In Light of October’s Breast Cancer Awareness Month
By Sarah Jukaku
As Muslims we know that modesty, both outward and inward, is an important part of our religion. The Prophet Muhammad ﷺ said: “Every faith has an innate character. The character of Islam is modesty.” (Malik) But what does this mean when it comes to our interactions with our doctors? And what impact might it be having on our health?
Many of us have had discussions with Muslim friends and colleagues about uncomfortable experiences at the doctor, or about the Islamic rulings regarding certain behaviors related to medical care in Islam. For me, these discussions sparked an interest in how interpretations of modesty may influence a Muslim woman’s health behaviors. For my thesis in Sociology, I created a 96-question survey and asked over 250 Muslim women on MSA and mosque mailing lists across the Midwest about their attitudes toward modesty, religion, health attitudes and behaviors. Specifically, I focused on attitudes and behaviors related to sexual health and exercise.
Although some similar work has been done in this area, the few studies conducted had a small number of respondents, all of whom had immigrated to the US. In my work, I was interested in studying how religiosity affects modesty on a population level and how this may be influencing health behaviors and attitudes, especially for non-immigrant Muslim women.
First, I used my survey to assess if the personal beliefs and medical encounters regarding modesty that were experienced by my friends and I were felt by the majority. Although only God can be the judge of what is in a person’s heart, in conducting this research I was forced to come up with a quantitative method to measure the survey respondents’ religiosity and modesty. I found that women who fell in the highest modesty category were significantly more likely to indicate that if they felt uncomfortable during a medical exam, it was for religious reasons over anything else.
Furthermore, they were more likely to report preferences for providers who were female and Muslim, which is likely based in the opinion of the majority of Islamic scholars on this issue. Many of the women in the highest modesty group also reported feeling bothered if they requested a female physician at a visit to the doctor and received a male one instead, with many of them further indicating that they would not continue the exam with a male physician.
Finally, the results of the study also suggested that more modest women were more likely to report that they felt uncomfortable in co-ed exercise facilities, and that they felt that their interpretations of modesty made it more difficult for them to work out and stay in shape.
Although the results of my study may seem like common sense to a Muslim audience, to a non-Muslim audience these results are surprising. Many of my colleagues and professors were shocked that the majority of the women that I surveyed were highly educated, had health insurance, and were mostly born in the US. Because many Americans are unaware of the preferences of the average Muslim female patient, it is important that this information be made available to the health care community. I hope that this study will spark further research in the area, including comparative studies between Muslim and non-Muslim women’s health behaviors to assess if the above results really are unique to Muslimahs. Furthermore, from the results of my study related to health attitudes and awareness, it seemed that there was some confusion about the importance of certain health behaviors and the Islamic rulings surrounding how to go about doing them, with culture as well as exposure to health and/or Islamic education likely to have been involved in influencing some of these responses.
Therefore, it is important that we as a community have a forum where our leaders can educate women in the community on Islamic rulings related to health, advising us on what to do in medical situations that Muslims in the west commonly find themselves in. Furthermore, it may also be valuable to have a discussion as a community about whether or not we should allow our young women to attend sexual health education courses in school so that they can be educated on healthy behaviors. Alternatively it may also be helpful for the Muslim community itself to offer courses in areas such as these—perhaps in the safe mother-daughter format that many churches offer—so that young people can feel that they have someone to talk to about sensitive issues such as these.
Finally, another important finding in my study was that most of the women did not exercise regularly. Many of us know that our body is an amanah (trust) given to us by God and that the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ took part and excelled in activities such as wrestling and archery, and it is therefore imperative that leaders in our community discuss the importance of physical fitness, helping Muslim women to find opportunities to stay active in environments that are in sync with Islamic rulings.