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Girls and Sexuality: Understanding What Parents and Muslim Communities Can Do For Their Daughters

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By Menahal Begawala

When I became a therapist I had a vision of helping people get through hard times, communicate better with their families, and develop perspective when they felt stuck. I’ve been honored with the privilege of being allowed a glimpse into the lives of my clients with this goal in mind. My greatest privilege (and challenge) so far has been to work with adolescent girls.

When I sit across from young girls who come from Muslim families, my first challenge is to face my own apprehension. I don’t know what preconceived notions they’ll have seeing a conservatively dressed hijab wearing therapist. Thus far, I have found these young women not only open, but also happily willing to work with me. While it is not my place as a therapist to be a religious figure for my clients, I recognize that on some level they are relieved to be able to openly talk with someone who appears to embody the very facet of their backgrounds from which they feel disconnected.

I believe that the challenges young Muslim girls face in navigating their identity in today’s society are more difficult than they have ever been. Between the ongoing struggles of societal, familial, and cultural pressures, the sexualization of women, and the often negative impact of social media, young girls are often left navigating identity issues that would leave many adults in a paralyzing bind. For the sake of this article, I will limit the conversation to issues surrounding adolescent girls and sexuality.

It’s a pervasive issue that is impacting the Muslim community.

“I don’t think that any boy can ever there for me emotionally like Amani* is. And I just can’t see myself being with a boy who isn’t there for me emotionally.”

“I always crushed on Jasmine, never on Aladdin.”

Sexualization and the Loss of Identity

As an Education major, I was required to read The Disappearance of Childhood, by Neil Postman. Postman discussed the impact of media on the portrayal and loss of innocence in children. It’s safe to say that society has come a long way since 1994 when that book was published, and that we have far more sources of media input than were available in the 90’s. Whether through print, filtered photos on Instagram, or television, young girls are constantly bombarded with images of what is considered beautiful and attractive. The gap between girls and women is closing quickly as girls hit puberty and physically mature at earlier ages than ever before. Clothing and fashion for tweens and adult women are almost indistinguishable, which cause young girls to be focused on their appearance (with or without hijab) before they’ve had an opportunity to develop a deeper sense of identity.

Everyday, young girls receive constantly opposing messages about identity, freedom, having a voice, and modesty. When the exploitation of women is guised as liberation and independence, it is easy to see how one’s appearance and sexiness can be mistaken for worthiness.  On the other hand, when we drill the idea of modesty being purely about outer garments, we are sending the same damaging message: that a woman’s worth is relegated to the way she dresses. Please note that this is not a comment on the status of hijab in Islam. The intention here is to highlight how we talk to our young girls and what messages we are giving to them when we shy away from deeper more meaningful, albeit difficult, conversations.

Sexuality vs. Sexualization

Dr. Leonard Sax distinguishes between sexuality and sexualization in his book Girls on The Edge. He notes the importance of recognizing sexuality as an important and healthy part of adolescent development. Sexuality is about who one is, a part of her identity, whereas sexualization is a focus on how someone looks. Sexuality is a normal and necessary part of human development. Human sexuality is defined as “the quality of being sexual, or the way people experience and express themselves as sexual beings. This involves biological, erotic, physical, emotional, social, or spiritual feelings and behaviors.”1 Adolescence is a time when youngsters are figuring out their place in the world while navigating their changing bodies, emotions, and social lives. Sexuality is intertwined in every aspect of a young person’s both with themselves and the world around them. It’s normal, natural, and healthy. The sexualization of young girls however, is not.

Sexualization, unlike sexuality, is when the focus is on one’s appearance and sex appeal and goes hand in hand with objectification. It goes without saying that the sexualization of women leads to many negative consequences beyond the scope of this article.  However, within the Muslim community, it seems like we’ve become so scared of these consequences that we are stuck on external solutions in the name of protection/safety. Healthy and necessary conversations about sexuality are abandoned and even stigmatized. The resulting message for girls is that their sexuality, and in essence, their being, is shameful and cannot be spoken of. As a result, our young women are left to navigate the challenges of developing an identity inclusive of their entire selves on their own. One client told me, “My mom doesn’t want me to hug boys. That doesn’t matter because I’m bisexual anyway.” I can’t help but wonder how the girl may have taken it differently if her mother had a conversation about her self-worth and why she was asking her to refrain from certain behaviors. What we don’t realize is that when the adults in these adolescents’ lives don’t lovingly guide them and keep the door open for interactive conversations, social media can very easily fill the void.

It is normal for adolescents to have questions about their developing bodies and sexual awareness. We do our children and our communities a disservice when we choose to ignore the realities of their development. It was not uncommon during the time of the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) for women to come to ask questions about intimate matters. They knew that modesty and openness could coexist. We see, in the following hadith, that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) was clear about a woman’s response to sexual arousal and the implication that this is part and parcel of conception.

Um-Sulaim came to Allah’s Apostle ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) and said, “Verily, Allah is not shy of (telling you) the truth. Is it necessary for a woman to take a bath after she has a wet dream (nocturnal sexual discharge?) The Prophetṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him)replied, “Yes, if she notices a discharge.” Um Sulaim, then covered her face and asked, “O Allah’s Apostle! Does a woman get a discharge?” He replied, “Yes, let your right hand be in dust (An Arabic expression said light-heartedly to a person whose statement you contradict) and that is why the son resembles his mother.” Sahih Muslim 608 Chapter 3, The Book of Menstruation (Kitab Al-Haid) `

Sexual Identity

In addition to sorting through their physical, emotional, and social growth, the youth of today are living in a time where it’s almost expected that they will explore, or at least question, their sexual identity. This is another topic that the Muslim community often likes to keep behind closed doors. We assume that our children will accept the heterosexual norms of our religious and cultural communities. Many will, but it’s not something that can be taken for granted. Whether we like it or not, and irrespective of the Islamic rulings on the topic, the fact is that more and more of our young women are faced with questions regarding their sexual identity. Their lives are caught in the dichotomy of a society in which sexual exploration is encouraged and homes and communities where discussing sexuality is taboo.

In a culture where 1) girl-girl sexual intimacy is no longer taboo, 2) fluidity of sexual orientation, especially for females, is normalized, 3) where emotionally unengaged parenting can leave girls with an emotional void to fill, and 4) where young men are less mature than they used to be, it’s no surprise that more and more young girls are turning to the same sex for comfort during these formative and difficult years2. When girls are battling the normal developmental challenges of adolescence, while living in homes where they feel ignored, criticized, or misunderstood, it can translate into low self-esteem, depression, anxiety, and/or rebellion.

Peers easily become the primary support system, and emotional intimacy can translate into physical intimacy. When I asked one of my clients about her feelings towards her family ignoring her, she said “I don’t care. My friends are my world. They’re my everything! Actually, and don’t tell my mother this, my best friend and I just started going out a few weeks ago.” I’ve worked with this client long enough to know that she isn’t unaffected by her family’s dismissal towards her, but that she is coping through her friendships— which can end up becoming romantic as well.

Dr. Sax posits that the “girls themselves may not understand what’s happening because the girls aren’t in touch with their own sexuality.” (p 33) According to Dr. Sax, the number of young women who identify as lesbian or bisexual may be somewhere between 15 to 23%. We have to stop assuming that Muslim adolescent girls and young women don’t fall into this range. We also have to recognize that superficial conversations about modesty and hijab and exhortations to “have taqwa” with threats of hell are not a viable solution. The issues are a lot deeper and require us to move out of our comfort zones and look in the mirror as parents, adults, and as a community.

The Issue with External Solutions

Hijab. It’s the first thing that comes to mind for many people. Questions of whether there should or shouldn’t be partitions in masajid are still being hotly debated. In defending our positions on the physical barriers between men and women, we lose sight of the fact that our young girls are struggling; regardless of whether or not they wear hijab. When it comes to Muslim girls, we become so hung up on the topic of external appearances that we end up overlooking conversations on what it means to create a healthy sense of identity, sexuality, and self-worth. The underlying issue is not the presence or absence of the physical barrier, hijab, clothing type, or make-up, as much as it is our girls’ identities becoming defined by and limited to these things. I am not arguing that discussing or talking about hijab with our girls should be abandoned. I do believe however, that these conversations need to happen within a larger context that makes them more meaningful.

On one extreme, religiosity becomes imposed on girls. They are taught what is halal, what is haram, and often overly cautioned about actions that will take them to hell. Girls are taught that hijab is important due to them being analogous to sweets that have to be covered from flies. What is this teaching girls?  I can’t get over how many young people I meet who are turned away from Islam because they’ve been given such a dark and ignorant perspective. At best, they begrudgingly oblige. At worst, they begin to identify as “in the closet atheist.” When we don’t treat those younger than us with compassion and mercy, they begin to believe that the God —whose teachings we’re imparting —also doesn’t have Compassion and Mercy.

Ibn Majah narrates on the authority of Jundab ibn ‘Abdallah raḍyAllāhu 'anhu (may Allāh be pleased with him) who said: “We were with the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) – a group of youngsters close to the age of maturity. We learnt what was iman before we could learn the Quran. Thereafter we learnt the Quran. In so doing, we increased our iman.”

This hadith shows us that the Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) began his teaching of youngsters by developing a relationship with Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He). There’s no denying that hijab is a command from Allah. However, when we reduce religious teachings only to lessons on halal/haram, the relationship with Allah ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) doesn’t have a chance to develop.

The other extreme is when conversations about modesty and proper hijab are scoffed at and deemed judgmental and/or cultural. During the second wave of feminism, popular notions of women’s roles in society, their sexuality and reproductive rights were debated, and modesty was posited as a byproduct of the male patriarchy. Many of these notions have become entrenched within the Muslim community and any questions or criticisms of modern hijab and fashion trends are considered politically incorrect. It has become increasingly common to meet young Muslim “feminists”. I use quotes around feminist because I believe that many young women don’t actually know the history of feminism, or how it impacts them beyond giving them more rights than what are afforded to them within their families.

The problem with both of these approaches is that they take away from healthy conversations on sexuality and identity. We become so busy imposing or defending external factors that deeper discussions fall to the wayside.  It also doesn’t help that the widespread use of social media is forcing girls to always be “camera ready” lest an unflattering picture of them make it onto someone else’s Snap story.

What Can We Do?

The issues presented here are part of a much bigger picture and definitely don’t exist in a vacuum. Here are suggestions of what parents and communities can do  for their daughters.

Be curious. Ask her what she’s feeling. Acknowledge that it’s difficult. Acknowledge that you may not understand, but that you want to. Don’t assume you know what your daughter is going through. Also, don’t diminish her sadness or other emotion that makes you uncomfortable as “dramatic.” We have too many adult women who have lived their lives being told they are drama queens and in turn, that their emotions are not valid. We perpetuate this injustice on our daughters when we ignore their pain or tell them what they should or should not be feeling.

Empathize. You may not know what it feels like to be in your daughter’s shoes. You may not understand why she feels the way she feels, whether sad, anxious, lonely, or excited. But you do know what these feelings are. You’ve undoubtedly felt them. Let your daughters (and sons for that matter) know that you have also felt this way at some point in your life, and still experience these feelings. Normalize these feelings for your children. Recognize and verbalize their existence.

When we don’t empathize with children, it can come across as indifference or shaming. Too often I see parents telling their kids not to cry or not to feel a certain way. This minimizes real and often difficult emotions and doesn’t actually teach young people about how to navigate the circumstances causing them. It just teaches them to shut their feelings off. The problem is that we cannot selectively turn off emotions. When we choose to shut down our capacity to feel pain and grief, we inadvertently also shut off our ability to feel joy and excitement.

Pay attention. Notice changes in your daughter’s mood. Is she isolating herself? Is she constantly on social media? While it’s normal for adolescents to push away from their parents, it is not normal for them to shut them out completely. Paying attention requires spending time with our children and getting to know who they are. It means looking beyond their grades and whether they know how to make chai to their interests, their passions, and their struggles.

Stop comparing. Not to your struggles, not to a sibling’s successes, not to another cousin/friend/random person’s goodness. Comparing doesn’t positively motivate anyone. Our girls have enough damaging comparisons with airbrushed models being the standard of beauty. Let’s not make them believe that they aren’t good enough by telling them that so-and-so handled the same struggle or passed the same test with flying colors. Comparing sends a message that we don’t love who they are. Instead of making comparisons with the good behaviors of others, learn to notice and compliment the efforts that are being made.

Be willing to be the mean parent. It is possible to show love, compassion, and acceptance to children while also setting healthy boundaries. I encourage everyone who is a parent, or works with young girls in any capacity to read Girls on The Edge to better understand the implications of social media, sexual identity, and other factors on the development of girls. It won’t be easy to go against the grain of many popular norms, but it’ll be healthier for our girls in the long run.

This is especially important when it comes to social media. Research has shown a correlation between the usage of social media and depression. Being constantly connected can have a detrimental effect on young women, and it’s up to parents to regulate and teach their children how to be responsible and balanced in their use of social media.

Be more positive more often. After having worked with a number of young girls as a counselor, I’ve come to notice a pattern. Every single one of them, without exception, feels criticized and/or ignored by their parents. When I meet with the parents, I can see genuine love and concern for their daughters. However, this gets voiced in the form of complaints or suggestions for improvement while appreciation and genuine compliments have to be probed for. Even when it comes to adult relationships, Dr. John Gottman, a renowned relationship expert has found that successful marriages have a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative interactions. As adults, we need to be validated and acknowledged positively in our relationships. Yet in the hustle and bustle of daily life and getting tasks done, we forget to do this for our children. The most important component of our children’s healthy development is for them to know that they are loved. Don’t assume that your children know that you love them. Tell them frequently that you do.

Create opportunities. This is where the community comes in. We need to create avenues for girls to explore their interests and develop their sense of self in the context of a community. Dr. Sax discusses the importance of girls engaging with a community of women of various ages as well as giving girls the opportunity to explore their spirituality. Our masajid are ideal places for women, old and young, to come together and develop a multidimensional sense of self.

Seek help. Life is hard. At some point we developed the expectation that we should know it all or somehow be able to figure it out. This just isn’t true. We need to develop the ability to ask for help when we need it on an individual, familial, and communal level. This can take the form of seeking therapy or counseling, leaning on a friend for support, or getting professional consultation of some kind. When we aren’t willing to ask for help, we also often end up being unable to be helpful.

Be a role model. Not just in terms of religious or vocational success. Struggle and failure are a part of life. These visitors come in and out of our lives at every stage. They don’t make us less than nor do they diminish our worth. When we learn to be honest about our limitations and are willing to face our own emotions, we show the youngsters around us that it is not only okay, but also safe, to do so. Be willing to grapple with the challenges that are uncomfortable.  Our children do it every single day.

*Name has been changed to protect privacy of the client.

  1. Jerrold S. Greenberg, Clint E. Bruess, Sara B. Oswalt (2016). Exploring the Dimensions of Human Sexuality. Jones & Bartlett Publishers. pp. 4–10. ISBN 1284081540. Retrieved June 21, 2017. Human sexuality is a part of your total personality. It involves the interrelationship of biological, psychological, and sociocultural dimensions. […] It is the total of our physical, emotional, and spiritual responses, thoughts, and feelings.
  2. Researchers at Cornell University, examining data collected from a representative sampling of young Americans that included more than 20,000 individuals across the United States, found that 14.5 percent of women were categorized as lesibians, bisexual, or “bisexual leaning heterosexual.” Among young men, 5.6 percent were categorized as gay, bisexual, or “bisexual leaning heterosexual.” See Ritch Savin-Williams and Geoffrey L. Ream, “Prevalence and Stability of sexual orientation components during adolescence and young adulthood,” Archives of Sexual Behavior, volume 36 (2007), pp. 385-394. The proportions in the United States might be even lower than in some European countries. For example, in Norway, more than 20 percent of girls and young women were categorized as lesbian or bisexual: see L. Wichstrom and K. Hegna, “Sexual orientation and suicide attempt: a longitudinal study of the general Norwegian adolescent population,” Journal of Abnormal Psychology, volume 112 (2003), pp. 141-151. In another study, 23 percent of girls and young women in New Zealand – nearly one in four – were sexually attracted to other girls and young women: see N. Dickson and colleagues, “Same sex attraction in a birth cohort: prevalence and persistence in early childhood,” Social Science and Medicine, volume 56 (2003), pp 1607-1615

Menahal grew up in Queens, New York. She’s a graduate of the Al-Huda Institute and has a Masters degree in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. Menahal works with individuals, families, and couples covering a client base with a broad range of mental health issues, including substance abuse disorders. Most notably Menahal has completed Levels 1-3 of marriage counseling via the Gottman Institute, world renowned for its work on marriage stability and divorce prediction. Thereafter, she worked with the Gottman Institute to author the Islamic Reference Guide to the Gottman Method. She is now pursuing training in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, a modality to treat trauma. Menahal can be contacted for speaking or workshop requests, or therapy related inquiries at menahal.begawala@gmail.com.

10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Avatar

    Usman

    February 20, 2018 at 6:50 PM

    “where young men are less mature than they used to be, it’s no surprise that more and more young girls are turning to the same sex”

    Copied here for preservation

  2. Avatar

    Ibrahim Mohammad

    February 21, 2018 at 7:19 AM

    Assalamu alaykum warahmatullaah wabarkaatuh.
    Maa sha Allaah, this is indeed a great piece.May Allaah preserve her for us so she can mentor many more to help tackle the problems and empower the Ummah. Jazaakumullaahu khayr.

  3. Avatar

    Muhammad Ibrahim

    February 22, 2018 at 4:55 AM

    So much food for thought. Everything that is wrong with the Muslim Community is beautifully summarised for us here in this one article. But will we take heed and start to change our ways, or will we just continue to wilfully damage our children by forcing an alien culture onto them without explaining why, and then go complaining to our relatives when our children decide to abandon Islam completely in favour of Western values, whilst at the same time still dressing up in hijab in order to please us?

  4. Avatar

    Faheera

    February 22, 2018 at 11:08 AM

    I keep on hearing or reading articles on what Muslim girls are facing in USA No one wants to talk about what Muslim Boys are facing here. Please try to empower Men here to its not easy for them here either!

  5. Avatar

    Ikram Hawramani

    February 26, 2018 at 5:05 PM

    As someone who has written a detailed and explicit book about sexuality in a Western context, I have some important points to make. I hope you forgive the length of the comment. I will focus on the writer’s suggestion that the taboo surrounding sexuality is a negative influence.

    No discussion of sexuality can be complete without the mention of obscenity (see the book Sexual Desire by the British philosopher Roger Scruton). It is right and correct that sexuality is something we do not talk about openly and casually. The reason for this is the same as why we do not like to talk about defecation in polite company (I know it may sound ignorant to compare the two, but bear with me). A discussion of defecation is “obscene” because it focuses attention on humans as if they were animals; it reveals us to ourselves in our bare physicality, and this is not something we like, enjoy or appreciate in a human society.

    Civilized societies develop dress codes that hide the body, helping us interact with each other without our bodies getting in the way. A business meeting can go more smoothly if people are dressed properly compared to if everyone were to be naked. It is common though shortsighted to only think of women when dress codes are mentioned, when civilized societies have equally stringent requirements upon men. In cosmopolitan Iran, Japan or Egypt, men are not allowed to be topless or to wear shorts in polite society. We don’t need a men’s rights movement to “liberate” these men from these oppressive dress codes because common sense tells us that it is a good thing that men should be restricted by dress codes.

    Dress codes (and taboos) help reduce the incidence of obscenity by restricting our behavior. A naked man is far more likely to attract lustful glances from the opposite sex than a man dressed properly. Lust is obscene sexual desire, desire that is detached from appreciation of the person as a human. A lustful gaze is obscene because when a person engages in it, they go from humans to animals. They sink from the human world into the animal world, treating other humans as things, as objects and instruments of pleasure, rather than seeing them as humans of infinite worth.

    One of the most obscene things a person can experience in civilized society is to be lustfully groped against their will. A person who honors the people around him and sees them as humans of infinite worth would never grope a woman regardless of his desires and opportunities for doing so, since such an act dehumanizes the woman. The act is traumatic, it causes her to sink from the warmth of the human world into a cold and harsh animal world where she is no longer honored or respected as an individual, where she is just an object.

    The reason we do not like to talk about sexuality in polite society is not that we are backward, ignorant or narrow-minded. The reason is that anything that focuses our attention on our animal nature threatens to cause us to sink into obscenity. In a family gathering, we are all honored individuals. We do not see each other as animal bodies, but as persons. If everyone takes their clothes off and starts to talk about the workings of their bowels and sexual organs, with one member of the family deeply inspecting another (if you forgive the graphic imagery), this does not increase knowledge and it does not cause enlightenment. It rather causes disgust and makes everyone feel reduced and dishonored, because they have engaged in obscenity, in treating one another as animals rather than individuals. Focusing on our sexuality is always associated with a focus on our physicality, it takes us away from being individuals and toward being animals. There is no way to avoid this, because sexuality is a bodily function, similar to defecation. There is no way to talk about defecation in polite society, taking the taboo out of it, because the taboo is caused by the fact of defecation being associated with our physical side, rather than our spiritual side. Sexuality, too, belongs to the same physical category.

    Much of Islam’s restrictions on behavior are focused on the prevention of obscenity in order to ensure that we always treat each other as honored individuals rather than as animals. When women wear hijab and men dress modestly, this helps civilize our public spheres, reducing the opportunities and temptations for objectifying the opposite sex through lustful gazes. In this way, the public sphere is ‘cleaned up’ of sexuality, we can have large family gatherings with men and women all happily interacting together and honoring one another without anyone engaging in obscenely objectifying others, whether through gazing, groping, obscene speech or otherwise. In a genuinely warm and wholesome human gathering, we forget our bodies entirely, we feel as if it is our hearts interacting rather than our bodies. And this is exactly the type of atmosphere that Islam wants to create.

    Many Muslim writers working in the field of social work end up concluding that we need to ‘talk more’ about sexuality, that we need to ‘break the taboo’, that somehow the hijab causes ‘issues’ for women. But I believe this is caused by a sampling bias. Writers focus on a minority of problematic cases and ignore the 95% of teenage Muslim girls who are doing just fine, who are intelligent enough to find out everything they need about sexuality from the internet and their friends, and who understand the purpose of hijab and are comfortable with it.

    The idea that talking more openly about sexuality in polite society will do good is a very, very tenuous idea that requires a great deal of evidence to back it up. Considering the case of a young Muslim woman who considers choosing a lesbian lifestyle, would it really have made difference if her family were more open about sexuality? If you look deeply into the matter, you may find out that the issue is that this young woman has a cruel and distant father. Would it have made a difference if this cruel and distant father talked to her about sexuality? I highly doubt it.

    When it is suggested that Muslims should be more ‘open’ about sexuality what is really being suggested is that we should be kinder, more attentive and more sympathetic toward those around us (and the writer above mentioned these things). It is assumed that by talking more openly about sexuality these other things will also automatically take place, when these things have nothing to do with each other. A woman who wants to be a lesbian because of the cruelty and distance of her father would be the way she is regardless of whether her father talked to her a lot or little about sexuality.

    The problem appears to me to have absolutely nothing to do with how much we talk about sexuality and everything to do with the love and kindness we have for our family members. It is no surprise that a woman brought up in a cruel or broken family will have identity issues later on. But the question to ask, if we want to judge the issue of talking about sex, is whether a woman brought up in a kind and loving family will suffer identity issues due to the family not talking openly about sexuality. I very much doubt this.

    It is love and kindness that are at issue here. A woman who is brought up in a healthy family is going to have a healthy feminine identity even if she never talks with her parents about sexuality. In fact, some of the most self-confident, happy and outgoing women I have met come from conservative (but loving) religious families who would never openly talk about sex.

    I do not advocate for silence about sexuality. As I mentioned, I have written a book about sexuality (Sex and Purpose, available on Amazon). But if we are to suggest cures for the edge cases where people have sexual identity issues, we should act like scientists. Any cure we suggest should be tested to see whether it actually does any good or whether it is merely empty sloganizing. After years of studying sexuality, it seems highly doubtful to me that talking more about sexuality will do any good. What matters is the love, kindness and honor that we have toward our family members. Parents can buy a few Islamic sex education books and have them in their homes for their teenage children to discover in private, they can even encourage them to ask any questions they have, and perhaps this will do some good in preventing misconceptions. But whether this will have any benefit toward preventing identity issues is quite doubtful and requires much statistical data to prove it one way or another.

    When it comes to something like lesbianism, it seems to be caused by having a distant and unloving family, rather than being caused by having a loving family who never talk about sex. To me the maintenance of a sex taboo is as necessary as the maintenance of a taboo against swearing. Having your children talk about the details of sex in a family gathering is very much obscene rather than enlightened, it does not do anyone any good, and it causes everyone who listens to it to feel degraded, since obscenity always focuses our attention on our physicality rather than on our transcendent spirituality. And as for encouraging a daughter to talk to her parents more about sexuality, in reality many teenage girls will find this deeply awkward and humiliating, because all humans find it degrading when their bodies (rather than their transcendent selves) are the focus of attention.

    I am in agreement with the writer’s suggestions regarding treating children with more sympathy and respect (and this applies equally to boys). My point in this comment is to say that breaking the taboo on sex is a mirage, it promises to bring us into a new utopia of understanding when in reality it will only degrade us to converse casually about sex. The taboo is there for a very good reason, it helps us forget our bodies in polite society, so that our social interactions end up being a meeting of hearts and minds. As for conversing about sex in an educational book or in a therapeutic session, that can be justified, the way that it can be justified to see a stranger’s private parts when treating a wound in that area. But I would hazard a guess that the majority of teenagers will not enjoy or benefit from talking about sex with their parents. What they will enjoy and benefit from is love, kindness and being treated as honored humans.

    • Avatar

      B'K

      February 27, 2018 at 1:19 PM

      Sex is a bodily function, you say.
      Totally disagree. That’s a super shallow view of it.

      It’s an act of worship, therefore is spiritual in nature.

      • Avatar

        Ikram Hawramani

        February 27, 2018 at 5:17 PM

        @B’K: It appears that you missed the major point of my comment. Obscene sexual desire (lust) treats the other person as merely a body and treats sexuality as a bodily function. Wholesome sexual desire never loses sight of the other person as an individual. Sexually admiring another person without being in love with them is obscene because it reduces a human to an instrument of pleasure. Sexual desire is only wholesome when it is within the framework of love for the person (rather than mere attraction to their body).

        Talking about sex with a parent feels wrong and awkward because it is like talking about any other intimate bodily function. It is only in the company of a rightful lover that sex acquires a spiritual dimension. Everywhere else it feels wrong and out of place. And because of these facts, Islam makes an important distinction between public versus private manners when it comes to sexuality.

  6. Avatar

    Shaharyar Hadi

    March 9, 2018 at 9:13 PM

    Thank you Ikram Hawramani for your comment. Read it fully and really enjoyed it. I agree with the assertions you made.

  7. Avatar

    Mimo

    March 12, 2018 at 3:39 PM

    Thank you so much for this article!! Really. I, myself, am a teen Muslim girl, and have struggled with some of these issues. But alhamdulilah, I believe I have it better than most.
    Thank you so much Ms Menahal everything you said is so true. This article is beautiful. I believe Muslim teen girls, most probably even non-Muslim, could relate to this.
    I just can’t get over how much I love this article. Its like you truly understand me, and I’m just overwhelmed right now. I want to become a therapist too, so I really admire you. Especially that you talk about such topics. It is my dream to be like that. Thank you so much :D
    This really means a lot to me. Jazaki Allah Khairan. May Allah bless you and continue to make you a blessing <3
    :D

  8. Avatar

    YM

    July 16, 2019 at 2:22 PM

    JazakAllah Khair for the article! Among the things to do that Sister Menahal mentioned, ‘Being a role model’ is one of the hardest yet most important in my opinion. How we behave (walk, talk,interact etc) casts a shadow on those around us. May Allah give us the taufeeq to act upon what is learned. Ameen

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OpEd: Why We Must Reconsider Moonsighting

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Ed. Note: We understand that this is a matter of debate in many communities, MM welcomes op-eds of differing points of view. Please use this form.

When the Crescent Committee was founded in 2013, the Muslim community of Toronto was hopeful that this new initiative might resolve the long-standing problem of mosques declaring Eid on different days. This moonsighting organization was to follow global moonsighting as a methodology – if the crescent were to be sighted anywhere in the world, they would declare Eid. Global moonsighting was seen as a potential way of solving the yearly moonsighting debate which local sighting had been unable to solve thus far. It was hoped that this approach would also ensure congruence with Fiqh Council of North America’s (FCNA) lunar calendar which determines the Eid day in advance based on astronomical calculations.

This year, however, all those hopes were put to the test. Early afternoon on June 3rd, the 29th of Ramadan, the Crescent Committee (CC) started receiving reports that the moon was sighted in Saudi Arabia. Given that it was not possible for it to be seen there based on visibility charts, the committee required corroboration from another country in order to declare Eid. As the day progressed, they got reports from Iraq, Nigeria, Brazil, Mali and even from Maryland in the US. All those reports could not be relied upon because either the committee was unable to get in touch with their contacts in those countries or because the reports did not satisfy the criterion they laid out.

As they were sifting through the reports, the CC was shocked to learn that one of its founding members, the Islamic Foundation of Toronto (IFT), had already declared Eid! IFT is one of Toronto’s oldest and biggest mosques and their leadership decided to declare Eid based on the announcement from Mauritania. Mosques following FCNA’s calendar were already celebrating Eid the next day, so IFT thought it best to join with them with hopes of preserving unity.

With one of its own members having declared Eid and mounting pressure from the community given it was past 10 pm, the CC decided to wait to receive the final (hopefully positive) reports from California. This meant having to wait till sunset on the West Coast which would mean midnight on the East Coast. Unfortunately, even from California, there were no confirmed reports. Finally, at midnight, the Committee declared that they would complete 30 days of Ramadan and celebrate Eid on the 5th of June.

Alas, after spending a frustrating day waiting for an announcement till midnight, Toronto Muslims were told that this was going to be another year with two Eids in the city. This year, however, the split was not between proponents of astronomical calculations and moonsighting, but been proponents of the exact same moonsighting methodology!

Solving a 50-year old problem

This year’s debacle in Toronto represents nothing new. There have been numerous failed attempts to unite the moonsighting community. In 1995, the Islamic Circle of North America (ICNA), Islamic Society of North America (ISNA) and the Ministry of Warith Deen Muhammad joined hands to form the ‘Islamic Shura Council of North America’ with hopes of having a unified Eid declaration. Just like the Crescent Committee, this too was eventually disbanded due to dissenting voices. Other examples to unite and better organize moonsighting include the 2007 National Moonsighting Conference in California and the 2009 National Hilal Sighting Conference in New York. These attempts simply haven’t worked because there are far too many independent mosques and far too many moonsighting methodologies – uniting everyone in the absence of a governing authority is nearly impossible.

The story also highlights the three main problems that proponents of moonsighting have struggled to solve for nearly half a century in North America and other parts of the Western world. These can be summarized as follows:

1) Mosques declaring Eid on different days based on differing moonsighting methodologies. This has created notorious divisions within the community and has led to the awkward situation of families, often living in the same city, not being able to celebrate together. It can also lead to endless argumentation within families as to which mosque to follow with regards to this issue.

2) The unpredictability of the Eid date means that Muslims continue to have difficulty taking time off from work and planning family vacations. This problem is particularly challenging for the hourly-waged working-class individuals who work in organizations with little flexibility. The process of having to explain to an employer the complications surrounding Eid declarations can be a source of unnecessary hardship for many. It is not uncommon for many to take off a day which ends up being the ‘wrong day’.

3) Delayed announcements, especially during the summer months, due to process of receiving and verifying reports after sunset. Not knowing whether or not the next day will be a holiday, often until the late evening, has been a continued source of distress for families every year.

It was the desire the solve these very problems that brought together a group of visionary Muslim jurists and astronomers in Herndon, Virginia in 1987. Organized by the International Institute of Islamic Thought (IIIT), the Lunar Calendar Conference was one of the first attempts to find an innovative solution to the problems posed by traditional moonsighting. A detailed history of the events leading up to the conference and its aftermath have been documented before. In short, Muslim scholars and mathematicians continued work on the astronomical lunar calendar for nearly two decades after the conference and it was finally adopted by FCNA and ISNA in 2006.

A valid methodology from the Shariah

While opposition to FCNA’s lunar calendar was quite strong when it was first introduced, there has been growing acceptance of astronomical calculations over the past 15 years as a result of continued research and education on this subject.

The use of calculations to determine the dates of Ramadan is something which numerous reputable scholars have allowed throughout Islam’s history [1]. While this has always been the view of a small minority, championed mainly by scholars in the Shafa’i legal school, it is still based on a sound interpretation of religious texts. The difference of opinion on this issue arises from hadith of the Prophet where he stated,  “If [the crescent moon] is obscured from you, then estimate it” (فإن غم عليكم فاقدروا له ). A detailed exposition in support of calculations from a classical perspective was recently presented by Shaykh Salahuddin Barkat.

Shaykh Musa Furber, one of America’s leading Shafa’i jurists, also comments on the towering figures from our tradition who supported calculations: “Since the time of Imām al-Nawawī, there has been an evident trend within the Shāfiʿī school of law for acceptance for the personal use of calculations for fasting. While a small number of earlier Shāfiʿī scholars did accept it, it seems to have been confined to a small minority within the school. It was not until the time of Imam al-Nawawī (may Allah grant him His mercy) that the opinion amongst scholars of the school started to shift towards accepting calculations as valid and even binding — even if limited to the calculator and whoever believed him. Although al-Subkī (may Allah grant him His mercy) is usually accredited with causing this shift, some scholars credit Imam al-Nawawī’s himself with starting this trend. The opinion was accepted by both Shaykh al-Islām Zakariyā al-Anṣārī and Imām al-Ramlī, though not by Imam Ibn Ḥajar (may Allah grant all of them from His mercy). These imams form the basis for reliable opinions in the late Shāfiʿī madhhab.”

Understandably, this opinion was considered weak and ignored through much of Islamic history. Some limited its scope and allowed it only when the moon was obstructed or for use by experts in astronomy. There really is no need for calculations in Muslim lands where there exists a centralized authority to sight the crescent and there are public holidays for the entire populace. However, in secular countries with Muslim minorities, this position must be revisited as it offers a very practical solution to the crises we find ourselves in.

Only one way forward

According to a 2011 survey of over 600 mosques in the US, the adoption rate of FCNA’s calendar stood at 40%. At the writing of this article nearly 8 years later, this number has likely increased to over 50%. The survey indicated that about 40% of the mosques followed local sighting while the remainder followed global sighting. Given the recent shift towards global moonsighting, it is likely that the moonsighting community is evenly split between the two positions at this time.

These statistics represent the only logical way forward to solve this decades-old problem: the most efficient way of achieving unity is by converging behind FCNA’s lunar calendar. This methodology is the only real solution to the crises we currently find ourselves in. Not only does it address all our needs, but this approach has also shown to provide immense ease and facilitation for Muslim communities that have followed it in the past 15 years.

The moonsighting leadership has failed to unite despite a half-century of effort; it is inconceivable at this point that this would ever happen. Even if it did miraculously happen, 50% of the community would still be following FCNA’s calendar and all three of our main problems will remain unaddressed. Additionally, with the current trend of uniting behind the approach of global sighting, ‘moonsighting’ has largely become an administrative exercise. It involves the hilal committee simply waiting for reports from abroad and trying to ascertain their veracity. Only a handful of communities go out looking for the moon and establish the sunnah of moon sighting in a bonafide sense.

In large communities where differing Eid dates is a reoccurring problem, advocating for the adoption of the lunar calendar must come from the grass-roots level. Muslims most affected by this problem should lobby their local mosques to change their positions and unite behind FCNA’s lunar calendar.

While it may seem impossible to get the leadership of mosques to abandon an old position, it has already been done. In 2015, nine major mosques in the Chicago area set aside their differences and put their support behind the lunar calendar. This is an incredible feat and has created ease in the lives of thousands of people. If similar initiatives are taken in other cities split along lines of lunar dogmatism, it is conceivable that the moonsighting issue could be resolved in North America within the next five to ten years.

The Prophet told us to calculate the moon if it is obscured by clouds. Today, the moon is not obscured by physical clouds but it is clouded by poor judgment, distrust, egotism, disunity, and pride. We must resort to calculations to determine the birth of the new moon, not because it is the strongest legal position or a superior approach, but because our status as minorities in a secular land necessitates it.

References:

[1]  From SeekersGuidance: Scholars upholding this can be traced all the way back to the first Islamic century. The textual basis for this opinion is the hadith narrated by al-Bukhari, “When you see it [the new moon of Ramadan] then fast; and when you see it [the new moon of Shawwal], then break the fast. If it is hidden from you (ghumma ‘alaykum) [i.e. if the sky is overcast] then estimate it (fa-qdiru lahu);” (al-Bukhari, hadith no. 1900). The last verb, fa-qdiru, can be validly understood to mean calculation. Of the scholars who held this, are Abu al-‘Abbas b. Surayj (d. 306/918), one of the leading founders of the classical Shafi‘i school, the Shafi‘i scholar and renowned mystic Abu al-Qasim al-Qushayri (d. 465/1072), the leading Shafi‘i judge Taqi al-Din al-Subki (d. 756/1355), the Shafi‘i legal theorist al-Zarkashi (d. 794/1392), the renowned Maliki legal theorist al-Qarafi (d. 684/1285), and some Hanafi scholars. The late Shafi‘i commentator al-Qalyubi (d. 1069/1659) held that all sighting-claims must be rejected if calculations show that a sighting was impossible, stating, “This is manifestly obvious. In such a case, a person may not fast. Opposing this is obstinacy and stubbornness.” See al-Mawsu‘ah al-fiqhiyyah al-kuwaytiyyah, c.v. “Ru’yat al-hilal,” vol. 22, pp. 31-4. The leading scholar of the late Shāfi‘ī school Muhammad al-Ramli (d. 1004/1596) held that the expert astronomer was obliged to follow his own calculation as was the non-astronomer who believed him; this position has been used by some contemporary Shafi’i scholars to state that in the modern world, with its precise calculations, the strongest opinion of the Shafi’i school should be that everyone must follow calculations; see ‘Umar b. al-Habib al-Husayni, Fath al-‘ali fi jam‘ al-khilaf bayna Ibn Hajar wa-Ibn al-Ramli, ed. Shifa’ Hitu (Jeddah: Dar al-Minhaj, 2010), pp. 819-22. See also the fatwa of the Hanafi scholar Dr Salah Abu al-Hajj (http://www.anwarcenter.com/fatwa/معنى-حديث-لا-تصوموا-حتى-تروا-الهلال-ول) last accessed 9/5/2016) which states, after arguing against relying on calculations, “However, the position of [following] calculations is the position of a considerable group of jurists, so it is a respected disagreement in Islamic law, whereby, if a state were to adopt it, it is not rejected, because the judgment of a judge removes disagreement, and the adoption of a state is [as] the judgment of a judge.

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Eid Lameness Syndrome: Diagnosis, Treatment, Cure

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How many of you have gone to work on Eid because you felt there was no point in taking off? No Eid fun. Have you ever found Eid boring, no different from any other day?

If so, you may suffer from ELS (Eid Lameness Syndrome). Growing up, I did too.

My family would wake up, go to salah, go out to breakfast, come home, take a 4+ hour nap and then go out to dinner. I didn’t have friends to celebrate with and even if I did, I wouldn’t see them because we stuck to our own immediate family just as they did.

On the occasion that we went to a park or convention center, we would sort of have fun. Being with other people was certainly better than breakfast-nap-dinner in isolation, but calling that a memorable, satisfying, or genuinely fun Eid would be a stretch.

I don’t blame my parents for the ELS though. They came from a country where Eid celebration was the norm; everyone was celebrating with everyone and you didn’t have to exert any effort. When they moved to the US, where Muslims were a minority, it was uncharted territory. They did the best they could with the limited resources they had.

When I grew up, I did about the same too. When I hear friends or acquaintances tell me that they’re working, doing laundry or whatever other mundane things on Eid, I understand.  Eid has been lame for so long that some people have given up trying to see it any other way. Why take personal time off to sit at home and do nothing?

I stuck to whatever my parents did for Eid because “Eid was a time for family.” In doing so, I was honoring their cultural ideas of honoring family, but not Eid. It wasn’t until I moved away that I decided to rebel and spend Eid with convert friends (versus family) who didn’t have Muslim families to celebrate with on Eid, rather than drive for hours to get home for another lame salah-breakfast-nap-dinner.

That was a game-changing Eid for me. It was the first non-lame Eid I ever had, not because we did anything extraordinary or amazing, but because we made the day special by doing things that we wouldn’t normally do on a weekday together. It was then that I made a determination to never have a lame Eid ever again InshaAllah.

I’m not the only one fighting ELS. Mosques and organizations are creating events for people to attend and enjoy together, and families are opting to spend Eid with other families. There is still much more than can be done, as converts, students, single people, couples without children and couples with very small children, are hard-hit by the isolation and sadness that ELS brings. Here are a few suggestions for helping treat ELS in your community:

Host an open house

Opening up your home to a large group of people is a monumental task that takes a lot of planning and strength. But it comes with a lot of baraka and reward. Imagine the smiling faces of people who would have had nowhere to go on Eid, but suddenly find themselves in your home being hosted. If you have a big home, hosting an open house is an opportunity to express your gratitude to Allah for blessing you with it.

Expand your circle

Eid is about commUNITY. Many people spend Eid alone when potential hosts stick to their own race/class/social status. Invite and welcome others to spend Eid with you in whatever capacity you can.

Delegate

You can enlist the help of close friends and family to help so it’s not all on you. Delegate food, setup, and clean-up across your family and social network so that no one person will be burdened by the effort InshaAllah.

Squeeze in

Don’t worry if you don’t have a big house, you’ll find out how much barakah your home has by how many people are able to fit in it. I’ve been to iftars in teeny tiny apartments where there’s little space but lots of love. If you manage to squeeze in even two or three extra guests, you’ve saved two or three people from ELS for that year.

Outsource Eid Fun

If you have the financial means or know enough friends who can pool together, rent a house. Some housing share sites have homes that can be rented specifically for events, giving you the space to consolidate many, smaller efforts into one larger, more streamlined party.

Flock together

It can be a challenge to find Eid buddies to spend the day with. Try looking for people in similar circumstances as you. I’m a single woman and have hosted a ladies game night for the last few Eids where both married and single women attend.  If you are a couple with young kids, find a few families with children of similar age groups. If you’re a student, start collecting classmates. Don’t wait for other people to invite you, make a list in advance and get working to fend off ELS together.

Give gifts

The Prophet ﷺ said: تَهَادُوا تَحَابُّوا‏ “Give gifts to increase love for each other”. One of my siblings started a tradition of getting a gift for each person in the family. If that’s too much, pick one friend or family member and give them a gift. If you can’t afford gifts, give something that doesn’t require much money like a card or just your time. You never know how much a card with kind, caring words can brighten a person’s Eid.

Get out of your comfort zone

If you have ELS, chances are there is someone else out there who has it too. The only way to find out if someone is sad and alone on Eid is by admitting that we are first, and asking if they are too.

Try, try, try again…

Maybe you’ve taken off work only to find that going would have been less of a waste of time. Maybe you tried giving gifts and it didn’t go well. Maybe you threw an open house and are still cleaning up/dealing with the aftermath until now. It’s understandable to want to quit and say never again, to relent and accept that you have ELS and always will but please, keep trying. The Ummah needs to believe that Eid can and should be fun and special for everyone.

While it is hard to be vulnerable and we may be afraid of rejection or judgment, the risk is worth it. As a survivor and recoverer of ELS, I know how hard it can be and also how rewarding it is to be free of it. May Allah bless us all with the best Eids and to make the most of the blessed days before and after, Ameen.

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Bipolar Exiled: Oscillating between the Mind’s Terrain and Physical Boundaries

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By Farzande Jehan

 

“And what is the matter with you sister, you are not well either?”

She is speaking to me in Urdu. We are both Pathan. And now I am thinking of one universal ailment that I can supply this lady with and leave it at that. I say that I have depression. She looks at me puzzled, looks at the lady sitting next to her, searching her face for a clue but to no avail. Can I explain ‘depression’ to her? This is going to be difficult. Why don’t I..

“I have a mood disorder.”

Pakistanis use the word ‘mood’ and ‘moody’ all the time; she should know. As I wait for a response, the same blank expression on her face. No comprendo. Rescue her furzy, she is losing you.

“Okay, so sometimes I am very happy, bohth khush,” I raise my hand as high as possible, “And sometimes I am very sad, bohth khafa.” I bring my hand down low.

Ahhh!”

The thing’s been expressed in the right words.

To elaborate I say: “What I come here for…” -and there is newfound confidence in my voice too- “…is to make sure that it is leveled.”

This I demonstrate by slicing through the room with my theatrical hand. I resettle in my chair. I have successfully regained my right to be here. I am quiet not because I am rude, but because I need composure.


2009

I was 23, visibly Muslim, living in NYC, and just about ready to enter an adulthood promised to many of the youth of my time. I was a graduate student the year I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, and had all but completed two of the courses that led to my degree. I owed many of life’s successes and some failures too -but more of the good- to my ex-commuter status. My family preferred that I live at home, so I’d take the D from Brooklyn and transfer to the 1 somewhere in Midtown (God help you on the weekends when maintenance reroutes).

The summer of my onset, two white passengers in an underground train whispered about the news of Michael Jackson’s death. The couple scheduled to get help from martinis to cope with their pain.

The isolation I experienced and the spiritual inclination I harbored from a young age worked as seamless elements in the pursuit of removing me from my reality… your reality. I lived in a place that was in extreme contrast to the ideals I cherished. New York did successfully provide the tools that accurately identified the whatnots so that the whats that mattered remained.

Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. How do you reconcile a reverence for a Deity that felt too far? My jugular vein reminded me of vessels and of things that hold quantity. Water indeed is life and Muslims agree that God is everywhere, so where do we draw the line? If I labored just enough, the distance that separated me from my Creator would shorten, I believed. The city that never sleeps left me sleepless.


A dirty curtain separated the men from the women. We were in the fourth season of the year and I start counting mine from Spring. My family returned to the go-back-to-your-country type of country in 2014, before Trump came to office and after Obama dropped drones on my ancestors’ homeland. A heater was supplied for the menfolk. The woman who was interviewing me earlier tended to her sick child, laid stretched out on the seat because her daughter had difficulty sitting up. Mental distress carries the marker of a plague struck in nations like the one where I live. Poverty exposes what little cover there is.

The office we were in was Dr. Rehman’s. His portrait was grinning at us. It seemed to be saying, “Give me your money you lunatic, you need help!”

An ayat from the Holy Quran about shifa, remedy, that it is ultimately in the hands of Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He), hung on the opposite wall, punching the arrogant grin in the face. In life we seek balance. The verse reassured me: “Don’t worry so.” It seemed to say: “Answer the man’s questions and go home happy – all is well.”

I breathed in as I looked down at my feet. I know that in Spirituality, things have specific destinies too and not just mortals. The thought that visits me from time to time: maybe it’s the shoes I am wearing that are carrying me to places where I don’t belong, belong.

A woman placed a prayer mat in front of me that day for herself. She was facing the qibla for the fourth time. I patiently waited for my number to be called. “Twelve!” I heard. Covering my face -because now I will be passing through rows of men- I got up to leave the patients’ patience testing room.


1997

I was twelve-years old in the year we immigrated to America, eleven when I first landed on the brave soil. We were arriving in two hours and mother wanted everything in order. The first thing she saw was the sight of her younger daughter’s head. My head! It needed attention. It required attention. I almost wanted to cry when she was brushing my hair, and not because she was pulling at the strands. I had tears in my eyes because I had tasted Tropicana orange juice with no pulp for the first time in my short life.

My best friend from high school had paid me a visit on my second hospital stay, I had been in treatment for four months and in denial of my initial diagnosis. The proceeding to dump all medicine and carrying on with life until trouble lurked once more -the serpent raising its head drama played itself out. It’s a common prelude that way too many people experience in the initial processing of a newfound knowledge about the self.

Brooklyn was hit by a storm so severe that my family walked several of the miles on the day I was getting discharged. There were no taxis in sight for hours and the MTA was not functioning. My friend was expecting her first baby and had rushed to see me. She had a bag full of oranges to give to me. The setting and the process of checking in to visit your loved ones -and not to mention the presence of other patients who are sometimes in worse condition than you are- has the potential to throw your visitors off. I did not want to shock her but I was too helpless in offering an alternative view.

People go to zoos to see animals in cages. Seeing me in a gown, though I had my head covered, a scarf -in that was the familiar-, had I seemed weak to her? Was I the sight people conjure when they think ‘mentally ill’? This was my friend, and I wonder how much of the stereotype I filled in for her and to what degree, if at all? Had she had pity on me or was being sympathetic her character trait? Shouldn’t unborn children be kept away from sick persons like me at that time?

Shattering The Stigma of Mental Illness

For those of us in societies where there is  chaos within and a violence outside, was I mentally ill if my brain is part of my body? I was bodily ill, wasn’t I? Organ-ly ill. My mind had not stopped working. I was not pagal*, No! (*refers to somebody who is insane and is mainly a pejorative in South Asian communities) My brain had gone into overdrive and my thoughts were shooting at each other. This I know because I lost control. How did I allow myself to become so wild that I needed to be tamed? What was this force? Was it even my fault and does every event have a cause? I must have looked like a prisoner yet I have tasted freedom. Out of my own free will, I carried a transaction to deposit the ‘me’ in me in the hands of the One who made me. Whereas qismt (destiny) is sometimes cruel, God we know is always Merciful.

It requires strength to hold an image of a person you care for, far removed from a space that you once shared and to meet them at that threshold. An image like that is etched in memories for long times. Sadaf knew of my liking of oranges. Her gesture meant more than any flowers ever could represent her love for me. My employer was her ex-employer, otherwise knowledge of my hospitalization(s) was usually limited to family. After getting discharged and being somewhat stable at this point, I visited her at her house. Ibraheem assumed that the beauty mark on my chin was nothing but a button! That if he pressed on it, I would turn into a walking/talking toy. I let him play for as long as he wanted since I loved seeing the smiles on his face and the way he would giggle. I’d behave like a robot and only stop the awkwardness when he’d press the button again.


The disorder that I have and the control that it has over me is somewhat like little Ibraheem’s curiosity. It presses a button and I turn into a person other than me. I please it. I entertain it to the extent where it starts to get bored or needs a diaper change not when I lose the strength to continue. The only downside in playing this game is that the thing habitually forgets to turn the button off. It leaves me running into walls and breaking things and getting hurt in return. We need a team of rescuers, a hospitalization, and strange medicine with stranger names to bring me back.

I was shocked when I first read in our Islamic literature that the Creator laughs.

Abu Razeen reported: The Messenger of Allah, peace and blessings be upon him, said, “Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) laughs at the despair of his servant, for he will soon relieve him.” I said, “O Messenger of Allah, does the Lord laugh?” The Prophet ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) said, “Yes.” I said, “We will never be deprived of goodness by a Lord who laughs!” [Sunan Ibn Mājah 181]

I understand a thing like that somewhat differently from how others read it.

After spending my twenties toiling in making sense of it all, my recovery has a lot to do with a change of terrain. It is the distance I needed to sort things out. I studied Orientalism in New York but read Edward Said speak of his love for an aunt who helped Palestinian refugees find shelter in his Out of Place: A Memoir here in Pakistan. The human component of scholarship, something that was missing previously, became vital at closing the gaps of humanity I was made deprived of. Healing begun.

By sharing my story, I’d like for people who are diagnosed with illnesses like bipolar to keep steadfast. No matter your creed or the place where you are from, know that you are not alone. And for family and friends who bear witness to the turmoil that infects a loved one to stand strong. Your strength or lack thereof has a direct impact on our wellness.

In the Quran it says that we will be tested with sons and wealth [Surah Al-Anfal;28]. Having a mental illness is a kind of test that has no beginning, nor a definite end. Take care of your health before sickness visits you is a famous saying of Prophet Muhammad ṣallallāhu 'alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him). There will be days when you feel frustrated and question the just ruling of a Just God. Reach out and feel blessed, for being a Muslim carries the weight of family keeping bonds.

Ideally, the Ummah is one that conducts checks and balances so that the affairs of our Muslim brethren are running smooth. Unlocking and internalizing the goodness and the kheir that Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) has placed in the world for our taking requires humility, an admittance of our own neediness followed by the realization of and acknowledging our smallness in a universe that is run not by us. Believing in God and trusting in Him are not the same.

The meaning of the word Islam is peace. Muslims exchanging the greeting of peace with other Muslims is an experience. Transferring that practice and truly living that peace needs patience. The challenge of living with and sometimes outliving a mental illness requires a tailored kind of submission. The hush of stability hums low in the beginning when loud is the announcement of a calamity. Faith after all is belief in the existence of hope alongside the tragedy that is life. What is more, our bodies are rented to us. The obligation of living inside them is not a punishment. It is a privilege. The challenge is to be at peace with our predicaments and that can be easily achieved since I believe that all of us are capable of nourishing our minds and feeding our souls, perhaps not at the same pace but the possibility of recovery is guaranteed once we take that initial step. It is realizing the potential of and exercising resilience itself that saved me. To transfer that hope in the mode of words is the least I can offer. May Allah subḥānahu wa ta'āla (glorified and exalted be He) accept, ameen.

Show, Don’t (Just) Tell – The Right Way to Tackling Mental Health

 

The writer is currently a doctoral student in American Studies at Area Study Centre 
of Quaid-e-Azam University, Islamabad. Previously, she holds a Masters in Liberal Studies from Columbia University. You may reach the editorial team of Muslim Matters if you wish to contact her.

 

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