Once a mosque has a fitness facility, they could even branch out by addressing both the physical and social needs of its members by beginning intramural teams that could play against other church or community teams (often cities have an intramural league in which various organizations like churches, businesses, a group of friends, and so on form a team and sign up to play).  The mosque could even have a women’s volleyball team (I would totally play on that) and work on interfaith outreach by inviting other churches to start women’s only volleyball teams, and have the other teams come to the mosque for games so that the Muslim women’s modesty could be ensured.  The opposing teams could sign a waiver or something stating that they would respect the modesty of the women by having only females in attendance, no cameras, no taking pictures, etc.

In this way, people in the community could have a chance to see real Muslim women (and men) up close and personal, and see that they’re real people after all.  It would be a great way of spreading a positive image of Islam by breaking down the barriers of isolation many Muslims tend to put up.

Further, churches often have classes and various groups for people to be involved in that address their spiritual (and social) and mental needs.  The last church I attended had a divorce care class, a widow/widower class, a young married class (discussing the many common issues newly married couples face), an unemployed class (they talked about networking, interviewing, shared job tips, and helped one another commiserate), men’s classes, women’s classes, a parenting class (parents of small kids, parents of teens, etc.), a single’s class, a senior citizen class, and so on.  Each class was run sort of like group counseling (so there was a lot of discussion and participation of group members) and teaching integrated with the Biblical perspective all combined.  A mosque could have English classes (as do some churches), as well as Arabic classes (a HUGE need for reverts), basic Islam classes, interfaith classes in which they learn about various other faith traditions, and so on.

The sheikh or imam of the mosque doesn’t have to singlehandedly run all the classes, but he could oversee everything and have the class leaders appointed on a volunteer basis (and then of course, meet regularly with the leaders and ensure appropriate material is being used and so on).  In churches, getting volunteers has never seemed to be a problem in my experience, as people are eager to give their particular skills in service to God.

As many churches do, the mosque could also provide individual counseling services for individuals facing difficulty in their lives and want a trusted, Islamic perspective on the matter.  Finding qualified individuals to volunteer a little bit of their time would not be difficult – or the mosque could pay a few people to come in part time to offer their services (and maybe charge a minimal fee, like $5 or 10$ or something).  The mosque could also have a publicly available list of Muslim professionals in the area in a variety of fields so that members could get the Islamic-based services they need.

Other basic things: child care (to circumvent kids running rampantly during lectures and reduce the women chatting and hanging out instead of listening), and hey, how about a BULLETIN so that the members know what the lecture or activity is even about, and what time things are happening, who the speaker is, what is going on during the week in terms of activities and classes, last week’s attendance, how much people gave last week, and this year to date, and how much the mosque still needs and so on…

The proposal I had worked out in my mind as I was running was far more detailed than this, but I’m sure you get the idea.  Plus, it’s just my own fantasy after all, since I’m not in charge of a mosque (nor am I near one), I don’t have a large amount of money to donate to such a cause, and it may be too big a task for many of the ethnic Muslims to leave their sadly un-Islamic cultural practices at the door and come together to start to effect true change by first serving the local ummah, which will secondly have inevitable positive effects on the community at large.  People will see the Muslims being more active, more visible, a positive force, and people may be curious and come participate in some of the activities offered, just as many people do with church activities.

Well hey, here’s an idea: perhaps all of us reverts should get together and make our own mosque!  Unfortunately, many of us are so spread out that it would be hard… but not impossible.  InshAllah such a dream could be realized someday, and Allahu alim – God knows best.

Abortion: The Islamic View

Growing up as an Evangelical Christian, abortion was always something denigrated and preached heavily against as it constitutes the murdering of innocent children.  I have participated in Pro-Life rallies and protests, holding signs and shouting with everyone else.  I believed very earnestly that the mother made the choice to have sex – it was not the choice or the fault of the unborn child, who does have a soul (as David (as) says in Psalms that God knew us while we were still in the womb, and that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made”).

Yet this narrow view of abortion only accounts for some of the reasons why women choose to have abortions: some have abortions to save the mother’s life, or because the mother was raped (which was certainly not a choice on the mother’s part!), and so on.  Some of these women are in fact married and are not engaging in pre- or extra-marital sex, which may be shocking for some to realize (something never ever talked about at any of the churches and protests I went to!).

Upon converting to Islam, I automatically assumed these same beliefs held true for Muslims as well: no abortion whatsoever.  Yet, I was very surprised to learn that actually, Islam takes a contextual, realistic view of abortion, unlike the black and white stance of Christians.

In fact, the Quran even weighs in on the ever-contested debate of when (or if) a human fetus has a soul: derived from Surah Mo’mineen, Islamic jurists have ruled that abortion before the 4th month is permissible IF the mother’s life is in danger.

Why favor the mother’s life  over the baby’s life?  Well, Islam follows the principle of choosing “the lesser of two evils.”  When you’re faced with only two choices, both of which are bad, you have to go with the ‘least’ bad.  In the case of a pregnant woman whose life is in danger, saving her life is better because she may have other children dependent on her, a family, a spouse, relatives, loved ones.  She is already well-established and known in this world, so to lose her would cause a great deal more heartache and trauma than that of the unborn, still unknown baby.  Plus, if we favor the baby’s life over the mother’s, then who will care for the baby?  The baby will be an orphan, and runs a very high risk of having a difficult life.

Some Islamic jurists have even ruled that abortion to save the mother’s life can take place at any time during the pregnancy, even after the 4 month time frame.  In fact, I’ve been told that this is the case in Saudi Arabia: a pregnant woman can go to a hospital and have an abortion upon discovering that her life is in danger, at any time during the pregnancy.

I’ve also read that some jurists have stated that a woman who has been raped may also abort the baby, although not everyone agrees, as opponents believe that baby falls into the same category as a baby with defects or handicaps (for which abortion is not allowed).

The issue of abortion is yet another clear example of the Islamic emphasis on logic and reason working in harmony with faith.  It is not a stark black and white issue; rather, just like all else in life, it is an issue that requires context and logic.  Religion should not stand in opposition to logic and intellect – God is the Creator of reason, so most certainly, His religion would not oppose His natural system.  SubhanAllah (glory to God).

Prayer for Seeking Refuge from Sins of the Self

Prophet Muhammad (saws) often said that the greatest jihad is the jihad an-nafs, the struggle with the self.  None of us, from the very poorest to the richest and most famous, can escape the trial and torment of struggling with ourselves, trying to stay on the middle, moderate path, attempting to avoid slipping into extremes of too much or too little.

A supplication (prayer) I often read is one by Imam Ali bin Hussain, otherwise known as Imam Zain al-Abideen (‘the best of worshippers’) and Imam as-Sajjad, or the ‘prostrating imam’.  Although this particular supplication is not lengthy, each word is so eloquently put that I could not say it better myself, nor could I come even remotely close to doing so, mashAllah.  Each word is so powerful and meaningful, and each phrase speaks exactly to situations I constantly find myself fighting against.

Supplication for Seeking Refuge

O God,
I seek refuge in Thee from the agitation of craving,
the violence of wrath,
the domination of envy,
the frailty of patience, the lack of contentment,
surliness of character,
urgency of passion,
the disposition to vehemence,

following caprice,
opposing guidance,
the sleep of heedlessness,
undertaking the toilsome,
preferring falsehood over truth,
persisting in sin,
making little of disobedience,
making much of obedience,

vying with the wealthy,
disparaging the poor,
guarding badly over those in our hands,
failing to thank those who have done good to us,

aiding a wrongdoer,
abandoning someone troubled,
wanting what is not rightfully ours,
and speaking about knowledge without knowing.

We seek refuge in Thee from harboring dishonesty toward anyone, being pleased with our works, and stretching out our expectations.

We seek refuge in Thee from
ill-mindedness,
looking down on the small,
Satan’s gaining mastery over us,
time’s afflicting us,
and the sovereign’s oppressing us.

We seek refuge in Thee from acting with prodigality and not having sufficiency.

We seek refuge in Thee from the gloating of enemies, indigent need for equals, living in hardship, and dying without readiness.

We seek refuge in Thee from
the most dreadful remorse,
the greatest affliction,
the most wretched wretchedness,
the evil end to the journey,
the deprivation of reward,
and the advent of punishment.

O God,
bless Muhammad and his Household and through Thy mercy, give to me refuge from all of that, and to all the faithful, both men and women!

O Most Merciful of the merciful!

Other supplications of Imam Ali bin Hussain can be found here:

http://www.duas.org/sajjadiya/sajjadiya.htm

How to Treat Adversaries

SubhanAllah, God has left no stone unturned and no subject untouched within the vast knowledge and wisdom of Islam.

I have often heard about Imam Zain al Abideen’s (as) treatise on rights and have put it on my list of things to look up when I got a chance.  His treatise on rights were written around 700 AD, long before any Western treatise on human rights (for instance, the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights was written in 1948).  Well, I finally got around to looking it up to see what exactly he had to say.  And of course, I was not disappointed.  Although the imam (who was the son of Imam Hussain, who was the son of Imam Ali – as) covers every single thing that has rights (which makes it pretty lengthy), I wanted to share one in particular.

The Right of an Adversary:

“The right of the adversary (khasm) who has a claim against you is that, if what he claims against you is true, you give witness to it against yourself. You do not wrong him and you give him his full due. If what he claims against you is false, you act with kindness toward him and you show nothing in his affair other than kindness; you do not displease your Lord in his affair. And there is no strength save in God.”

So in other words, if someone accuses you of something and it is true, then you have to be honest and admit that it is true.  You do not try to do anything bad to him or attempt to cover the truth, but simply give him what is fairly owed.

In contrast, if someone accuses you of something and it is false, you should nevertheless be kind to him (not angry or spiteful), and don’t allow yourself to commit any sins because of this person.

Now of course, our adversaries are not only those who bring a complaint about us – sometimes we have complaints about others, and how we should treat them is mentioned as well.

The right of the adversary against whom you have a claim is that, if your claim against him is true, you maintain polite moderation in speaking to him and you do not deny his right. If your claim is false, you fear God, repent to Him, and abandon your claim.

In other words, if your accusation is true, then you should be polite (not arrogant or boastful) when dealing with them, and make sure that you are fair.  However, if you are wrong, you should retract your position out of respect and love for God.  Reputation,  face, honor, pride, dignity – none are important in the light of pleasing God and avoiding sin.

Whether we like it or not, the reality of life dictates that we will certainly find ourselves at odds with others.  An adversary isn’t only someone we barely know, as those we find ourselves in conflict with range from a rude clerk at the store, to a co-worker, a boss, a friend, or even a family member (i.e. a parent!).  Knowing how to deal with such individuals appropriately will ensure that you will be able to walk away with the knowledge that you did what was right, and even if the affair was not resolved peacefully (i.e. the other person is still unhappy), you know that you did your best before God.

Imam Zayn al-Abideen’s (as) Treatise on Rights can be found here: http://www.iec-md.org/IECE/religious/treatise_on_rights.html

American Domestic Terrorism

Although Western media has programmed us all to automatically associate terrorism with Islam, terrorism is certainly not under sole proprietorship of extremist so-called ‘Muslims’.  In fact, Christian terrorism is alive and well in the US to this day, in the form of several different organizations.  The abortion clinic bombings and murders of doctors and staff (one such murder occurred just last year: Dr. Tiller was gunned down while he was in church, of all places) are good examples of present-day Christian extremism.

I recently watched a documentary chronicling one Christian extremist group closely involved with many of the bombings and murders that took place in the 1990s.  It’s very interesting to see how they justify killing others for the sake of God, and even how they apply a great deal of psychological pressure one young member in particular to engage in violence.

I’ll post it here so you can watch it for yourselves:

Lower the Gaze: the Impact of the Gaze on Females

“Tell the believing men to lower their gaze and be modest. That is purer for them. Lo! Allah is aware of what they do.”

Quran 24:30

Lowering the gaze is an act both male and female Muslims are encouraged to do (the verse just quoted goes on to include the importance of females lowering the gaze as well); the reason for which is often cited as protection against sinful thoughts and later down the road, sinful actions.  In short, since the gaze is the gateway for further potential sin, lowering your gaze protects YOU.

However, research shows that the male gaze affects more than the self – it has serious deleterious effects on the female recipient of the gaze.

Sexual gazing is an accepted part of Western society, as it has long been deemed “the socially sanctioned right of all males to sexualize females, regardless of age or status” (Westkott, 1986 – quoted in Fredrickso & Roberts, 1997).  Sexual objectification in Western society is rampant, and often the most common manifestation of this is through the gaze.  Women are socialized from birth to believe that they are not actual people valued for who they are intrinsically, but are bodies that “exist for the use and pleasure of others” (ibid), and so are accustomed to constant scrutiny.

Studies have found that women are gazed at more than men, and male gazing is commonly accompanied by sexual comments.  Further, women of color are often the object of more degrading, sexual commentary than White women.  This type of behavior is reinforced in the mass media, as advertisement analyses show that males gaze directly at females far more than the reverse, often resulting in what the advertising industry has termed the “anchored drift,” in which a male stares at or monitors a female who is daydreaming or looking off into the distance (ibid).

The impact of the male gaze has been found to have serious affects on females in research.  One such study (Calogero, 2004) revealed that the male gaze results in the female experiencing significantly more feelings of shame and embarrassment about her body.  In fact, a female does not have to actually experience the male gaze; only imagining or anticipating a male gaze triggers the same negative psychological response.  Further, other research indicates that body shame is correlated with eating disorders and depression.

So in sum, males indulging in gazing and staring at females causes real harm!  Although the practice of looking at and visually evaluating women is deeply ingrained in Western society, God, in all His unending wisdom, has asked us to resist cultural influences and lower our gaze.  Indeed it is “purer” for the males as they can help prevent inappropriate thoughts and temptations to commit indecent actions, and males lowering their gaze is “purer” for females too, as lowering the gaze protects them from serious, long-lasting psychological and physical damage.

Social science researchers express a great deal of alarm at the way in which Western society sexually objectifies females, and engage in much discussion and research in order to find solutions.  Yet, Islam has given us a very simple solution that if each of us practiced, this awful culture of systematic oppression against women would be quickly decimated.


EDIT: In looking for a photo for this post, I had a very difficult time finding one of a man with downcast or closed eyes!  I found many of women or girls, and finally gave up and chose this one of a boy with his eyes closed.  Indeed, this is real evidence that the male gaze is highly promoted in the media when hardly any photos exist of males NOT gazing!