Is the burka making Muslim women fat? All women know the frustration of waking up post-pizza party feeling a bit plump and hesitant to put on that cute tiny skirt – at which point hiding behind vast quantities of fabric may seem enticing. But is it healthy?
While some women are able to hide the bloat of a large meal behind a burka, the garment and the traditions surrounding it can also discourage exercise both psychologically and practically.
The “Encyclopedia of Women & Islamic Cultures: Family, body, sexuality and health” authored by Suad Joseph and Afsaneh Najmabad and published in 2006 notes that obesity, especially among women, has become an “epidemic” in many Arab countries. “High obesity prevalence among women may be partially due to cultural prohibitions against physical activity,” Joseph and Najmabad write.
Studies indicate that up to 70 percent of women in the Gulf states are obese. According to The Economist magazine’s world rankings, the countries with the highest obesity rates among women are Muslim countries: 1. Qatar 2. Saudi Arabia 3. Lebanon. (The United States ranked 8th on this list.)
The picture is not much brighter in America, where Muslim women still face high rates of obesity and its accompanying health problems.
“To the Muslim community as a whole, exercise is not a priority,” Mubarakah Ibrahim, fitness expert at BALANCE fitness Studio For Women in New Haven, Connecticut, told The Daily Caller. She estimates that only about 10 percent of Muslim women exercise. Though she urges women to get out and move, she more than understands the struggles. “Many, especially Muslim women, think it will be difficult to exercise in their burka or hijab. In some ways it is prohibitive. I exercise in the hijab but I cannot always do normal activity. For instance, if I workout outdoors I need to be very aware of the weather. If it is too hot or humid, it is not reasonable to exercise outside.”
In America, the modesty required of Muslim women is restrictive when it comes to the prospect of working out at a gym or fitness club. The majority of workout facilities in the United States are co-ed, rendering exercise without a hijab or burka difficult for observant Muslim women.
Maria Omar, director of media relations for the Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA), will not go the gym regardless of her outfit. “I do not wear a burka, but even I feel uncomfortable exercising among men,” she said. “It is just immodest.”