Women who appear to be physically large are considered unhealthy, while slimmer women are generally thought of as healthy. As a result, slimmer females are discouraged from being concerned about their health, and this leads to a further decline in physical activity amongst these women.
When visiting the gym or fitness center, the last thing most people would expect to see is a Hijabi wearing the sweatsuit version of an Abaya, running on the treadmill, and holding the machine with one hand while trying to fix her scarf with the other. While this startling scene demands that the Hijabi gym-goers are given full points for their efforts, we are left with a further intriguing question: how exactly do the majority of Muslim women in the West keep fit?
Quite frankly, we don’t keep fit. Or we try to, but are unsuccessful. Some may argue that “Muslim women are just as physically active and fit as non-Muslim women”, but a quick analysis of the members of the Muslim community and all those body pains, migraines, heart diseases, and generally poor health will show that we too are part of the alarmingly unfit society we live in. (The US has been ranked the most obese nation in the world, with one in four children being overweight or obese.) It is therefore of utmost importance for us to investigate the causes.
There are multiple theories as to why Muslim women and girls are generally less active than our non-Muslim peers, particularly in the West. Aliza Syed, 17, said she believes that the majority of popular sports offered at schools and local teams are inflexible when it comes to the Hijab requirements of Muslim girls, and hence we are disqualified from participating. Syed said, “I really like soccer, but I couldn’t play for a team as players are required to wear shorts. The same thing goes for netball, since we can’t wear sport skirts.” Syed also said she believes that mixed-gender activities play a role. She said, “Because some activities such as Karate are usually a mixed-gender sport, Muslim parents don’t feel comfortable letting their children take part.”
Sabica Gulani, who says she has always been curious about why many Muslim women hardly exercise, said she thinks that “Muslim women often feel uncomfortable exercising and working out around males, so out the widow goes the option of running around the block every morning or going to a mixed gym.” Female-only gyms are an alternative to mixed-gender gyms; however, there are multiple drawbacks of such an option. Besides the fact that single-gender gyms are more expensive, many female-only fitness centers have large glass windows surrounding the work-out area, making it rather counterintuitive for Muslim women.
Another issue is that there is a lack of understanding among many Muslim families about what exactly constitutes “healthy”. Women who appear to be physically large are considered unhealthy, while slimmer women are generally thought of as healthy. As a result, slimmer females are discouraged from being concerned about their health, and this leads to a further decline in physical activity amongst these women.
At just 19, a teenager who was health conscious and tried to eat healthy has lost all motivation for working out and being active. “I was interested in working out and getting fit,” she explained. “But then everyone kept saying that I look slim and that it would be pointless to go through the trouble of having to work out. Now I’m just plain lazy, and can’t be bothered dong anything.”
According to another young Muslim woman, many housewives generally abuse their leisure time, and this is the causing agent of their poor fitness levels. “I salute those Muslim mothers who sacrifice their careers and education in the way of bringing up righteous and good children, but sometimes they get a bit carried away,” she said. “Most stay-at-home moms don’t exactly spend their time at home very actively. They do a bit of housework, and out comes the good 15 hours of relaxation. Depressingly, half of these women manage to put on a few dozen pounds over the long run. But it’s not just about being physically large – and unattractive to their husbands, for that matter. Even the slimmer and younger housewives complain of back pains, dizziness, feeling tired and all that stuff.”
She also thinks that children have to pay the toll of having unfit mothers. “Out of shape mothers are less likely to be active with their children, and as a result, many Muslim children, particularly those of South Asian backgrounds, miss out on having that ideal fun and energetic mother,” she said.
There are also spiritual drawbacks of being unfit. It’s much harder to make up for missed fasts, and when it comes to Hajj, some women feel as though they have not experienced the trip to its full potential. “I wish I was healthier when I went for Hajj, perhaps I could have been fit enough to climb Mt. Hira and visit the prophet’s cave or do a few more Umrahs,” said one Muslim girl. “I think it really pushed my patience when I saw other, more fit girls getting so much more done during the day, while I had to go back to the hotel to rest every few hours .”
Inactivity, when coupled with the appetizing (and equally unhealthy) daily diets of most cultural Muslim families, gives rise to many health risks and dangers. Studies show that Muslim females who migrate to the West are more susceptible to diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and a raised cholesterol level. Suffering from weight problems is also a familiar crisis when it comes to Muslim women, and this can create difficulties and health complications later on life, for example, during pregnancy.
Being unhealthy doesn’t necessarily mean being overweight. Constantly feeling lethargic and unenergetic, easily out of breath, and having little strength (i.e. struggling to do simple things such as lifting grocery bags) are all indications of being out of shape. The younger generation is comparatively fitter than the older cohort; however, this doesn’t mean we are fit enough.
Time constraints with work, education, family responsibilities, and leisure activities usually make it hard to schedule a time to have work-out sessions during the week. But there are few general ways that Muslim girls and women can keep fit.
All that is needed is a 30-minute walk every day. Walking during breaks at work or school is an option, but if you’re the type who would rather eat lunch, then perhaps investing in a cheap treadmill and running on it while watching TV is a better option. Skipping rope for 15 minutes every day is also very beneficial, as it really gets the heartbeat going. Most unfit people are only able to skip at a moderate speed for two minutes before they feel tired, so aiming to increase your skipping time by a minute every few days is an achievable goal.
For the Muslim girls who don’t find any suitable sports to play, it’s a good idea to bring up the topic with the in-charge of the local Islamic center and see what they can arrange. Women-only swim sessions at public pools are becoming more popular in Western countries, especially as not only Muslim women with Hijab requirements, but also non-Muslim women who are unsatisfied with their body shape and size, are often in need of such facilities. Consider arranging sisters-only sporting events at local gyms or courts, such as basketball, tennis, or soccer.
Eating almost anything in moderation is fine. There is no need to go on a starvation diet (as many young girls do) for a few days, as all that does is make your body go on starvation mode, and your body tries its best to store all the energy from carbohydrates rather than using it as it prepares for the shortage. One keep-healthy tip is to consume the majority of your carbohydrates during the first half of the day, as that is when you will be burning it off. Keep dinners light and healthy, perhaps a salad. Basically, in order to maintain a healthy weight, minimize carbohydrate intake during your most inactive hours of the day.
If you have a sweet tooth, it’s fine to snack on things like chocolate and candy and soft drinks every now and then. Keep up the fluids by drinking plenty of water, eat lots of fruits and vegetables, and be sure to avoid too many fatty or salty snacks.
As always, be sure to consult with your primary care physician or a nutritionist if you have specific questions about your eating habits and overall health.