The burka may be making Muslim women fatter by discouraging exercise

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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.”

While some gyms, such as Curves, cater to an all female clientele, the chance of a male staffer entering the facility is too high a risk for some Muslim women to handle. Moreover, many find the gym music, usually rap, pop and rock, offensive. Ibrahim said most women who do exercise do so alone in their homes for just these reasons. She went on to say that even in all female gyms she will not take off her hijab because “if anyone were to describe me to a man it would be as though he had actually seen me.”

The privacy and discomfort issues which may arise from traditional garb are only half the struggle, according to Ibrahim. “There is no bikini season for Muslim women and little incentive to look like the models in the magazines. A normal woman may see her figure in a store window and think ‘oh dear I need to lose some weight!’ With Muslim women the whole idea is to hide the figure.” Ibrahim continued, “it is an internal struggle because nobody will see your efforts in the gym. Even though they may not be conscious of their waist they need to be conscious of their health…It’s not about being fat, its about being healthy.”

Based on his own personal observations working at a healthcare facility, Awaif Chughtai, director of marketing and community relations at the University Muslim Medical Association (UMMA), chalked up the tendency to avoid exercise to generational differences. He explained that many in the American Muslim community are first generation immigrants whose lives in their former countries were labor intensive. Once they move to America and adopt more sedentary lifestyles, Chughtai suggested, they tend to gain weight as they continue to eat traditional fatty foods from their home country. Chughtai continued by noting that second generation Muslims were more likely to value exercise.

“I know with my own mother, she is not comfortable going to the gym,” he said. “But I do see younger, active Muslim women come into our clinic.”

Dr. Muhammad Munir Chaudry, president of Islamic Food and Nutrition Council of America (IFANCA), pointed to marriage as a reason many Muslim women may eschew exercise.  “Women lead more sedentary lives than men,” Chaudry told The Daily Caller. “While men go out and work, traditional women stay at home.” He continued, “After marriage women will often let themselves go. They have babies and never lose the weight and only their husbands see them.”

Nonetheless, there have been advancements in the world of Muslim workout attire. For instance the burquini allows Muslim women to swim without displaying any skin. Others have come up with the sports hijab. As the western health craze expands, innovations such as these will likely increase and become more common. In the meantime, it is important for us all to keep fitness and health in mind, regardless of our attire.

Clarification: After publication Omar and Chaudry notified TheDC that they were not speaking on behalf of IFANCA but rather from their own personal experiences.

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