Filling a Void in the Faith-based Community

HEART programming aspires to fill a void in current health initiatives: many women and girls in faith-based communities do not have a safe space to obtain health information in a way that is mindful of their religious or cultural upbringing and values and worldview. When thinking about reproductive and mental health, in particular, in the faith-based community, we have learned that there are many gaps in information, often due to numerous cultural barriers.

The recent report The Status of Girls in Illinois reveals striking issues in our young women. Over a third of female high school students in Illinois and Chicago reported experiencing depression over the past year[1]. This is important because often mental health and self-esteem are very closely tied with decision making regarding one’s physical and mental health.

Currently, the research on health outcomes for faith-based communities is limited, and even more so limited for Muslim populations, but anecdotal evidence reveals a similar context for Muslim youth, including numerous cultural barriers facing Muslims, limiting their access to health care services, education, and effective preventive treatments. With regard to Muslim women in the United States, studies suggest that women may feel stigmatized or ashamed to seek mental health services, in spite of having a need. According to a 2006 study[1], Muslim women expressed higher levels of need for mental health services and some negative attitudes toward help-seeking. Similarly, many adolescent girls and women in the Muslim community have strongly gendered social and cultural roles that inform the expectations they have for themselves. These roles and expectations, if negatively informed, may influence their behaviors and the attitudes they have about their own physical and emotional well-being; thereby further stigmatizing any effort to seek out support when it’s needed.

With respect to sex education, a significant challenge facing educators and parents is to assure that the youth of today will be cognizant of their religious values regarding sexuality while still attaining knowledge about their bodies and sexual health. The common apprehension in many communities across that U.S. that teaching comprehensive sex education contradicts religious morals and increases promiscuity and sexual experimentation is even greater within the Muslim community. Numerous research studies show that current sex education materials are not relevant to certain faith-based communities: some of the material may offend the principals of modesty and decency, and may present certain behaviors as acceptable (rather than sinful).

Informal HEART surveys of Chicago 6th-12th grade Islamic School students indicates that 60% of respondents are aware of eating disorders, depression, sexual experimentation and peer pressure as issues needing to be addressed in their schools. Many of our middle school participants have shared with us the challenge of having to be discriminated against, stereotyped and labeled as a terrorist, and having to defend their faith and value system at an age when they are simultaneously being bombarded with adolescence and peer pressure. Our high school participants speak strongly about their struggle with their self-image, and their desire to fit in – whether it’s to fit in to their social environment, academic environment, or cultural environment – and how that influences some of the choices they make. These stories, along with many more that have been shared with us, reinforce our core philosophy: that how a young woman feels about herself has a significant impact on the choices she makes about her health, and her body.  Yet, the reality is that few educators, administrators, community leaders and parents understand this important relationship and are unequipped to identify and properly address these needs. Currently, the reproductive health education available to Muslim youth in private Islamic schools is generally limited to hygiene and basic biology. There is no focus on pregnancy or STDs, nor is there any component focusing on self-esteem, healthy relationships, and decision-making. For those students who attend public schools, access to such education varies: some students are pulled out of class, while others are allowed to go, but often complain about not being able to put the information in context of their own worldviews.

As such, many young Muslims are ill-prepared to make sound decisions regarding their sexual and reproductive health, have poor mental well-being and self-esteem and the public health implications of this reality are significant, including but not limited to:

  • Engaging in risky sexual experimentation or harmful behaviors such as eating disorders or cutting
  • Seeking misinformation on the internet and through pornography
  • Relying on cultural myths and traditions to inform behaviors
  • Remaining in and/or unable to identify unhealthy, abusive relationships
  • Growing marital tensions due to unhealthy attitudes towards sexuality
  • Unable to identify common reproductive health problems such as yeast infections
Research & Our Fieldwork: Creating Culturally-sensitive Solutions for a Universal Problem

Muslim students have expressed their desire for reproductive and mental health information, and look to their educators for information, admitting they are embarrassed to their parents. For example, Australian educators shared that many students admitted to not seeking information from their parents, even about biological matters such as menstruation, and instead hoped that their teachers would fill that void[2]. When asked about whether they received this information from their Islamic schools and centers, the study yielded results that confirms our fieldwork findings that Islamic schools are not teaching the necessary social and life skills and values Muslim youth need:

  • 40% felt they did not receive any information
  • Of the 50% that reported they received information on women’s duties and responsibilities, 30% were of the opinion that the information focused on how a woman should dress and behave.
  • Only 3% said they received information on spousal relationships[3].

We have experienced the consequences of this lack of awareness firsthand from youth and adults in HEART programming. In our workshop with Arabic-speaking immigrant married-women-with-children, participants confessed they had never before seen a condom, or even a tampon and did not have any information on preventing or identifying yeast infections and urinary tract infections. Similarly, during a talk at a private university in Chicago, young Muslim college women spoke of their need for information on their sexual health because “the little information they had was not adequate, nor was it ever made culturally-relevant.”

The experiences described here are not unique. Many women and girls we have spoken with have offered similar feedback, reflecting on their desire to have learned about their bodies, reproductive health and skills to critically think and make decisions about media messaging, peer pressure, bullying, and violence against oneself and others at a much younger age. A study examining Muslim Iranian women questioned whether increased information about sexuality would have positive effects. Many believed that it would improve “the woman’s ability to avoid health compromising situations or behaviors once they were aware of them.”[4]  Studies similar to these show that these skills have allowed young women to improve their interactions, communication and their relationships with themselves, leading to a more positive self-image, as well as with others, leading to improved problem-solving and peer relationships.

Thus, we believe that the lack of open dialogue and education about sexual health and mental well-being in the Muslim community is directly correlated with risky behaviors, sexual experimentation, sexual violence and marital challenges in the community. If young people are not empowered and informed about their bodies and healthy relationships, they are not equipped to identify sexual health problems or when they are being abused, nor do they have the resources to know where to go for help.

Through the realities addressed above, it is clear that Muslims in America need to engage the needs of their communities, and they also need to learn how to do so. What threatens the health of our families and communities is neglecting to offer Muslims a safe space to learn about their mental and reproductive health in a way that helps them negotiate their American identities, while still appreciating and honoring their values.  HEART has tried to address this need by offering trainings, workshops, and through the publication of articles and toolkits to serve as resources for those wanting to provide sexual health programming using culturally-sensitive approaches such as using religious textual narratives to frame an issue, or being sensitive to the fact that certain demonstrations or graphics may be deemed inappropriate for certain audiences

[1] Kaba et. Al. The Status of Girls in Illinois. Page 10. Available at: www.statusofgirls.womenandgirlscan.org

[1] Khan, Z. (2006). Attitudes toward counseling and alternative support among Muslims in Toledo, Ohio. Journal of Muslim Mental Health, 1, 21-42.

[2] Sanjakdar, Fida. Participatory Action Research: Creating Spaces for Beginning Conversations in Sexual Health Education for Young Australian Muslims. Educational Action Research 17:2 259-275.

[3] Orgocka, A. Perceptions of Communication and Education About Sexuality Among Muslim Immigrant Girls in the US. Sex Education 4:3 255-271.

[4] Shirpak et. Al. A Qualitative Assessment of the Sex Education Needs of Iranian Married Women. Sexuality & Culture (2008) 12:133–150.