The article hereunder was submitted by a sister who requested its publication for the benefit of the Muslim community.
When I was put to the task of writing an article related to counseling, I wracked my mind for an idea. What could I write, after possibly, a five year academic hiatus? I trawled articles, blogs and websites on the internet for inspiration. And then a thought: why not write an article on a problem that has plagued me for most of my teenage and young adult years. A problem that was, undoubtedly, a deciding factor in choosing my undergraduate field of study in psychology. Eating Disorders.
I did not want this article to be a regurgitating hash of psychological terms and textbook-style definitions. Open any book, magazine article or website on Eating Disorders and you will read this. Nor did I want this article to be about Mary* (pseudonym for a person that probably does not even exist) and how Mary manages to overcome her obsession with food. I wanted to share with you my story. The story of a Muslim woman whom struggled for many years with a mental illness that is commonly thought of as a disease of the west.
Almost everyone has a love of food. Our gatherings and celebrations are often centered on mouth-watering, delicious dishes and calorific, sugar-laden desserts. Food has a universal appeal. It transcends religions and cultures. Nevertheless just about every person has said, at least once, that they need “to go on a diet.” For some people, however, this goes far beyond simply choosing a low-fat or non-fat version of a foodstuff in a bid to be healthier. It becomes a serious and life-threatening reality. An anxiety that consumes every second of their waking lives.
I know this obsession by its first-name. It was an unwelcome guest for a countless many breakfasts, lunches and dinners. I struggled day after day; often feeling like a war was being waged on my body and in my mind. And I felt very alone. A Muslim girl suffering from an eating disorder? Unheard of. There were definitely others like me, but we were blanketed by the disapproval of a society that assumes these are the problems of the “white girls.”
It was only after researching social network sites and the internet that I realized; Eating Disorders are prevalent amongst Muslim females and in certain cases, Muslim males. It is a growing phenomenon and is often overlooked. Do we presume that because a woman wears a hijab, she is immune to media and social pressures that dictate a certain standard of beauty? A Muslim woman may be the embodiment of modesty and reserve, but she is still just a woman. I am not sheltered in a cocoon, blissfully unaffected by a measure that values the lithe and slender.
I particularly remember an incident when I was in the awkward phase of puberty- a time of teenage angst and melodrama, and whilst visiting some family members, an old lady said to my mother, “she could be pretty if she lost some weight.”
This comment, although it was probably well-meaning, was very damaging to my emerging self-esteem and it became the twisted motivation I used to starve myself.
Fast-forward a few years and I beat my body into submission. I became an emaciated version of my former self. At the peak of my struggle with my eating disorder, I felt at the lowest ebb of my Iman. The blessed month of Ramadaan became my enabler and often times I questioned myself, “was I fasting for myself or for Allah.” An eating disorder is a debilitating disease and it encumbers you from doing what you really want to do. Your spirituality is put to the test.
On the contrary, I finally received approval from the marriage police. You know the sort- those well connected aunties who rate you based on a number of factors: complexion, eye-colour, body size and social class. If you were fair, green-eyed, slim and from a good family, then you rated extremely high on the potential bride scale. You would hardly, if ever, hear about the girl that was an excellent match for so-and-so because of her good character. These are the unspoken rules of our society. A society that frowns upon anything remotely westernized yet uses these same shallow principals when discussing young Muslim women as prospective brides-to-be.
Therefore, we should not only blame the western objectification of women’s bodies, fashion and clothing. We are far too quick to lay fault on modern ideals. “These young girls are obsessed by movie stars,” is often our repetitive complaint. Perhaps we need to rethink the discourses of our own culture.
Through the immeasurable mercy of the Almighty, this story has a happy ending. I have thankfully, managed to overcome my eating disorder and my obsession with being a size zero. It is important to seek the help of a professional counselor or psychologist to defeat this mental illness. I also firmly believe in the power of supplication and in earnestly asking our Creator for help and forgiveness to supplement ones treatment.
“There is no disease that Allah has created, except that He has also created its treatment.” (Al-Bukhari)
It is my sincere wish that this article will help, inspire and encourage others. After reading this, I hope they realize that they are not alone in their struggles. Muslim girls have eating disorders too.