Sep 30, 2009

How do we wear Self-Esteem and How is it Nurtured?

By Ayesha Akhtar

Islam offers guiding principles on wellness and health and taking appropriate measures to ensure it. When we are physically ill, we take precautions for rest or medication if and when necessary. We exercise to build healthy bones and keep our heart strong and oxygen flowing within our blood. We eat foods that nurture our bodies. But what do we do when something ails us internally? Certainly Muslims are humans who have emotions which can be abused, and thoughts which can be challenged.

With new opportunities of integration and assimilation come new challenges, and acclimating to a culture so different from that of the first Muslim immigrants is certainly one of them. For young Muslim girls, poor self-esteem or body image is especially problematic. In general, there exists too much stigma with depression or low self-esteem. It is as though we Muslims are collectively not allowed to feel depressed, sad or blue. In traditional cultures, low self-esteem or depression is often considered an indication of one’s low level of piety, or that s/he has ‘deserved’ that angst somehow.

When we feel good about ourselves, it shows in our dress, or communication and our interactions. Whether we realize it or not, we wear our self-esteem on our sleeve. Because it is so evident, we must learn to recognize symptoms of stress and anxiety, and collaborate to address their root causes. In a recent survey of young Muslim girls attending private Islamic schools, the most salient causes of anxiety and stress for them were their ‘dress, body image, and self-esteem’. If we are not giving our youth the opportunities to improve their self-efficacy, we are setting them up for emotional stress and anxiety. And there is much to be anxious about as a young Muslim girl. With images of confused sexuality in every corner, we as a community need to provide these girls (and boys) with avenues for self-efficacy to help boost self-esteem and body image. Many girls who have grown up in public school systems had the opportunity to be a Brownie/Girl Scout. I did, and absolutely enjoyed those experiences. Why not give the same opportunities to our girls attending private Islamic schools? We need parents to get on board and take leadership opportunities for the future successes of our young girls!

Our society places too much emphasis on physical beauty which provokes young girls to stress out, desperate to look a certain way to be accepted by the majority. Many Muslim parents extend this ridiculous emphasis further, and focus on whether or not girls are fair-skinned, hijab-wearing or are tall and how that will factor into an eligible suitor. Unfortunately, many girls are brainwashed into believing that beauty is a means to an end: marriage. Our community needs to re-examine what is really important, which is the bright future of our young girls (and boys, of course). If left unchecked, girls who suffer from low-self esteem can become vulnerable to complicated situations often involving boys. Especially in schools where girls are segregated from boys and are not participating in team-building exercises, girls are susceptible to bullying and chastising. In co-ed situations, girls look to boys for validation and acceptance. Girl-girl bullying, however, must not be ignored, and has recently come to my attention via a Chicago-area Islamic school. A letter written by a female student wrote prolifically about the physical attributes of another student in a most hateful way. While the letter was intercepted by an administrator, the Islamic school is not equipped to handle problems stemming from social and peer pressures. We need more social workers in the Islamic schools to provide a safe space girls can receive mentoring, and more activities that help girls improve their self-esteem, not reduce it.

I would be remiss not to mention hijab. Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries tirelessly fight for their right to wear hijab, and not subjugated as a sign of oppression. We mass e-mail images of Muslim women who cover with images of nuns, and highlight similarities of modesty. What a respite it was to read an article by Naomi Klein (, who welcomed the hijab and chador as an experience to feel free, which gave her a “novel sense of calm and serenity”. As she correctly points out, the choice belongs to the woman, but that feeling of privacy and sanctity is invaluable. By donning the hijab (and in this article I am using it in the loosest term as ‘covering’ to include arms and legs), Muslim women are not oppressed but rather liberated and strong. An empowering self-image is expressed by choosing what to wear and what to conceal, how would that be oppressive? What about traditional western wear? How is that not oppressive? Every where anyone looks are hints of sexuality in advertisements for clothing, of course, but also in ads for laundry detergent and even toothpaste. Why does everything have to be so sexy?

Compound the hijab as dresscode issue with the rather conservative environment that is a private Islamic school. Uniforms are drab and boring, sexuality is repressed and ignored. Wanting to fit in and look beautiful is an issue that becomes exceedingly problematic (as I have found in my experience). Where will these girls explore their adolescent curiousity and feelings? So they wear their hijab in school and retreat to their homes and look to the peer-selected Hollywood celebrity to emulate. Is this a problem or a common consequence of any adolescent girl commuting between home and school? By not addressing these issues and looking the other way, our girls are creating microcosms of fantasy lives. A life in which they are accepted for who they *want* to be, not who they really are; and that is because we are not allowing them to be unique.

I’d like to believe we wear our self-esteem on our sleeve, and as such, need to be conscious of disquieting symptoms, celebrate happiness and be responsive when we see trouble in our youth. Let’s begin a healthy discussion on how we can create these opportunities for young Muslim girls. What are you doing in your communities to give them experiences that enhance their body image and self-esteem?

Ayesha Akhtar is Director of Policy & Research at HEART Women and Girls Project ( HEART empowers women through: Health Education (increasing access to accurate information and resources about one’s body and health issues), Advocacy (advocating for culturally-sensitive health care services & education for faith based communities), Research (conducting research to generate data and information about the status of women and girls from faith based communities), and Training (training women and girls to become leaders of wellness in their communities).

I'd love to hear your views on this topic. Please post in the comments section below! :)


well i totally agree with you. It is very important to discuss with our youth about why we have to do hijab and dress differently.
I actually know some girls who are more confident after wearing hijib.

Ukhti, i salute you- firstly for writing such a great article marsh'allah but more so for using your life experience to create something so vital. Sexuality is complex enough as it is and becomes more so when one is faced with unhealthy ideas regarding it (as your article correctly points out.) Our deen does not regard sexuality and sensuality as something to be repressed or shunned or shameful, rather it is to be chanelled in the correct way. This is a joyous,delecious part of being human and it's high time we dealt with this situation realistically within our different communities. may Allah bless you in your work-ameen.

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