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 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 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 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 Prophetreplied, “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) `
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 who said: “We were with the Prophet – 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 began his teaching of youngsters by developing a relationship with Allah . 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 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.
- 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.
- 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 firstname.lastname@example.org.