This post was originally featured on the Productive Muslim blog .
Deciding to wear hijab can be an overwhelming life change for a Muslim woman. Dealing with the social and spiritual consequences of this decision is more than enough to keep us busy. Unfortunately, this new spiritual development can come at the cost of one’s physical well-being. Wearing hijab is not simply a fashion modification; it is symbolic of a shift in focus from the Dunya to the Akhirah. This shift can be even more overwhelming for new Muslimahs due to their additional lifestyle modifications. The lifestyle modifications that usually parallel the adoption of hijab can be conducive to weight gain and a sedentary lifestyle.
After careful reflection, it occurred to me that my self-confidence and self-worth were directly tied to the reinforcement I received from others about my appearance. My tight clothes and attention grabbing party personality was not “who I was” but a way to satisfy my inner desires to be loved and feel attractive. Although wearing hijab made me a more spiritual person and shifted my attention from certain worldly vices, it did not solve my cravings for attention. Without the reinforcement from others, I stopped caring for myself; I was completely detached from my desirability and worth. Without being able to exploit my sexuality and attractiveness, I abandoned them. Early in my time as a revert, I was misguided to believe that a Muslim woman’s physical appearance is irrelevant because she does not exploit or showcase her beauty. Despite my earlier focus on appearances, I never made the connection between my previous values and the sudden self-imposed neglect of my physical appearance.
Before Islam, being noticed by others was something through which I valued myself. Something I never considered was what would happen to my self-confidence if I could no longer depend on the validation of others. It sounds silly now, but I never realised that caring for my body was important whether or not anyone sees the fruits of that labour. Similar to the student that does not see the value of an ungraded assignment, I only saw value when an evaluation was given by someone other than me.
Despite the fact that reversion to Islam is a spiritual and intellectual experience, it is not healthy to neglect the physical aspects of life. Islam teaches us to remain on the middle path and to not exist in polar extremes. A vital aspect of this balance is the maintenance of an amanah (trust) given to you by Allah : your body.
Allah says: “Thus We have appointed you a middle nation.” [Quran: Surah 2, Verse 143]
Although maintaining one’s physical self and properly caring for one’s body is an important responsibility of a human being and a Muslim, it is one that is rarely discussed in the Muslim community. Physical fitness and proper nutrition for Muslim women is another topic that is also disregarded, sometimes for cultural reasons.
Contrary to some cultural beliefs, the physical maintenance of Muslim women is extremely important and does not require the sacrifice of any religious convictions or modesty.
In this modern age, there are plenty of halal ways to enjoy keeping healthy and to prevent weight gain.
Here are my tips to reversing what I call, “hijabi neglect”.
1. Set your intention
Your physical health is a blessing provided to you by Allah . You must guard and protect that blessing in order to preserve it. Allah says: “Truly, We did offer Al-Amanah (the trust or moral responsibility or honesty and all the duties which Allah has ordained) to the heavens and the earth and the mountains, but they declined to bear it and were afraid of it (i.e., afraid of Allah’s torment). But man bore it. Verily, he was unjust (to himself) and ignorant (of its results).” [Quran; Surah 33, Verse 72]
2. Invest in a scale
Although weight is not a sole measure of health, it is a valuable way to keep you accountable.
3. Pamper yourself
Dress up once a month, even if you are not going to leave the house. Spend a day at the spa. Take a bubble bath. Do whatever makes you feel special and desirable. It can be too easy to be lured into a daily routine of sweatpants and pyjamas after spending all day wearing hijab. It is easy to feel unattractive and frumpy in your Dad’s old ripped t-shirt and pyjama pants. Although not the main focus of keeping healthy, feeling attractive can be a great mood booster and motivator.
4. Explore home exercise
Exercising at a gym or spending lots of money are not requirements to stay fit! A five minute YouTube video search will generate countless exercise videos available from the privacy of your own home, as well as the vast number of apps with exercise regimes and plans to track your progress. If you do not have a computer or find the videos difficult, an old school solution to fitness is available for little cost: a skipping rope. Skipping is a fabulous exercise that is portable, cheap and accessible anywhere. Hop to it!
5. Start an exercise group
Making healthy habits stick is easier to do with the help of a partner or support group. If your community lacks a women’s exercise group, start one! Walking and hiking are great exercises and social activities that can be enjoyed for free. The extra doses of vitamin D you will get from the sunshine is a delightful bonus.
6. Organize a “Health Awareness Day” with sisters at the masjid or with your local Muslim service organization
Too many people in the Muslim community are unaware of the importance of proper diet and exercise. Due to cultural preconceptions, some might even believe that it is haram or simply superfluous for women to engage in such activities. If no one is talking about it, things will not change.
7. Regular fasting
“O ye who believe, fasting is prescribed for you…so that you will (learn how to attain) piety.” [Quran: Surah 2, Verse 183]
Aside from the spiritual aspect of fasting, there are many health benefits to fasting. Fasting shifts our focus away from food as an indulgence and source of pleasure and forces us to observe it as sustenance.
8. Eat to live; do not live to eat
Too often we rely on food to serve as our halal entertainment and pleasure. It is good to focus on the 80/20 rule. At least 80% of the time, eat foods for their nutritional value and benefits. Limit indulgences to less than 20% of the time. Of course there is no magic formula for health, but as Muslims it should be our focus to remain in balance.
9. Do something active and adventurous
Instead of going out to eat with friends, take a hike, kayak, ride bicycles, engage in a new fitness class or go old-school and play tag. Mix it up and be unafraid. Simply walking around the mall with proper shoes can be exercise; no excuses!
10. Love yourself
Your body is a trust from Allah . He has provided you with only one; appreciate all that it can do and its utter uniqueness.
These reminders are by no means all-encompassing or the only ways to maintain health. They are also not limited to those who wear hijab. All Muslim women, whether wearing hijab or not, need to be aware of their bodies and how to respect them. Too often women are weighed down by obligations and equate taking care of themselves to indulgences. Investing in yourself will not only make you a better mother, sister, daughter and wife, but also it will make you a better and more capable Muslim. Taking care of our bodies and souls is the only way to true balance and success.