Sep 162016

desk-1148994_1920by Alia Azmat

This Ramadan I made a pact with myself, to take care of myself. I stretched myself, I have been challenging myself, but perhaps not in the way you might imagine. I have not attended taraweeh every night. A few days I did not wake up to reap the rewards of suhoor, the predawn meal. One day I even made the conscious choice to listen to music instead of Quran on a long drive home. This Ramadan, I asked myself to be realistic, to be present, to be honest with myself about the mental habits I engage in which destroy my body and spirit. I asked myself to be honest with myself about the habits which prevent me from connecting to my Lord sincerely.

Early in the month, I was added to a WhatsApp group where I was asked to introduce myself and share something I consider beautiful others may not. Silence, particularly those “pregnant pauses” and the silence we do not afford ourselves during our busy days and packed schedules, is beautiful to me. Silence, when we are present enough with ourselves and our loved ones to ask “how is your haal (condition) today?” Silence, gives us permission to mess up as we answer the calls of our hearts. It gives others an opportunity to reach out, kindly, softly, either with their gaze, their touch, a smile, or statement, saying “it is okay” to stumble and fall through the fear of becoming.  Silence, when I allow myself to check in with myself in the morning (or in mourning), the late afternoon, right before Iftar, meal to break the fast — silently praying – “it was a difficult day today, but tomorrow I will try again for you my Lord.” Silence, when I am able to tell culturally constructed demons named self-loathing, perfectionism, the push for “productivity,” to take a back seat as I finish my final rakah (unit of prayer) or a particularly gluttonous dinner.

Still, silence, at times, can be scary.

When I am alone with these thoughts, reflecting on how and why these “basic” Ramadan tasks are difficult for me, I confront the devils God didn’t lock up.

I am single. Why do I not think God is enough for me?
Instead, how I can be useful and supportive to other sisters like me?
I am studying. I resent summer school and sweltering through summer humidity.
But consider what opportunities God has given me (even through grad school poverty).
I am safe. What does it mean for me to show solidarity?
What do I do with the privilege of emotional safety. How can I accept I may never know  another’s   experience intimately?

This Ramadan, I asked myself to sit with my guilt. For not praying more, for not observing more traditionally, for not being better to my parents. For me, these are true moments of reflection, of growth, of rebirth; but they are painful and uneasy.

This Ramadan I made a pact with myself, to take care of myself. God has given me the gift of intellect, of opportunity, of sincerity and concern for my community. What good am I to others if I push myself unrealistically, instead of reflecting and taking accountability? What do I lose in my relationship with Rabbul Alameen, Lord of the Worlds, when I reject spiritual sustenance, spiritual self-care, spiritual sustainability?

God is forgiving. But God is not only Forgiving in Ramadan. While we believe Allah’s mercy is multiplied 70x in this Holy month, I want to believe His mercy could also be extended towards myself this month.

My fast will not look like your fast. And there are many ways to fast in this holy month. What would it mean for you to be honest with yourself this Ramadan? What is required of you to continue talking with Allah after the month is over? Kindness, self-acceptance, a prayer buddy, maybe one less (or more post-taraweeh) coffee? Spiritual self-care is not about overextending. Meet yourself this month where you need to be. Forgive yourself if it is not where you used to be.

So what does spiritual self-care look like? I implore you to figure it out with me this month and beyond–here are just a few reflections on what it could mean:

  • God says “I am as my slave expects Me to be.” When you give yourself permission to make mistakes, you are humbling yourself — God is the only flawless, perfect Being. Giving permission to yourself to “mess up” in and outside of this month implies you trust God and choose to believe in His Mercy over His wrath.
  • Self-care can often sound “selfish.” Explore the stigma surrounding this word. In writing this I had to address how uncomfortable it was to write about “me, me, me.” It feels egotistical, it feels self-centered, at times it feels spoiled and indulgent. But when everyone around us is telling us not to celebrate ourselves and our achievements, maybe a radical Ramadan is simply saying “thank you God, for shaping me, for blowing ruh into me, for taking the time to fashion me individually.” And yet “to know yourself is to know your Lord.” Perhaps our “selfish” reflections can be reframed as acts of self-assessment. Since we are asked “to call yourselves to account before you are called to account.”
  • On that note, there may not be one right or wrong way to reflect and call ourselves to account. I want so desperately for someone to tell me “THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT. THIS IS HOW YOU TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF.” My challenges will look different than a mother taking care of her children, different than someone who just had, or lost a child — negotiating grief, roles, and expectations in the family. My struggles as a student in the Midwest, look very different than those working 9-5 jobs outside, or even inside, in the blazing Phoenix heat. Finally, for those who are unable to fast, for those managing visible and invisible conditions, such as PTSD, anxiety, eating disorders, chronic pain, or other medical conditions the collective Ramadan experience can be trying.

What I can share is what taking care of myself has looked like in the past: I’ve called friends, baked and shared sweet treats, let myself cry, writing poetry and taking time off social media to reengage with myself meaningfully. Others have told me spiritual self-care sometimes looks like not bringing a home baked item to an iftar party (GASP!), saying no to additional responsibilities at work, and not attending taraweeh in exchange for a good night’s sleep. The test here in my opinion is to accept ourselves and others when we make these decisions.

  • Spiritual self-care acknowledges burnout. Therapist, psychologists, social workers, activists and others in the “helping fields” are told at the start of their work/programs, “to take care of yourself.” We need to be nourished. Ramadan in many ways reminds us we cannot do it ourselves. We must allow others to lend us a hand. This can be particularly difficult for women I think. We are socialized to believe we can do it all. Without struggling or silencing ourselves and our suffering. Although we accept food from neighbors; we make efforts to eat and share together, we must similarly, trust and allow God and the other beloveds in our life to help us take care of ourselves.

As a woman, asking and accepting help is challenging for me. I wonder why I can’t do it all (and have a killer Instagram account…). Implicitly I’ve been told “this is your job,” “if you can’t do it all, you are doing it wrong.” This Ramadan I was reminded I have many people in my life I can trust to help me. But I realize not everyone has had similar experiences in their family or in their community. In being kind to ourselves we also allow space for us to be kind to others. To act with softness instead of shaming or humiliating individuals when they bravely reach out for assistance or worship differently.  As community members, sisters, friends, husbands, brothers, and spouses I think we need to be asking, “how can I help my loved ones take care of themselves?”

You are probably already asking God to forgive you during these last 10 nights. I wonder what it would be like to give yourself a moment of silence in moments of frustration…and forgive yourself. To reflect on yourself. I wonder what it would be like to ask God,

“What do I need to learn about myself to make my relationship [with you, with my parents, with my spouse, with my family, with your Holy Book, with myself, with humanity] BETTER – kinder, softer, more forgiving, more loving, more understanding?”

Say, “O My servants who have transgressed against themselves [by sinning], do not despair of the mercy of Allah. Indeed, Allah forgives all sins. Indeed, it is He who is the Forgiving, the Merciful (39:53).”

May God keep our hearts firm on the truth and allow us to fight for justice even if it is against ourselves, Ameen.

Alia is an Educator for HEART Women & Girls and is currently pursuing her PhD in counseling psychology.

May 042016

by Eman Hassaballa Aly

I have a vessel in me. I don’t know where it’s housed or how big it is, but I know when it’s full, because that’s when I get the urge to write.  Maybe it’s my inner pen, and it gets full of ink. Whatever it is, it’s full now and I’m ready to write.

I’d like it to be a rant, but rants are boring. Rants don’t do anything but stir people’s emotions and make them say “hell ya!” When I write, I want to empower people, and inspire people to find it in within themselves to make their situation better. I always tell my clients, that my job is to equip them with the tools to be able handle whatever is dealt to them.  Tools that I wasn’t fortunate enough to be given when I was more malleable and younger. It’s harder to change the older I get, but I still try.

I am a true believer of the right time and the right place for everything. Whether it’s people I meet, places I go, or things that happen to me, they always seem to happen at the perfect time for me.  Don’t think that I’m saying that there’s a unicorn in the sky somewhere sprinkling some magic dust on everything. But I do though believe that God is behind everything, and I am grateful when things work out perfectly and neatly. God and my jugular vein are like this *fingers crossed*. But I learned to not try to read the stars or signs too closely, or else it will drive me crazy.  Ultimately, what I’m trying to say it’s not a miracle that my belief has become my reality, because it was a gradual change in the perception that allowed it to happen.

So speaking of perfect timing, in the fall of 2015, I took an Islam and gender class at the American Islamic College, where I’m studying to be a chaplain. And it could not have come at a better time. Just like back in the spring and summer of 2014, I got through the Millennium Trilogy, which oddly enough primed me for one big test in my life, which was also a primer for the class. But that’s for another time and place. As usual, I digress. So this class was taught brilliantly by Dr. Shabana Mir, who was midway through her first semester at AIC. And I almost took this class my first semester, but that was neither the right time, nor the right teacher for me. Plus it was on the wrong day for me. I’m more aware of the subtleties surrounding issues of gender.  I’m not talking about space in mosques or on boards. I’m talking about the bits of patriarchy here and there that have crept into our books of law, the wolf of sexism that’s dressed in the sheep’s clothing of piety and the misogyny that is (ill) supported by the Text and Tradition that is either inauthentic, misinterpreted or taken completely out of context.

Even in my own maturity and development, I drank the patrichool-aid, and used to advocate some of these nonsensical (at least to me) ideas about what a wife should be according to Islam. In my defense though, I thought that would make me more marketable as a wife, since my weight was something that I was told would work against me. Thankfully, as I got older these, ideas were slowly getting replaced with ones that I think more accurately reflect the tradition I have grown to love. And with that life happening the tools I needed started to fill a mostly empty toolbox of life skills.

Misogyny, Sexism and patriarchy isn’t a Muslim problem, but it’s a problem for Muslims because it’s something that affects all humans, and believe it or not Muslims are humans too. Women still make 22 cents less to every dollar that a man makes. And there are countless articles about how women are forced to dumb themselves down, or put themselves down and so on and so forth. Recently, the Internet cracked a bit when Jennifer Lawrence asked why she makes less than her male co-stars? And this hilarious, but also sad blog post that really made me think about the way that I talk to people. I have become militantly intolerant of that kind of language from my girlfriends, and I’ve stopped saying sorry to people about things I’m not sorry for #sorrynotsorry. But here’s something else I stopped doing, I have stopped allowing people to mistreat me.

I’m not saying I get mistreated because I’m a woman, but I do carry three potential strikes with me all the time. I’m a fat Muslim woman.  These are three categories that are marks for discrimination. But again, I’m not saying that I get mistreated because of those either.

The reason I continue to get mistreated is because of my silence. I’ve learned in therapy why I become silent when someone harms me, much of it has to do with past trauma. My silence was the way I protected myself. It also silenced my ability to express myself, and that was also a protection for me. It was my way of showing people that whatever they said didn’t hurt me. Even though I may have been dying inside, my face wasn’t going to show any pain and I didn’t  even wince.  I attribute the lack of affect in my face that I have sometimes to that, and I feel like my facial expressions lack sophistication and nuance. So what the heck do I do about that?

So far it’s been a work in progress for me.  There’s been a lot of internal heart and soul work. It’s like gutting out and rehabbing a house. As soon as the floors are pulled up, it’s clear that there are some structural issues and something that’s central to the stability of the home has to be fixed. I watch a lot of HGTV. But the same thing applies to the self. I can treat the anxiety, and teach someone how to manage it on a surface level, but I have to get to the core of what causes the anxiety, or else when additional trauma occurs, the anxiety could potentially come back stronger.  I could not have come to realization that my silence was harming me, without all the previous work done before.

And to the one causing the harm, my silence somehow communicates that it is okay to continue the harm. Most people don’t intend to harm people. God protect us from those people.  Well-intentioned advice, a comment, an inquiry, an innocent suggestion or even a compliment can cause harm.  People sometimes project their own issues on others, and many people see the world through the lens of their own trauma or baggage. It’s not my quote, but hurt people hurt people.  And to understand that, I had to understand who I was and through what lens I saw the world.

And my heart-work continues. I know I said that I wanted to give you tools you can use to progress, and I just want to get the conversation going. The easiest way is for me to share my struggles and triumphs. I want to share my regression, too. It’s inevitable.  I also want to hear from you.  This kind of trauma won’t be healed in one post, not even in ten posts. Please leave a comment below.

Eman Hassaballa Aly works for the Health Media Collaboratory (HMC) at the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) as Director of Communications. Additionally, she works part-time for the Heartspeak Institute, a private practice that serves the Chicago Muslim community. Currently, she is pursuing her master’s degree in Islamic Studies at the American Islamic College and hopes to serve as a chaplain in the university setting.

May 042016

By Nadiah Mohajir and Hannah El-Amin

Breast pump and bottle of milk on the windowsillTo breast feed or bottle feed? Perhaps one of the most emotional – external and internal – dilemmas facing new mothers these days. Every few decades, new research comes out promoting the benefits of one or the other. I was born to a generation of mothers who were told that bottle feeding was superior to breast feeding, while my daughters were born to a generation of mothers who were told the opposite: that breast is best. In fact, we now live in a time during which workplaces, public spaces, and society in general are being encouraged to not only embrace breastfeeding, but enable and make it accessible and easier for all mothers who want to commit to the practice.

While there is always room for improvement for breastfeeding to be even more accessible and acceptable, it is hard to deny that it’s a great time for breastfeeding moms. One cannot also deny the benefits of breastfeeding: research shows that babies who are breastfed have greater immunity, decreased risk of obesity, increased IQ scores, along with benefits to the mother with decreased rates of certain cancers. Additionally, breastfeeding is highly encouraged in Islam and has spiritual and religious benefits as well. It is indeed true, breast is best. But what many breastfeeding advocates forget to add to that well known slogan, is that breast may only be best, under ideal circumstances. In other words, is breast really best if it comes at the expense of mom’s mental health? Moreover, has breastfeeding become the standard for what defines a “good mother?”

Despite the increased accommodations many work and public places are making for breastfeeding moms, keeping up with pumping can be exhausting. Add in work and home obligations, other older children the mother may have in addition to the baby, sleep deprivation, unsolicited advice from others implying that the baby is not getting enough, and anxiety and depression, not being able to keep up with breastfeeding often adds to a mother’s feelings of inadequacy, and pushing moms to great lengths to keep up with what is “best” for their baby. What results, more often than not, is that mothers – who already have this enormous responsibility to love and care and raise their baby to the best of their ability – conflate the pressure with keeping up with breastfeeding to being a good mother.

Motherhood and all that comes with it is not meant to be easy. Yet, doctors are seeing too frequently mothers who are coming in not only sleep deprived, but those dealing with chronic nipple pain, around the clock pumping, and severe anxiety and depression. A number of women have shared with me – both in my personal capacity and professional capacity – the guilt they are carrying with them when they realize their bodies (and sanity) can literally not sustain breastfeeding. Many have shared that they question the return on investment – despite continuous pumping, their bodies are not producing enough to sustain their baby. As told in this article, many also shared their regrets: that perhaps the hours spent pumping may have been better spent bonding or playing with their babies.

And so it is important to consider the following question: While breast is indeed best, does this theory consider the realities of being a new mother, especially if the mother is juggling multiple obligations such as work, home, and other children? My experiences with breastfeeding were different with each of  my children:

  • My oldest was born when I was just 23. I left my job and focused on being a mom. I exclusively breastfed her for a whole year. She hated breast milk through a bottle.
  • My second was born four years later, as I was finishing up graduate school. I began breastfeeding her and bottle feeding her breast milk. She went back and forth from bottle to breast beautifully, with no issues. Yet, we quickly discovered she had a milk allergy, and so her pediatricians gave me two options: special formula, or eliminating dairy from my diet. I decided to introduce her to the formula to get her used to the taste, while eliminating dairy from my diet. That dairy-free diet resulted in me losing so much weight I was under 100 pounds and had no energy by the time she was 6 months old, due to the dairy-free diet and my excessive pumping. I eventually gave in and switched her to formula full time.
  • My third was born when I was 31. He had horrible acid reflux and therefore cried most nights, and I had two older children in two different schools therefore was spending a lot of time in city traffic, and was also working close to full time. He was on breastmilk and formula from the beginning, and weaned himself when he was close to six months.

While anecdotal, these experiences demonstrate that it’s important to consider the unique circumstances with with each baby. It is no surprise that what I was able to offer at 23 as a stay at home mom was different than when I was older and had additional responsibilities. Often times, when mothers come to me and share their guilt of not being able to keep up with  breastfeeding, I encourage them to reflect on the following questions:

  • What are the other obligations I am juggling along with breastfeeding (work, other children, housework, volunteer obligations, family obligations etc)
  • Is my baby loved? Is my baby safe and happy and healthy? Am I bonding with my baby in other ways?
  • Is keeping up with breastfeeding/pumping interfering with my physical and mental health?
  • Is keeping up with breastfeeding/pumping interfering with my baby’s physical health (not gaining enough weight, etc)
  • Is keeping up with breastfeeding/pumping interfering with  my ability to meet the needs of my other loved ones, such as my husband or other children?

Many times, the answers to these questions lead to the mother asking: is breastfeeding worth it? The science is clear: the benefits of breastfeeding are incredible and doctors and public health campaigns should definitely promote it to increase the numbers of breastfeeding moms. Yet, it’s important to also remember that often times, these messages are promoted in such a way that breastfeeding becomes synonymous with good mothering. And while there are many benefits to breastfeeding, the most important one being nutrition, let’s remember that at the end of the day, nutrition is just one aspect of good mothering, and there are many options available to nourish an infant and many ways to bond. It’s important for health care providers, nutritionists, lactation consultants and mothers to work together to find the balance that is best for the baby – and mom – at hand.

Finally, if you find yourself struggling, but want to keep with the goal of breastfeeding exclusively, consider these:

  • Know you’re not alone. Find a friend you can talk to who’s been there or local or online parent support group.
  • Find a way to break free for a bit. Even if it’s just going out for a walk, especially early on when feeding demands are highest.
  • Make feedings pleasant. Indulge in a show. Keep some treats nearby. Light a candle. Put your feet up. Listen to audiobooks or music.
  • Take care of yourself first. It’s ok to let you little one wait a couple minutes while you finish eating. Nourishing yourself means nourishing him/her.
  • A little help can go a long way. Consult with a lactation consultant if you have ANY discomfort. Breastfeeding isn’t supposed to hurt. Insurance often covers this.
  • Treat yourself. You’re saving a ton by nursing. Treat yourself to that hands free pump, or something totally unrelated to nursing. Pumping can be passive and less stressful with products like Milkies, Freemie and other cool gadgets.
  • Be proud. Know that you should feel nothing but pride for whatever amount of breastfeeding you’re able to accomplish. You’re doing a great job. Know that you can choose to ignore and advice or criticism that doesn’t come from a professional.
Jan 142016

by Sameera Qureshi

The day after I moved to D.C., I attended a community event. I was a little early, having not figured out that Google Maps tends to over-estimate the amount of time it will take on the Metro to get somewhere (!!). Someone else had checked in for the event. I “Salaamed” them, we introduced ourselves, and I wandered into the bookstore section to browse while I waited.

The guy I had introduced myself to told me he needed to use the bathroom and would be back (too much information, I thought to myself). He then approached me and started to chat (something about being on someone’s campaign team, blah blah blah), not noticing that I was more interested in the books than what was spewing out of his mouth – which was a lot of self-endorsement. I then tried the “let me grab my phone” tactic to send him another hint since my short answers and flat affect weren’t doing the trick. But he still hung around, even looking at my phone and commenting “oh, wow, you’re so good at closing your apps when you’re done.

That was plain creepy and I started to lose patience with the space invader.

The event opened up and I took a seat at a table across from some women, since their table was full. The dude came and sat at my table. I turned my chair to face the women and introduced myself. We started chatting but it didn’t distract me from the fact that this guy was sitting at my table. There was an empty table behind the women, so I switched seats, and continued chatting with them until the event started.

The space invader was sitting by himself until he was joined by a friend. I wondered if he was a space invader too.

When the event was over, I was waiting to speak with the organizer, and the dude was waiting to take a photo with the speaker, a well-known Muslim (geez…). He then hovered close to where I was speaking with someone and when I was done, handed me his business card with his email address scribbled on the back. I forced a smile, said thanks, and he left.

I tore it up and threw it away before I headed out to the Metro station.

I’m sure this has happened to many people – someone is too clingy, resulting in awkward moments and trying to find a subtle way of saying “leave me alone!” before you actually have to say those words. For me, situations like this cause greater anxiety than perhaps for others. While I’m definitely dealing much better with past trauma, there are remnants I’m learning to cope with, and one is the feeling of safety when I perceive that my personal space is being invaded.

The part of the brain that is responsible for “gut” type feelings such as anger and fear is called the amygdala. It’s a primitive part of the limbic system (the emotional centre), developed pretty much at birth, and is subconscious in the way it perceives anger and fear. Childhood experiences play a large role in determining the sensitivity level of the amygdala (i.e. as does our time in-utero, genetics, etc). While the amygdala is somewhat under our control, since we can use the frontal lobe to change our thoughts to then change our feelings  (i.e. the prefrontal cortex for all of you brain nerds out there), adverse childhood events (called ACE) such as exposure to forms of violence, abuse, trauma, etc can impact it permanently. So while I’m definitely not triggered by situations as I used to be before EMDR therapy (see here for information), I do feel remnants of anxiety-like feelings in situations where I (i.e. my amygdala) perceive my personal space is being invaded.

Given the high statistics related to sexual assault/abuse (1 in 4 women by the age of 18, and 1 in 6 boys by the age of 18), there are many individuals within all communities who are living their lives with the aftermath of trauma. Within Muslim communities, this statistic holds strong. From my personal experience of running sexual health groups with young Muslim women, I’ve had approximately 40% of attendees in groups disclose that they have been sexually assaulted/abused. We are dealing with a very serious problem that no one seems to want to speak about. The impacts are numerous, and incredibly individualized at the same time. No two amygdalas are the same, and note that negative events are stored much stronger in our long-term memory than their counterpart positive memories.

The impact of trauma is numerous, but one that I am much more cognizant of (given the stage of life I’m in) is the impact on forming a relationship. While many people looking to get married have numerous qualities they’d be quick to rattle off about their potential spouse (I have a similar “list” as well), for me, safety is number one. If I feel as though my personal boundaries are already being invaded, or there’s a chance based on someone’s demeanour, behaviour, or how he initially treats me, the amygdala alarm goes off and it’s done. It can be as simple as something that was emailed or texted, to an action in person, to observing how someone acts in public around others. That person will either hear from me or see from me that I do not feel safe in his presence. Hence the clingy dude described above. I had to “escape”. Him being that close to me, without my permission, was making me feel agitated and restless. The only way to diffuse these feelings was to get out of the situation.

Which leads me to bring up the topic of consent – men don’t know enough about this concept, and Muslim men are not excluded. Consent is the notion that explicit permission must be gained from the other party before any sort of physical intimacy is initiated. It works both ways for men and women (note: I realize I’m using heteronormative language, since I’m writing about my own experiences). I believe that consent extends into entering someone’s personal space. The dude above didn’t ask if he could sit at my table. He didn’t attune to the fact that I was browsing books with my back turned towards him, walking away from him, and replying to messages on my phone, since he continued to attempt a conversation. Call this a lack of basic social skills or blatantly ignoring them, but it relates to consent. I don’t know who are you and you’re entering into my space without my permission.

I am very cognizant of the fact that one of the primary feelings I need to have in a relationship is that of safety. I’ve rehearsed in my head how to disclose my past trauma to someone when I need to/the time is right, for the sake of them understanding where I’m at and what I need to feel safe. I’m aware that my level of knowledge on trauma and sexual assault/abuse is perhaps higher than the average person, so I’ve even rehearsed how to break down the whole brain-body-memories connection in order to respond to the potential question of “but it happened so long ago!’ My needs around safety are non-negotiable, as they shouldn’t be for everyone. I would not waste time on someone who fails to understand that I can’t change what I’ve experienced, and I didn’t choose to live with the consequences of someone’s assertion of power and control over me.

Given the statistics of sexual abuse and assault I mentioned above, I know that there are many other Muslim women and men who are living with the aftermath of trauma. No two people respond the same to traumatic events, and thus I cannot extrapolate and generalize my experiences. However, I do hope to offer some tidbits of advice to anyone out there who is a survivor of trauma and is attempting to form a relationship or is currently in one and struggling:

1. Know what trigger points you have, if possible, think about the thoughts you’re having and how you feel as a result.

For example, I’d be triggered when I was running a child sexual abuse education program at my previous job. I’d also be triggered when I’d be standing in line at the grocery store or a cafe, and would perceive that someone was standing too close to me. I started to write down trigger points and the feelings (and thoughts) I’d have as a result. Cognitive awareness is incredibly important. Don’t analyze the triggers quite yet or judge how you feel – it’s all about writing down the facts. Trigger -> Feelings and Thoughts.

2. Explore if seeing a counsellor is something you’d benefit from outside of the support network of friends you have (if you’ve disclosed your trauma).

I knew I had to seek professional help a year and a half ago when being triggered was preventing me from doing my job without breaking down at home. The event would play itself in my head over and over again, and I could feel my muscles tensing up. I started seeing a counsellor who used a cognitive-behavioural approach. After six months, I didn’t feel as though it was making a difference. I then heard about EMDR through a colleague. Three sessions later and I can’t tell you the world of difference it made, I’m incredibly blessed. EMDR (Eye-Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) is worth looking into, it is very well researched and has great outcomes.

3. Know what you need from someone before getting into a relationship, or if you’re in one, how you plan to communicate your needs with your partner.

This can be incredibly challenging given that we’re all at different stages of dealing with our trauma (it’s not the same linear process for all survivors), with talking about it, and with being vulnerable in disclosing it. There’s no set way of doing this, it’s based on your comfort level, the point in the relationship that you feel it’s important to disclose your situation, your read of the relationship with the other person, etc. If you need support with this step, consider speaking with a close friend you trust about it, or call a hotline that specializes in supporting survivors. There are people out there who are willing to support you – including myself. Although I’m not a counsellor, just so you know!

4. Plan to communicate on a regular basis with your partner, as needed, to check in.

A healthy relationship requires constant and consistent communication – and how you’re feeling in the process of coping with trauma could be one of these topics. Of course, these conversations should only happen about aspects that are relevant to the current situation at hand, and based on your comfort level. Most of the time, they could be initiated by you, but if your partner checks in with you about what you’ve spoken about and your needs, that’s even better. If your relationship is at a point where professional help is needed, for any reason, definitely consider both attending counselling.

5. Take care of yourself!

I know this sounds cliche in every sense of the word, but I cannot emphasize enough how important it is to do what you want and need to do. Being triggered sends a cascade of the stress hormone cortisol flowing through your bloodstream. The effects of cortisol include increased heart-rate, agitation, tenseness, and so forth. Think about what would help you diffuse these feelings. Research indicates that the best way to deal with increased cortisol levels is physical activity. So whether you prefer a slow and meditative yoga class or a lactic-acid inducing HIIT session – do something movement related to help you in the moment. Then think about what other self-care strategies could help – including journaling (there’s a lot of research on writing and healing from trauma), speaking with a friend, expressive arts, going for a walk and getting fresh air, prayer, meditation, etc. Think of these activities as a toolkit to be used for both intervention and prevention purposes.

Having blogged before about sexual assault/abuse within the Muslim community, we’re not doing enough to educate children, youth and families; we lack spaces where survivors can feel safe getting the support they need; we don’t speak with young adults about consent and gender roles; and so much more. I am certain that there are couples out there in many different stages of their relationship where at least one party has been sexually assaulted/abused. I really hope that these individuals have the support they need. If you’re one of these individuals and you’re struggling, please reach out to me here or check out, a non-profit I’m contracted to work with. They offer a plethora of resources including “Ask a Question,” where trained experts in sexual health will answer or direct to resources anyone who has a question. It’s completely anonymous and free.

I pray that no one has to endure any form of trauma. Unfortunately though, sexual violence is rampant, and Muslims are not excluded. The least we can do is educate ourselves, and communities play a role in ensuring that members receive credible information – not only about sexual violence, but any and all forms of abuse. Just as communities focus on religious education, so too should they focus on social and health related education.

Sameera Qureshi is the Director of Education, Canada for HEART Women & Girls. For the last several years she led sexual health and sexual assault awareness programming for the Muslim community in Calgary and other Canadian communities. Most recently, she has moved to Washington, DC, where she hopes to continue similar programming. If anyone is interested in hosting an workshop or training in the DMV area (D.C., Maryland, and Virginia) for Muslims around sexual violence (i.e. across the lifespan and for any audience), please contact HEART at the web address above or comment on this post.

originally published on

Jun 042015

by Nadiah Mohajir

I’m seeing a lot of conversation since Caitlyn Jenner’s transition, in particular in faith communities and what “the faith has to say about it.” Let me first put it out there: I am no expert on transgender issues – movement wise or faith wise. So I speak to you as a community member.

I have been in a number of spaces with the LGBT community because of the work I do. While I don’t have all the answers about what the faith says about these issues, I do know this: this is a very real issue. Their struggles are very, very real and painful. Furthermore, most of the time, they are just the same as their heterosexual, cisgender peers –  they are good, honest people just wanting to make a space for themselves. Many of them yearn for a spiritual space, a community of people that they feel at home with, that shares their faith and love for God and His message, and people that they can count on to support them in their time of need, because you better believe they will return the favor.

Yet, what I’m seeing is this repeated rhetoric – from religious leaders as well as mainstream muslims – that this is unnatural, immoral, and should not be condoned. We practically criminalize this community of people for simply existing – and are very quick to do it. At the same time, we hesitate to criminalize those who should be criminalized – those abuse their power, who beat their wives and children, who sexually violate others, including and especially, children. Frankly, I can’t wrap my head around why that’s ok.

Regardless of what one feels and believes about LGBT people, as everyone is of course entitled to their own opinion and beliefs, I don’t understand why we have to speak in a way that clearly shuts them out, alienates them, pushes them further away. Believe in your heart what you want – but know that your words are extremely powerful and may have the impact on an individual’s emotional and mental well being: they might be in so much pain that they might leave their faith entirely. Or they might take their own life. That, is something we all are responsible for.

This is a reminder that we need to think about the spaces we are creating: Are they inclusive enough? Are they safe? Are they welcoming? If not, how can we work toward achieving a safer space? One where, though people may not agree with each other on certain issues, they recognize each other’s humanity and give them respect and integrity they each deserve.

I’ll say it again: this is a reality and their pain and struggle is very real. This is just one story of a transgender teen in California who just took his life. The poem he wrote that his mother shares in the end is just haunting. I’ve pasted it below as well.

My mirror does not define me:
Not the stranger that looks back at me
Not the smooth face that belongs to someone else
Not the eyes that gleam with sadness

When I look for him and can only see her.
My body does not define me:
Not the slim shoulders that will not change
Not the hips that give me away
Not the chest I can’t stand to look at

When I look for him and can only see her.
My clothes do not define me:
Not the shirt and the jeans
That would look so perfect on him
But that I know would never fit me

When I look for him and can only find her.
And I’ve been looking for him for years,
But I seem to grow farther away from him
With each passing day.
He’s trapped inside this body,

Wrapped in society’s chains
That keep him from escaping.
But one day I will break those chains.

One day I will set him free.
And I’ll finally look in the mirror
And see me–
The boy I was always meant to be.

– Kyler Prescott


Sep 152014

by Nadiah Mohajir

The recent news of Ray Rice and Janay Palmer has sparked much conversation around domestic violence, and what we as a community can do to address it and effectively support our survivors. Our last guest post, by Rabia Chaudry, explored the challenges many survivors face when dealing with intimate partner violence and why many cannot find a way out. She challenged us to start thinking about how we as a community can begin supporting our sisters through this. Yes, we have numerous legal and social services available to us in this country, but that is just one piece of the puzzle, and often sought out much later in the situation. This piece is a follow-up to Rabia’s post,  about what we can do to start creating safer communities – communities in which our women are not blamed, communities in which they feel safe and supported, and most importantly, empowered not just to help themselves, but to be a resource for each other.

Domestic violence is a reality in all our communities, and is not limited to only one racial, ethnic, religious or socioeconomic community. 1 in 4 women experience domestic violence in her lifetime, and over 1.3 million are victims of physical assault by an intimate partner. Despite these large numbers, most cases of domestic violence are never reported to the police. The reasons that survivors do not leave abusive situations or do not seek legal or social services are many and quite complex. In addition to barriers such as financial dependency, shame and isolation, Rabia and others have pointed out the numerous cultural barriers, including but not limited to:

  • love for their partner and not wanting them to face legal consequences such as jail time
  • fear of being separated from children, or taking their children away from their father
  • religious and cultural pressures to stay married
  • believing that they deserve to be treated that way
  • believing that its their husband’s right to be controlling
  • no support from family and friends

That being said, it is likely that there are survivors in our immediate social circles and families. Often, we may even notice something is not right, but look the other way in order to honor the other person’s privacy. Many times, we hesitate to get involved or ask questions on matters between a husband and wife. Other times, someone may reach out to us, but simply handing them a business card for a therapist or the hotline for domestic violence isn’t enough. We must do more to empower our sisters, as many don’t seek professional services until they find themselves very deep in a bad situation. Rather, we should be doing our part as community members to support these survivors and create spaces for them where they feel safe, and empowered to do what they need to take care of themselves and their families well before the professional, legal and social services enter the equation. Our role in the community is to offer support and resources, not to offer advice or issue fatwas (legal rulings). Everyone’s situation is very different, and the challenges they face in such circumstances are very complex, and it is essential for our community members, religious leaders, and others to be equipped to deal with this situation with delicacy, sensitivity, and expertise.

Below, I have included some steps we can all start to take to create these environments and safe spaces that welcome those in need to reach out to us. The underlying attribute as we practice the tips below should be that of mercy and kindness.

Practice reflective listening. This is a very important skill and first step to building healthier communities and relationships. Reflective listening involves being present when the other person is talking to you, not interrupting them, and then repeating what they said to you, so they know you heard and understood them. It also helps you clarify from them what they are looking to get from you – whether it’s just a listening ear, or whether they need you to do something specific. Finally, validate and affirm what they are feeling. Simple statements such as “it is normal and not surprising you feel scared” or “you’re doing the responsible thing by speaking with someone, and know you are not alone” can seem like insignificant gestures on your part, but are incredibly important for a survivor to hear and internalize as she works through her situation.

Affirm and validate. If someone reaches out to you about an abusive situation, the worst thing you can do is not believe them. As mentioned earlier, there are so many barriers a survivor faces when seeking help – stigma & shame, re-traumatization, risking family relationships, and many more – that doubting their story dismisses the bravery and courage and fear they must be feeling as they reach out to you. While often times society has responded to abuse situations as “alleged” and “innocent until proven guilty” and accused the survivor of embellishing or fabricating the story, this is typically not the case. Research shows that false allegations of rape and domestic violence are far and few between – only about 2-10% of cases are due to false allegations.

Free yourself of blaming and shaming the survivor. Often, people are quick to pass judgment on a woman who hasn’t left an abusive situation. This results in further increasing the unnecessary guilt the survivor may be feeling, and does not empathize with the numerous possible reasons she is trying to make her relationship work. While there are numerous reasons women may not leave abusive relationships, one of them may be because they are in a premarital relationship and will further compromise their own reputation in a community that does not approve of premarital relationships. Remain objective and remove your personal judgment. Remember, everyone has a unique story. You may not agree with the path they may have taken, but nonetheless, they took it and you can only encourage them to make informed decisions and feel supported.

Maintain their privacy (and your own!). This goes without saying, but often time people are hesitant to reach out to others because they don’t trust that their privacy will be maintained. Unfortunately, when situations such as domestic violence incidents do get exposed, there are many who discuss the situation and make numerous assumptions that are likely untrue or embellished, and more importantly, don’t respect that privacy is something that is crucial to maintain in this situation to avoid shaming, blaming, or re-traumatizing the survivor.

Be resourceful. Familiarize yourself and your family with the legal and social services in your community, should you need to direct someone to them.  Have conversations with the members of your family on what they can do should they have someone reach out to them on a certain issue. Teach your children to be resourceful for their peers. Of course, one person can not be all-knowing of everything that is out there, so acknowledge your limitations but be willing to help them find the resources and information they are looking for using your contacts in the community and the wealth of information on the internet.

Assess your privilege.  Often times we are surprised when someone reaches out to us for help. Numerous assumptions may cross our minds, including a disbelief and judgement about why this person hasn’t removed themselves from the situation. This is where it is important to check your own privilege. It is important to remember that there are plenty of factors and experiences in an individuals’ life that can impact their ability to access information and resources in safe and empowered way, and that you may have certain privileges that may facilitate you to operate in a different way in that circumstance.

Don’t ask why she hasn’t left. Ask why he’s being abusive. How we respond to situations of domestic violence has a significant impact on the environment we are creating and whether survivors feel safe and empowered to seek help. We are also setting an example for the people around us, especially for young boys, on how to hold the perpetrator, who is often male, accountable. Whether we hear of a domestic abuse situation through the media, or whether it is something closer to home, a situation of a friend or family member, it is crucial to continuously hold the perpetrator accountable, and ask why they are being abusive, and not focus on the survivor’s response (or lack of response). By asking the right questions, we not only hold the perpetrators responsible, but we also free the survivor of guilt and blame, which may be exactly what they need to feel empowered and validated to seek help.

Honor cultural and religious context. There are numerous cultural and religious experiences that often contribute to a survivor’s ability or inability to leave an abusive situation. The reason that a survivor may be reaching out to you is because they might feel as if you understand their cultural and religious context yet can relate to their experiences, even if they operate differently from you. There are also numerous cultural myths and misinformation that are rampant in the faith-based communities that not only perpetuate uninformed communities, but may also contribute to violence, misogyny and patriarchy. While it is important to address these myths and misinformation and offer accurate information, the manner with which you do it is key. Addressing these issues with great understanding, mercy, and empathy is essential. Remember, as much as you may dislike a cultural value or attitude, it may be something the individual holds on to and deeply respects. Whenever you are addressing a question that an individual has asked, always ask yourself the following questions: What is your role in this process? Is it ethical for you to challenge and question their cultural understanding? What would be the impact of you doing so? Raise awareness about the issue and correct misinformation, but without making the individual feel judged or stupid for holding such a value or belief.

If you see something, say something. Too many times, we may know something about a perpetrator’s past but won’t say anything to anyone as they embark on a new marriage or relationship, perhaps out of fear of getting involved in a private matter, or perhaps out of respect for the Islamic tradition that encourages Muslims to cover their own sins as well as others. While it is true that we must protect our fellow community members and not expose their sins, it is important to note that this does not need to be honored if someone else may be harmed by this information.  In other words, if you know that a member in your community has a history of being the perpetrator of abuse in past marriages or relationships, then do not keep this information to yourself, especially if you are consulted about this person’s character. There have been a number of domestic violence incidents in the past that could have been prevented had the community members not stayed silent about the perpetrators. Of course, speaking up against something like this requires much courage and can also be dangerous, so involve the right people if you need to, such as an imam or another community leader. There are a growing number of imams who are refusing to perform the marriage ceremony of a known abuser.

Creating safe communities and supporting survivors is not easy, and can be incredibly intense work. In working actively to create these communities and take care of others, it is crucial to remember to practice self-care. Do what you need to take care of yourself as you take on the important task of supporting others, and remember that this is a collective effort, and should never fall on the shoulders of any one person.



Jul 242014
Because there aren’t enough hours in the night to eat, pray, sleep AND have sex

by Nadiah Mohajir

Just recently, in casual conversation as well as in several private conversations, I have heard too many women (and in one case, a man) express frustration with trying to manage their intimate lives in addition to their spiritual and domestic responsibilities when the fasts are seventeen hours or more. When one is abstaining from food, drink, and sex during the daylight hours, other responsibilities don’t suddenly stop. Mothers are still mothering, often small children. Husbands and wives are still working long hours at their professional jobs. And no matter how simple (or elaborate) the iftar (breaking of the fast) meal, it still needs to be prepared. As does, depending on family tradition, the suhoor, or pre-dawn meal. And so, I have heard many express frustration that there simply isn’t enough time from sunset to dawn to eat, perform your obligatory and recommended prayers, catch up on sleep, AND fulfill your spousal duties. So what’s a spouse to do?

It should be stated that sex after the breaking of the fast is permitted, all the way until the early morning prayer. This is explicitly made clear in the Holy Quran.

“Permitted to you, on the nights of the fasts, is the approach to your wives. They are your garments, and ye are their garments, Allah knoweth what ye used to do secretly among yourselves.” — Quran 2:187

Furthermore, there are many narrations about the Prophet and his companions about being intimate after sunset, with one narration about a companion actually breaking his fast with intercourse, as opposed to with food and drink. There are also narrations encouraging husbands to seek special permission from their fasting wives to have sex after sunset, to be considerate of how tired fasting may have made their wives.

All of this sounds great in theory, but when the fasts span the majority of the day, and the time between iftar (breaking of the fast) and suhoor (pre-dawn meal) is mere hours, during which one might also want to stand in congregational prayer, read quran, prepare the next morning’s meal, take care of any children or other family members needing care, what’s one to do when one spouse clearly wants to, but the other is too exhausted? This becomes an interesting question, also, for wives who feel guilty and ashamed of refusing their husband, because of the cultural pressures on the wife to sexually please her husband. So while this is an interesting question, this question remains unaddressed – a quick search on google will show that the majority of articles written on sex in Ramadan have to do with permissibility and expiation if one does have sex during the fast. While I personally, don’t also have many answers for this issue either, I would like to offer some tips to at least start this conversation.

1) Talk with your spouse about your expectations and theirs before the heat of the moment. Try to have this conversation even more Ramadan begins, so you both know what to expect. Don’t wait until one of you is ready to be intimate to have this talk.

2) Practice extra mercy. Ramadan is the month of extra blessings and extra mercy. Be considerate of all that your spouse is doing while fasting, and that he or she just may not have the energy once the fast is over. Yes, this may result in some additional frustration but exercise patience and don’t take it personally if your spouse is not in the mood. It’s not that they don’t love you or want you or don’t desire you, it’s just that they may be depleted – in every sense of the word. Be flexible and change your plans. For example, if you regularly pray in the mosque but don’t return until well after midnight, after your spouse is already in bed, offer to pray at home so that you do not stay out that late.

3) Try to divide domestic responsibilities so that it does not disproportionately fall on one spouse’s, often the wife’s, shoulders. One of the reasons that wives may feel exceptionally exhausted in Ramadan is that in addition to the lack of energy one experiences from abstaining from food and drink, they also may be responsible for preparing the pre-dawn meal, the iftar meal, any cleanup that is associated with that, as well as caring for children, if there are any. This does not diminish the spouse’s contribution of spending long hours at work, as that is also difficult while fasting. Caring for others, while fasting, requires a special kind of energy.

4) Renew your intention. Sex in Islam between husband and wife is considered to be an act of worship, though often times, many don’t view it as that and instead approach it as if it is a chore, taking one away from other responsibilities. Instead of seeing sex with your spouse as taking you away from worship, why not see it as a different form of worship and gain the reward for it?

5) Eat well. A good diet, especially when one is fasting, is essential to keep up with to maintain energy. Reflect on your suhoor and iftar diet, and ask yourself if you can add anything to your diet to boost your energy levels. We often make the mistake of approaching our health by compartmentalizing it – our physical health, our emotional health, our spiritual health, our sexual health – when in fact, they are all related. If one suffers, it undoubtedly has an impact on the others.

And so now, I open it up to you. Without revealing personal or specific details about your own intimate life, what are some things we can do to start this conversation, and offer some support to couples dealing with this? Fasting inherently makes one irritable, adding sexual frustration to the equation doesn’t make Ramadan any easier. Let’s start this much needed conversation!


Apr 142014

by Nadiah Mohajir

originally published on

******trigger warning*******

Just having returned from an intense karate class, Rania* reflected on her anger, and how tired she felt upon the release of her anger. “I just hate him,” she thought. “I really just hate him.” She sighed, and her gaze fell upon on the mug he gave her that she had used daily for more than a decade. “But part of me loves him too. Is that wrong?” Rania was 13 when it began. He was her 36-year-old-married-with-children uncle. The relationship began slowly, with just a few inappropriate comments here and there.

Then, it was a hug. Later, it became a more lingering hug, in a more private space. Before Rania knew it, she was in what could only be described as a romantic relationship with her uncle. Once she relocated and removed herself from the relationship, Rania had time to reflect on the 11-year emotionally intense and physically intimate relationship. “Was it abuse? Am I responsible because I let it happen?” This article will discuss the Rania’s struggle and will explore just how common similar situations are in the Muslim community.  The unfortunate reality is that Rania’s struggle is not uncommon, nor is it properly addressed in the Muslim community. Moreover, young women, who are neither informed about their bodies nor educated on what constitutes as a healthy relationship, remain ill equipped to identify when they are being abused or who they can turn to for help.

According to the Rape, Abuse, & Incest National Network, 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of attempted or completed rape in her lifetime. Fifteen percent of sexual assault and rape victims are under the age of 12. Seven percent of girls in grades 5-8 and 12 percent of girls in grades 9-12 report having been sexually abused. This number does not include the many more who do not report their abuse, or who are unable to determine that they are, in fact, being abused. More than 90 percent of victims know their attacker, with family members constituting approximately one-third of all attackers. Victims are more likely to suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder as compared with those who have not been abused. Among the most chilling of statistics is that abuse victims are thirteen times more likely to abuse alcohol, and four times more like to contemplate suicide. As much as we may like to think that our religious or cultural values render us immune to these numbers, the Muslim community in the United States is not invulnerable to these issues. They just simply have not been exposed as often as they need to be.

I had the opportunity to speak with Rania, who refers to herself as Neighborhood Muslimah. She contacted me a few months ago, having come across HEART Women and Girls’ website, and wanting to raise awareness for her blog, which chronicles her musings on her experience with sexual abuse. Just a few minutes into reading her blog entries will take the reader into a relationship fraught with subtle coercion and sexual manipulation. Rania’s reflections are the first step to raising awareness about the importance of honest, candid dialogue coupled with sexual health education as a means to empower women and girls to identify when they are being abused, and how to respond.

As I spoke with Rania, she recalled how she was very young when the relationship with her uncle first became questionable. He was her maternal aunt’s husband, and both families were close. Rania’s parents would often allow her to spend her summer holidays in his home with his family. As their relationship progressed, she became dependent upon the attention and praise he lavished on her. They would engage in long conversations about history, politics and culture, and all the while Rania’s uncle would praise her for her maturity and insight. “He allowed me to feel stronger than him, and elevated me in my own eyes,” she explained. “He made me feel that I was special and superior compared to everyone else. He would talk to me as if I was his wife, and would tell me how I was so strong and pious; I would be a leader for all Muslim women.”

Rania learned the tricks of maintaining a secret relationship as many teenagers do. She lied excessively about where she was going, snuck out of the house, and even invited her uncle to her parents’ home when they were out of town. While they never engaged in intercourse, their relationship consisted of extremely intense and physically intimate moments. Guilt and confusion would overwhelm Rania, but if she questioned her uncle about how God would judge this relationship, he would quickly assuage, at least for the time being, her doubts. He would assure her that if God saw them as sinners, He would have exposed them, but instead they were able to continue the clandestine relationship. Never once though did the thought cross Rania’s mind that her uncle was taking advantage of the situation and abusing his niece.

Rania proudly told her friends about her “boyfriend.” They all had someone special they bragged about, so she felt obligated to do the same, changing his name and his age, even pulling out a picture of another younger boy so that he became real to both her and her friends. “I had convinced myself I was in love with him,” she explained. “Once in sex education class, the teacher asked if the victim of an abusive relationship can feel pleasure. When the class unanimously said no, I was convinced I wasn’t in an abusive relationship because I liked being in his company, even if I was uncomfortable with being physically intimate. He didn’t beat me. Instead, he praised me and showered me with gifts. How is that abuse?” she had reasoned.

For her entire adolescence, Rania lived a dual life, even creating a nickname for her uncle so that the duality of her uncle’s role – that of her doting uncle publicly, but of her significant other privately– would not be as glaringly obvious to her. Guilt, sadness, and supplication became her companions, as she didn’t believe she could confide in anyone. “I couldn’t turn to family because we were all so close,” she explained. “And I couldn’t turn to the community, because not only was I in this inappropriate relationship, but I was a respected member of Muslim youth in my city, always asked to give speeches and serve as a role model for other kids. People thought I was an angel. How could I tell them that their angel was actually a devil in disguise?”

As Rania related her story, I couldn’t help but think of all the various factors that allowed this situation to persist, and what we could have done as a community to prevent it. Was this in fact a case of abuse, despite Rania’s continuous consent?

Sexual abuse remains a shameful, cloaked reality affecting many young girls and boys in the Muslim community, and no matter our uneasiness with the subject, and anecdotal evidence suggests that Rania’s story of her eleven-year long relationship with her maternal uncle is more common than we think. In my conversation with Rania, she explained that at the age of 24 she decided to end the relationship that had been an everyday part of her adolescence.While traveling with her friend, Lubna, Rania described the kind, adoring man she had felt compelled to leave behind because their families would not approve of the relationship. Rania had believed that distance would help clear her mind and ease her into life without her uncle, but in the first few months the separation only exacerbated her confusion. She missed him terribly, and finally gave in to her loneliness, reconnecting with her uncle through phone and email.

Months later, after ending their relationship once and for all, Rania met Lubna again, who asked about her significant other. This time, Lubna heard a much different story. Rania’s tone and words were laced with acrimony, prompting Lubna to ask what had brought about the change of heart. Rania explained that the distance apart allowed her the time and space to reflect on the past decade. She began to recall experiences she had long buried, similar to selective amnesia. “I even forgot that he was my uncle,” she said. She continues to explain this further in her blog post about coping strategies – she describes the love and affection she developed for him over the years as a coping mechanism- “It’s what we do when we see no way out…when we have lost all hope.”

Rania felt she could not go anywhere for help. A simple literature and Internet search confirms that there are no culturally appropriate resources for young Muslim women who are survivors of sexual abuse. The community has not created any safe spaces for these women – the mosques, Islamic schools, and community centers do not have professionals and leaders equipped to address and counsel survivors. Moreover, the cultural barriers that exist to addressing these issues for Muslims prevent Muslim survivors from pursuing or trusting the secular resources and professionals that do exist. The instances in which she thought her family suspected that there was something peculiar about her relationship with her uncle did not evolve into honest dialogue, but instead remained uncomfortable silences.

Rania did not trust that her family or community would help her untangle herself from the relationship; she felt certain that if she did come forward, she would be the one to shoulder all the blame for the relationship. “If I felt I could have told a member of my family that I am in this relationship, and they would not reprimand me for it (maybe you shouldn’t have been so friendly, maybe you should wear hijab), perhaps I would have said something. But my fear was if I opened my mouth, I would be the aggressor, the cause of fitna.”

Rania didn’t have open discourse with her mother about the challenges of being an adolescent— feeling attracted to boys or finding a balance between her Muslim values of modesty and the Western culture in which she was being asked to practice them. Rather, Rania opened up to her uncle, who she thought listened to her with compassion and gave importance to her concerns and her point of view as though she was his peer.  Once the relationship graduated from a friendship to a romance, Rania didn’t have the self-confidence to trust her instinct that something was wrong. Rania’s uncle had likely spotted this insecurity in his niece from the beginning, and began to manipulate her vulnerability in order to persuade her to fulfill his inappropriate desires. “Even though he was always in the driver’s seat in the relationship, he made me feel like the driver,” she recalled.

Our community has a responsibility to our young women. We have a responsibility to trust our daughters enough not to point the finger at them, even if they come to us with a nightmare of a situation. We must find the context and reasoning behind why these frightening situations happen, and reign in our reflexive desire to immediately judge and assign blame. As Rania told me, “The worst thing is to feel that you won’t be accepted if you speak up.” We have a responsibility to protect our girls from men like Rania’s uncle, who saw an opportunity and chose to abuse it. Open and honest dialogue about sexual health and sexuality, no matter how difficult or uncomfortable these conversations may be, is key. There is no doubt that the Muslim community needs to develop a culturally-sensitive approach to sexual health education, because if women remain uninformed about their bodies, they are unequipped to identify an abusive relationship or know where to turn for help. Moreover, we have an obligation to hold the aggressors in our community accountable for their actions, regardless of their position in society, and without compromising the survivors’ future and reputation and allowing them to become collateral damage in the process.So, he never hit her. In fact, he treated her like a princess and elevated her in the eyes of everyone, including herself. But she was 13 and he was 36 when their relationship first began. I ask you the same question Rania repeatedly asks herself in her blog: Was this abuse? If so, did we do enough to protect Rania, and all the girls who have the same story?* Names have been changed


Mar 122014

by Nadiah Mohajir

Is there a difference between sexuality and sexualization? How can we determine if our young girls want to dress sexually because they feel empowered, or because they feel pressured to fit in?  The age at which girls are expected to dress sexually has become younger and younger, and if we don’t teach young girls to push back on those pressures, we will not be preparing them for when they will need to make decisions regarding their sexual behaviors.

The recent uproar and controversy surrounding the Made in Bangladesh American Apparel ad featuring a topless Bengali woman illustrates that many, including the model herself, can no longer distinguish when an expression of sexuality is healthy, and when that expression is actually an object of sexualization. Tanzila Ahmed writes a thought provoking letter to Maks, the model featured in this ad, exploring the balance between being expressive and “exotified and commodified.” She continues to explore this, writing

“You think you chose to be creative —  but in actuality you were plucked by your employer to sell an object. I believe the object you are selling is high-waisted pants, but it’s unclear from the photo. They are rolled down so suggestively. What American Apparel is selling is sex, and in this case, by having “Made in Bangladesh” across your bare breasts, you are selling fetishized sex. One where the brown woman is objectified.”

So how do we distinguish when a young person is displaying a healthy expression of their sexuality versus being an object of sexualization? Dr. Leonard Sax explains offers one distinction in his book, Girls on the Edge:

“Girls today are bombarded with the notion that revealing your body is a valid means of self-expression, even a manifestation of ‘girl power.’ As parents, we must reject the notion that girls have to reveal their bodies in order to empower themselves. Boys don’t have to take of their clothes to empower themselves. Girls shouldn’t either.

Sexuality is good, but sexualization is bad. Sexuality is about your identity as a woman or a man, about feeling sexual. Thats a healthy part of being human, a healthy part of becoming an adult. But sexualization is about being an object for the pleasure of others, about being on display for others. Sexuality is about who you are. Sexualization is about how you look.”

He continues to explain that younger girls are being pressured to dress sexually, and often times, before they even are aware of their own sexuality. So, in other words, they are socialized into thinking that dressing that way is the norm, and to dress that way is pleasing to others, and an empowering and healthy way to express one’s sexuality. This desensitization leads to a “no big deal” type attitude toward anything sexual, ultimately desensitizing girls, and making them more accepting of partaking in sexual activity to gain boys’ pleasure and popularity, not because they feel empowered. The pressures to dress a certain way are very strong and embedded in subtle and not so subtle messaging in music, videos, and advertising. Even a simple stroll through the girls’ clothing section in any department store is enough to see our young girls are expected to dress sexually well before they are even aware of their sexual desire. So what can we do to help our girls feel better about themselves and not feel inadequate when they do not give in to the pressures of dressing sexually? Here are a few tips.

  1. Talk openly and frequently with your daughter about her thoughts on the matter. As your daughter gets older, she will become more aware of the pressures around her. She will begin to notice her friends may be dressing more provocatively, and may also feel frustrated at the perceived instant popularity some young girls are awarded, and may correlate it to the way they dress. Ask your daughter to share with you why this frustrates her, and ask her to think about what she may think are healthy ways of self-expression. What motivation do young girls have to dress sexually? What are the benefits and disadvantages? Also ask her to think about the messaging she is getting from female celebrities and the media. What standards of beauty are female celebrities setting? What gender stereotypes are they reinforcing? What makes a woman empowered? What qualities define a musician or actress’s talent?
  2. Begin helping your daughter build her sense of self well before the teenage years. The teenage years are by far the most confusing, and overwhelming, with the sudden physical, emotional, and social changes adolescents are forced to go through at once. It is very easy for young people to feel pressured to compromise on their values, or more importantly, begin questioning the values they have been taught throughout their childhood. Suddenly, what the popular girl in school is advocating seems to make more sense than the “archaic” values that parents have been advocating. Furthermore, it is very easy for a young girl to become obsessed with an ideal, and attaching her self-worth to it – whether that obsession is being thin, being fashionable, playing sports, pursuing a particular hobby, or excelling in school If a young girl’s preoccupation with a specific ideal leads to an obsession, she is risking losing her self-worth if that ideal disappears.  A strong sense of self, one that is based on values and character, and her spiritual relationship with God, rather than external capabilities or interests, protects her from losing her self-worth. So for example, a young girl who defines herself as the “smart girl” may become paralyzed if she is ever faced with a challenge that she finds difficult, one that she may not succeed at and lose her “smart girl” status. Developing a strong sense of self will also help young girls to fight off the pressures to dress a certain way to please others, as they won’t feel as strong a pressure to define themselves by how they look, but rather by the values they stand for. In addition, it will help them push back on even stronger pressures, such as participating in risky sexual activity or other risky behaviors.
  3. Exemplify the confidence you want them to embody. A young girl looks up to the older females in her life to set the tone. If the important women in her life do not exude confidence about how they look, dress and feel, they are likely to not view that kind of appearance as beautiful or appealing. Even if you find yourself being critical of how you look, try not to allow her to catch on to your lack of confidence (and try to work on raising that confidence!).
  4. Nurture your daughter’s healthy self-expressions and creativity. We all have preconceived notions of what matches, what looks good together, and how one should dress in certain occasions. The beauty of children is that they do not enter the world with these preconceived notions or expectations. Allowing them to explore their creativity and self-expression early on will foster confidence as they make decisions when they get older. Expecting them to adhere to certain fashion norms (such as no gym shoes with party dresses, etc) will only make it harder for them to push back on the more unhealthy fashion norms as they get older, like wearing makeup and dressing sexually at a young age.
  5. Help them develop a healthy body image. Teaching your daughter early on the difference between sexuality, which is about who you are as a person, and sexualization, which is objectification for the pleasure of others, will help her identify her motivations for how to express herself through dress. Teach her to think critically about the contradictory messages she gets from the media, about what society expects of women and the methods through which women are objectified. When a young girl has a positive body image, and loves her body for what it is, she is less likely to want to objectify it for others’ pleasure, but rather more likely to cherish it and give it its due respect. Her empowerment will not come from what she chooses to wear or not to wear, but rather from somewhere deeper within her self.
  6. Similarly, teach her to be media literate. Challenge her to think critically about the ads and the messaging she is seeing. Is that ad really selling cologne? Or is it selling sexuality and beauty? What techniques are advertisers using to sell their product? What feelings of inadequacy are they trying to appeal to? Teaching young people to critically think about and challenge the media’s messaging and imaging enables them to be more aware of when women are being objectified and to not fall prey to the advertising techniques.
  7. Have similar conversations with your sons. We would be missing an important part of the equation if we don’t have similar conversations with our sons. If we don’t start also challenging the norms our young boys are socialized to, we’re not making progress toward changing the discourse, we’re only creating a greater rift between the genders. It’s essential to teach our young men to challenge the messages they get, and to learn early on about how to respect women, instead of sexualizing and objectifying them, and how to honor sexuality in a healthy and respectful way.

These are just a few tips as we think about pushing back on the sexualization of girls, and objectification of women. It is crucial as to help our young girls develop a strong sense of self and positive body image, as it goes hand in hand with healthy sexuality and responsible decision making.

Jan 312014
originally published on
by Nadiah Mohajir
Cultural stigmas have existed for thousands of years, yet never have I ever been more haunted by the unfortunate effect they have on mental and physical health outcomes. As a One Chicago, One Nation (OCON) Community Ambassador, I brought together a diverse group of young women and girls to talk about self-esteem, peer pressure, and its relationship with making healthy, responsible choices.
During the icebreaker, I asked the young women to shout out the first words that came to mind when they heard the term “teen pregnancy.” Responses included words like, “failure,” “no life goals,” “peer pressure,” and “money.” Then, I asked how their assumptions would change if I added the word “Muslim” in front of teen pregnancy. Not surprisingly, the conversation suddenly took an even more serious and grave tone, with the Muslim girls in the audience shouting words like, “family disownment,” “social suicide,” “actual suicide,” and even “abortion.” When asked to elaborate, one of the girls stated, “it’s hard to mess up even slightly in a Muslim household.”It is unfortunate that our young women in the Muslim community feel that it is “social suicide” for a Muslim girl to become pregnant out of wedlock, and that many even associate it with self-imposed death and abortion. What’s sad is that these feelings are actually a reality for a certain population of young women in New York City: a study in New York City following young Muslim women who are sexually active found that the abortion rate was 100% for those who became pregnant out of wedlock. The unfortunate reality is that these women would not be asked whether or not they wanted an abortion, but rather, which type of abortion they wanted.

Undoubtedly, these are social constructs our community has imposed on itself and that are further propagated by the fact that we do not have any institutionalized support systems for our young women. The assumptions on the white board during the ice breaker about teenage pregnancy are indicative of the fact that we have no systems to help our young women and that we must bring about institutional and cultural change in order to move in the right direction. The impact of the cultural stigma surrounding pregnancy out of wedlock in the Muslim community is astounding, and is leading to some very grave, but often preventable, circumstances. It’s probably most tragically telling that our young women feel that their only choice is abortion if they become pregnant out of wedlock. In this particular case, women are not making this decision because it is offered as a choice, but because they have no choice. So, in this respect, because of the way Muslim society has enforced and reinforced these stigmas for generations now, we cannot call ourselves a pro-choice or a pro-life community. How’s that for irony?

What’s going on in our community? Why do our women feel that there is no room for imperfection and there are no second chances for making the wrong (culturally or religiously unacceptable) choice? The Prophet (may God’s peace and blessings be upon him) did not teach such intolerance; nor did he endorse continual denial of the problems that exist in society. Homosexuality, pre-marital sex, teenage pregnancy, and drug abuse are all realities for the Muslim community, and have been for decades. Rape and mental illness are tragic circumstances that the victim should not be blamed for. These problems don’t just go away by ignoring them or by ostracizing those individuals.

What’s more interesting is how we discuss the issue of teenage pregnancy. In a recent conversation with Sahar Ullah, co-founder of Hijabi Monologues and performer of “Light on My Face” on January 9, 2009, she explained that discussing teenage pregnancy as a “phenomenon” is much easier than personalizing the issue. In other words, on the surface, pregnancy out of wedlock is wrong and unacceptable and it is very easy for members of the Muslim community to point fingers as detached individuals from the situation. However, personalizing the story of a young woman and describing the complexity of the factors that may lead a young woman to partake in sexual activity, such as low self-esteem, the need to be loved and desired, and the pressure to not lose the man that she loves, make the story a lot easier to sympathize with and the issue a lot harder to ignore.

We must stand up and work together to come up with a solution, a way to address these issues. While some of these issues are sensitive, controversial, and many would be opposed to endorsing them, the issue is not whether or not we should (or shouldn’t) endorse them. Offering resources and support for these individuals does not equate to endorsing their decisions or lifestyle, as the community falsely believes. However, not offering them anything will further alienate them from society and push them to take extreme measures, as demonstrated by the cases described above. More importantly, prevention of these problems will not even be an option – how can we attempt to prevent problems we aren’t willing to admit even exist? We cannot wait for the problem to face our family members before wanting to make a change. Every young woman is someone’s daughter, someone’s sister, or someone’s friend, and it is our collective duty to provide them with a safe space to have the option to live a healthy life and be able to receive communal support in their most difficult of times.

Changing attitudes and combating cultural stigmas that have existed for generations are not easy tasks, but we cannot keep letting our young women rely on abortion because the community finds it easier to ostracize those who become pregnant out of wedlock instead of providing them with healthy alternatives and coping strategies. We must welcome open discourse and education to raise awareness about these problems, and must work together as a society to develop long-term solutions. It is our responsibility to create a safe space for these individuals free of judgment and full of hope – whether it is through shelters, clinics, or community centers – and have a sustainable support system to give these individuals options to make healthy choices and help each other through these circumstances. Only then can we begin to think about reducing the incidence of problems such as teenage pregnancies, abortion, and sexually-transmitted diseases in our community. The power of education and open discourse cannot be overstated in its impact on changing attitudes; accepting that these issues exist in our communities is just the first stepping stone in the right direction.