When I think of an eating disorder, the first thing that comes to mind is the image of a young white girl who is painfully thin. The word anorexia has become synonymous with eating disorders as are the emaciated images of anorexic girls who are most likely to be white. Given the negative reporting around eating disorders and the relentless pressure on young girls to conform to a particular body image, I can be forgiven for this inbuilt conditioning and stereotyping. This week is Eating Disorders Awareness Week, which is a campaign to raise awareness of the complexity of eating disorders as well as challenge these very stereotypes and stigmas. So I’m writing this to dispel the myth that eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia are illnesses that only happen to white people. Young South Asian girls also suffer from eating disorders.
Some research indicates that in particular young Muslim girls of South Asian origin in the UK are particularly at high risk of developing bulimia. However, as a simple google search reveals, mainstream media coverage would leave you thinking that ethnic minorities hardly suffer from eating disorders, leave alone the fact that some groups may be at high risk. This stereotype is also prevalent amongst South Asian communities, in which mental health issues are often swept under the carpet as sufferers are stigmatised. The result is that young South Asian girls, and in particular young Muslims, are being overlooked by mainstream agencies when it comes to recognising their suffering, and getting them the help and support they need.
We know that in our society there is huge cultural pressure on young people and in particular girls to be skinny, waif like and attain impossible barbie like body shapes. The gendered link between media pressure and eating disorders is inescapable. But frustratingly just as women from ethnic minorities are absent from everyday media appearances, the fact that they too are also subjected to the same cultural pressures and resultant illnesses, is also absent.
We need to recognise that young South Asian girls are just like any other young girl in the UK, and we can do this by bringing their experiences to the forefront of discourses on issues such as eating disorders. In doing so we can then validate their identity, needs and raise awareness of the difficulties they face. Yes, their culture and faith background may impact on the way they experience particular issues, but the point is that the actual issues are the same for any young person in the UK, irrespective of their ethnicity.
Anorexia and bulimia are savage illnesses – anorexia in particular has a high mortality rate, with 20% of sufferers dying prematurely from the illness. So it is vital that every young girl at risk of developing an eating disorder receives treatment and help quickly, which means recognising when they are in the early stages of the illness. However in the past I have come across startling prejudice when it comes to young South Asian girls and eating disorders, preventing them from getting the help they need – one health professional thought that Asians wouldn’t suffer with anorexia given “their diet of samosas and fried food”. This is just one example of a stereotype attached to South Asians.
Unfortunately in my experience, young Muslims also often report feeling misunderstood by mainstream services. This is because implicit prejudice can colour blind health professionals from recognising disorders such as bulimia in their Muslim clients.
Charities like beat are doing amazing work to raise awareness of eating disorders and challenge stereotypes. We now need to take this further and recognise the devastating affect eating disorders are also having on young South Asian women.
You can now find this post on Huffington Post UK: http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/akeela-ahmed/eating-disorders-asian-girls_b_4869864.html
A friend of mine recently started taking anti-depressants. It wasn’t an easy decision for her, neither was it a decision that she took lightly. However, after battling with depression for many years, her doctor recommended a multi-pronged approach to treatment. Combining, a talking therapy, self-administered mindfulness and anti-depressants.
After an initial struggle with the side effects, which included drowsiness, mood swings and some low mood, my friend noticed a difference in their overall mood. They felt stabilised, less irritable and were more able to cope with stressful days, at home or work. They also noticed a marked difference in their reactions to situations involving conflict or confrontations – whereas previously they may have reacted with anger, overcome by their feelings and unable to cope with their emotions – they now reacted moderately, their mind clearer and thus able to better manage their negative feelings and emotions. Of course, the anti-depressants have not given them new abilities to cope with stressful situations. However they have taken off the edge of low mood and everything that comes with it: the rumination, the endless cycle of negative thoughts and feelings which for someone dealing with severe depression can seem like reality, and finally the fixed perception of negativity. Anti-depressants are by no means a cure, and the decision to take them should be part of an overall treatment plan, that is done in consultation with a qualified mental health professional or doctor. Studies show that when taken alone, with no other form of therapy, the rate of recovery is low, with many people becoming dependent on them. Combined therapies have been shown to be more effective when there is a need for medication.
I personally was a sceptic of medication treatments, however through years of working with people with severe and enduring mental health difficulties, I have understood that there are some situations where medication is essential. Similarly we would never think twice about taking medication for diabetes or high cholesterol, especially if it meant a better quality of life. However for people who experience depression, pretty much in the same way one might experience a common cold, I felt that medication should be a last resort, rather using psychological remedies and tools to overcome their bouts of low mood.
Within the Muslim and South Asian communities there is still a huge stigma around mental illness. So much so that I have dealt with cases, where tragically parents have stopped their children from seeking appropriate treatment, help and support -in order to avoid being ostracised from their own communities. A better understanding of mental health problems and the ways they can be treated will help us to overcome this pervasive stigma. Hence I wanted to share my friends story of taking medication for depression.
Observing the experience of my friend closely and in a personal way has, made me reflect on this position. I am yet to still see what happens when it is time for my friend to wean off the medication. I know that this is when the talking therapy and mindfulness will provide the support and tools to enable her to live without medication and manage her depression in the long term.
At a recent Christian Muslim Forum event held in Westminster Abbey, I spoke about identity, what it means to me as a British Muslim and the variations between genders. I am a strong believer in each individual finding their own identity – this is part of growing up and one of the biggest challenges that young people face: the challenge of navigating their way through teenage years to develop and form their own sense of self, whilst negotiating with those around them.
For young Muslims in the UK, this journey is fraught with obstacles and barriers to forming a healthy and confident sense of themselves. Ideally the identity formation of a young person results in a young adult who feels at ease with who they are, and their place in society.
Thinking about identity prompted me to remember my own personal journey. When I was around seventeen years old, I was constantly preoccupied with the idea of who I was. I would often have superficial debates with friends about whether I preferred Oasis or Blur, and what that meant about who I was. Whilst internally I would be grappling with whether I should say I was Indian, East African (my parental heritage), or British, when asked where I came from, when actually all I felt was English. Incidentally, in the end I went with Oasis – they were more “real” and I liked the things Noel Gallagher would say about life (thankfully I’ve moved on now). I thought it was deep, whereas Blur and Damon Albarn just seemed too artificial. Anyhow, my seventeen year old self also decided that I was simply British. It was the safest thing to say, since at that time I did not know of any individuals from an ethnic minority group who called themselves English. This however also made me feel anger. Anger that maybe I was not perceived to be on the same footing as my English friends, just because I didn’t have the correct skin colour, and I adhered to a different faith. Despite the fact that I was born in the UK and had no affiliation or ties to any other country.
Growing in life experience, attending university, completing an MSc in Mental Health Studies, and capitalising on the subsequent opportunities, empowered me to become settled in who I was, providing me with confidence to be able to deal with questions about my faith, background and values.
Later, as an adult, I found that for my young children the answer to where they came from was much simpler:
“Mum we’re English. We speak English, we were born in England, we do English things, how can we be anything else?”
These were the wise words of my four and five year old daughters. I’m pleased that for now life is that simple for them. Hopefully they will not have to spend their teen years wrangling over this issue. However, I am also acutely aware that anti-Muslim prejudice is one of the biggest challenges our society is currently facing, along with the implicit sexism within most of our structures.
When a young person is developing their identity – the most critical years of their lives – they should not have to face constant challenges. Challenges which undermine fundamentally who they are; about whether they are British or not, or if their faith is compatible with British way of life. Unfortunately, for many young British Muslims, this is a daily occurrence. At any given time they receive a barrage of negative media, with public personalities debating what Muslim women should or should not wear, to describing Islam (and thus its followers) as inherently evil and trying to take over the country. Most worrying are the growing number of anti-Muslim hatred attacks on the street. This scrutiny has a negative impact on an individual’s identity formation. Young people are more likely to suffer from a lack of confidence and self-esteem, finding it harder to feel accepted and part of wider civil society. And in turn if they are not understood or accepted by society, why should they then contribute towards it in a positive way? Despite these barriers, the majority of young British Muslims feel British, and contribute enormously to their communities, and wider civil society. But perhaps this sense of being socially excluded is compounded when faced with lack of opportunities in education, employment, as well as a lack of access to good health provision?
Confident identities can only come from good psychological well being, which can be achieved through support, friendship and opportunities. Feeling like you are a part of, and accepted by wider society, is also crucial to this. I was fortunate to have access to both opportunities and support. Thus when I am faced with sometimes uncomfortable or abusive challenges about my identity, I am able to negotiate and engage with these. In turn, this can be incredibly powerful and transformative. However, for most, these challenges are a source of anxiety, causing them to retreat into themselves and their communities.
When we look at the genders, we see there are differences. On the whole Muslim men in the UK, have poorer outcomes compared to Muslim women across, education, employment, crime and social mobility. The genders are taking distinct and different journeys in their separate identities. The barriers described earlier are feeding into this trend.
There are also obstacles within the Muslim communities. I feel strongly that British Muslims need to cultivate their own identity in which they are confident and secure, one that enables them to integrate into wider civil society freely and plurally. This will engender confidence when faced with criticisms on Islam and their beliefs. In order to achieve this, Muslim communities need to create and build infrastructure within, that is inclusive as well representative, for Muslims and local communities, in particular young people and women. This will facilitate a cohesive and confident identity through education, support, nurture, social bonding and capital, but does not necessarily mean all Muslims have to agree on everything or have “one” voice.
Yet we find that the facilities for women in mosques are imbalanced in favour of men. If there are separate sections for women, often basic amenities such as baby changing and feeding rooms are non-existent, but mostly women can expect either dire provision or in some circumstances exclusion, with no facilities at all. Most committees or governing bodies of mainstream Muslim organisations and mosques, still lack meaningful representation or engagement of women at every organisational layer. The implicit gender inequality within Muslim communities is sometimes so embedded that blatant misogyny is unrecognised and often attributed to being the fault of the women themselves.
The truth about Muslim identity is that it is complex, with barriers originating from both within the Muslim communities and externally. However these can be overcome if we remember that integration is a two way relationship. Then it is clear that in essence any future Muslim identity is dependent on how the majority of society view British Muslims, and their faith. Thus, it is vitally important to not only build internally within Muslim communities but to also overcome discrimination, prejudice and social exclusion that many British Muslims face.
In 2011, I contributed to a series of four symposia, convened by the Prince AlWaleed bin Talal bin Centre for Islamic Studies and supported by the Department for Communities and Local Goverment, which brought together a diverse range of contributors from within the British Muslim communities, to debate one of the key questions identified in the first stage of the project: how might Islamic theologies and Muslim communities contribute to notions of active citizenship and positive engagement in wider society for the common good?
During the symposium I presented on how one’s faith and belief in Islam and the prophetic tradition, could indeed be applied to and used as a catalyst to help young people, who are facing complex social and mental health challenges. These problems and issues faced on a daily basis, could range from child abuse to teen angst or depression. I put forward that the Qur’anic values of compassion, helping others and listening in a non-judgemental way, were values that had been overlooked by Muslims in Britain today; that these need to be revived amongst the ‘elders’ and mosques of the communities, in order to help and support young people.
In my experience if you provide a safe space for a young person and provide them with the tools to make the best decisions for themselves, as well as provide opportunities to lift themselves out of their situation, then this process can be highly transformative. Without the need to exalt judgement or chastisement, which only serves to increase their anxieties and ostracise them from their own communities.
A summary of the discussions around youth is found in the section titled ‘Supporting Young British Muslims‘, pages 40 to 41.
I attended an Eid reception at Downing Street in which the PM, David Cameron, spoke quite passionately on the need to tackle prejudice and in particular Islamophobia. There is still, amongst some commentators and journalists, who question the very existence of prejudice against Muslims. Indeed, there are some who feel it is right to demonise Muslims under the guise of criticising Islam and it’s religious tenets. The PM’s words reminded me of an interview I did with Samira Shackle on this issue. Shackle succinctly addresses the false notion that there exists an “Islamophobia Industry”, whilst highlighting the very real consequences of anti-Muslim hatred.
Quick post to let you know that I will be taking part in a debate on the niqab (face covering), tomorrow evening (15th October 2013), at the LSE. It is open to the public and the details are on the link below.
The Niqab (face veil): human right, security concern or symbol of oppression? a debate
Colleague and friend Julian Bond put together a piece on the niqab non-debate, that has been raging for the past week or so. With a little help from moi.
“The current debate over the niqab is another example of unwarranted attention being given to a Muslim issue simply because it is a ‘Muslim’ issue.
The current media debate over the wearing of the niqab (the full face-veil for Muslim women) is another example of unwarranted attention (much of it negative) being given to a Muslim issue, precisely (or only) because it is a Muslim issue. This is inevitably why I am writing, though I have consulted with my colleague Akeela Ahmed and why this article is in both of our names.
1. This is a free country
Unless people are committing a crime or outraging public decency they can wear what they like and choose how much they cover or reveal. It may be worth noting that a British politician was not allowed to wear a ‘No More Page 3’ T-shirt in the House of Commons. Other than that, no-one should be telling people what to wear or how to wear it. Difficulties arise where there are no precise rulings or new situations arise. Responses to these situations may not be accommodating of minority groups and legal action is sometimes necessary to achieve inclusion (rather than special treatment) of those who are different e.g. when the Sikh turban was eventually permitted instead of a motorcycle crash helmet in the 1970s.
2. It’s OK to wear the hijab
Whatever a Muslim, or Jewish, or Christian, or Sikh or Hindu, woman chooses to wear on her head or face is her own decision. Wearing a niqab harms no-one and does not, in itself, cause any problem. If there are security or identification issues there are usually procedures in place to address them. Muslim women have not suddenly appeared wearing the niqab in 2013! It has been suggested that the niqab (and perhaps hijab, the open head covering) is a sign of oppression and that women have been forced to wear it, with little or no evidence being offered in support of the argument. It is worth noting that:
A very small minority of women wear the niqab
Within close Muslim families the women will cover differently, from niqab (still a very small number) to hijab to entirely bare-headed
Families and friendship groups of women are usually very comfortable being with each other and this spectrum of hair-covering decisions
The niqab is an article of modest clothing
If we are worried about women being forced to wear the niqab then forcing them to not to wear it will not solve the problem
3. Why are we so keen to ban?
It seems that as soon as an issue like the niqab enters into the public arena there is no shortage of self-appointed commentators – usually those in a position to gain or create media attention – who begin to use the language of ‘banning’. This highlights both the sensationalism that accompanies what passes for discussion of public issues and the limited ways in which they are explored. It also shows an impatience to establish why a woman might be wearing the niqab in the first place and how this might be handled sensitively.
4. Are we talking to the women themselves?
Talking to women wearing the niqab is very important, I have not done so on this particular occasion but have done so when the Christian Muslim Forum has worked with professionally active women wearing niqab. We have been pleased to welcome them as presenters and participants at our events. The niqab has not prevented conversation, collaboration or cohesion! There is a real risk of largely white, non-Muslim men commenting on this issue and it has been encouraging to see female Muslim (mainly non-niqab wearing) commentators making positive contributions to the national discussion.
5. What does the law say?
Judge Murphy’s ruling on the wearing of a niqab in a Crown Court (rather than other types of court) acknowledges: ‘There is a pressing need for a court to provide a clear statement of law for trial judges who have to deal with cases in which a woman wearing the niqaab [sic] attends Court as a defendant. Given the ever-increasing diversity of society in England and Wales, this is a question which may be expected to arise more and more frequently, and to which an answer must be provided. I have found no authority directly on point in our domestic law. There are various extra-judicial sources which offer some guidance as a matter of general principle.’ (p.4) In a civilised and democratic society what is and is not allowed is a question that needs to be explored within a legal environment.
6. We’re not experts on Islam
I do not class myself as an expert on Islam, though I may well have a greater amount of knowledge of Islam and of Muslims than some. It is a feature of conversations on the niqab (and hijab) that non-Muslims will take the opportunity to state that Islam does not require a woman to cover herself. If we are committed to honest dialogue and conversation we need to hear Muslims speaking for themselves, though frequently there is not a commitment to dialogue. As non-Muslims; we need to work harder at listening, before deciding how we might solve a perceived ‘Muslim problem’.
7. This creates more negativity towards Muslims
There is no shortage of negativity towards Muslims, witness the recent attempt by the English Defence League to march through Whitechapel to object to the presence of the local Muslim population. There have also been a series of attacks against Islamic centres and individuals in the weeks following the appalling murder of Lee Rigby which, as the anti-hate monitoring organisation Tell MAMA has reported (and Metropolitan Police stats confirm), continue at a higher level than before the attack in Woolwich. Negative views of Muslims can also be seen in responses to the Christian Muslim Forum’s twitter feed (@chrismusforum). These are the more significant aspects of the negativity that has been reported in various surveys, including the 2010 Social Attitudes Survey which was the subject of a Forum discussion event. With the niqab issue, Muslims are again under the spotlight, seen as unwelcomely different and difficult and – as social observers say, ‘problematised’. The front page of The Sun on banning the niqab (screaming “Unveiled!”) is a good (or rather bad) example.
8. This creates more negativity towards Muslim women
Those who have a problem with Muslims have problems with Muslim women and what they wear. Some ‘anti-Muslim’ groups describe Islam as an oppressive religion which subjugates women. This inevitably – rather, bizarrely for those claiming to be protecting women’s rights – violence and attacks on Muslim women by non-Muslim extremists. For example, a significant number of attacks on Muslim women, and also online hate directed at them, have been linked to EDL members. Their apparent (though questionable) focus on women’s rights has not led to better regard for women but in fact the opposite, suggesting that they do not actually care for women, let alone Muslim women, but are motivated by hatred and misogyny.
9. Let’s make Muslims, and anyone else who is ‘different’, feel welcome
Niqab-wearing Muslim women are always welcome at our events. The challenge for our society is to become hospitable and welcoming, to be mature enough to cope with difference, rather than seeing the world as ‘us’ and ‘them’. It shouldn’t be necessary to say that many niqab-wearing women in the UK were probably born here but it’s worth highlighting.
10. It’s time for some proper national conversations
The Christian Muslim Forum is ready to host and enable conversations on issues like this that are often characterised by conversations not taking place. Instead we have excessive negative interest in some media, sensationalising of people’s lives and the creation, or encouragement, of fear, hostility and prejudice. My colleague Anjum Anwar, one of the Forum’s Presidents, regularly grabs the nettle with both hands for public conversations on sensitive issues in lunchtime dialogue sessions at Blackburn Cathedral and also on her CommUNITY Platform show on Ummah TV. What is missing is for others in society to open up the conversation and encourage calm reflection, rather than over-heated negativity.”
Over a week ago on a Sunday afternoon I saw that a not so well known MP from Totnes, Sarah Wollaston, had tweeted about the niqab (face covering worn by some Muslim women for religious reasons). I immediately responded, see photo below:
I also tweeted responses to a few more of her tweets, which were simply inflammatory and problematised Muslim women who choose to wear the niqab. Now I personally do not wear the niqab or necessarily agree with it, however I felt compelled to defend the right of those who do wear it. All too often we see or hear Muslim women being talked about in a disparaging and negative way, with no recourse to answer or defend themselves. Certainly there lacks an equal mainstream platform from which Muslim women can speak. And to be honest I felt annoyed that their voices are being silenced, yet again, and by a fellow woman no less, who rather comically appeared to take the very act of covering ones face as a personal attack.
What I did not anticipate was the resultant media interest in my views on the niqab, the right to wear it and whether or not a female defendant had the right to wear it in court. The following day (Monday) was an enormously hectic day with a total of eight media appearances and further requests which did not materialise.
The day ended with a Five news panel discussion debating Anne-Marie Waters of the National Secular Society, on whether the niqab should be banned.
You can watch the discussion here: http://youtu.be/9qtDDDmQXtA.
Monday the 16th September was a whirlwind of media appearances, (more on that later), beginning with a appearance on BBC Radio4’s Today programme. Being grilled by the legendary John Humphrey’s was not easy but have a listen about two to two and half hours in and hear for your self.
Huffington Post reported on the Muslim Women’s Network report, ‘Unheard Voices’ which examines sexual exploitation and abuse amongst Asian and Muslim children, and young girls, through 35 case studies. They asked whether I thought the report would debunk the EDL myth that Pakistani and Muslim men target ‘white girls’. Click below to read what I had to say: