Size Islam: Where do I fit in? by Jameelah X. Medina


Size Islam: Where do I fit in?

Reading Laury Silvers’ recent post caused me to reflect upon not only how my body is gendered in worship as a Muslim woman, but how my body is displaced, inconvenient, and often seen as an assault on thinner women’s, and even Islamic, sensibilities. This is a phenomenon in the prayer line, on prayer mats, in socio-religious gatherings, and even in online discussions with Muslims and other major religions.

I am usually the tallest (or among the tallest) women in mosques I have frequented. I am also obese and among the largest women in the mosque. I enjoy lifting weights, which also causes me to have very large thighs and arms and broad shoulders. Additionally, I have long feet, as well as wide hips and a large backside that no amount of fabric can hide. Among girlfriends, I’ve often referred to my shape as a “three-hour glass.” Needless to say, some shorter and smaller people find my frame imposing.

During prayer, we stand in a lines side-by-side, foot-to-foot, and shoulder-to-shoulder. Depending on the number of worshippers, there may be just one line or half a dozen or more. Prayer positions include standing upright, bending forward at a 90-degree angle at the waist, prostrating with the forehead on the floor, and sitting on the floor with our legs underneath us. Because of this series of prayer positions, I have often accidentally head-butted several women in the backside in my attempt to prostrate during prayer, thereby causing them to fall forward in forced prostration. It can be quite embarrassing and obviously distracting. I have also often had to prostrate with my forehead on the soles of another woman’s feet in the line in front of me instead of on the floor because of my length. At times, I have even stood a few inches behind my line to give myself more room to prostrate, but then that would cut into the prostration room of the woman in the prayer line behind me. It would also cause some women to pull me by the arm to stand directly next to them as it is popularly believed that any gap between worshippers in the prayer line will leave space for shaytan (satan). This belief also causes many women to stand uncomfortably close to me on both sides making me hyperaware of just how large and broad my arms and shoulders are. I notice that I subconsciously react by physically trying to shrink myself. I also noticed doing this while praying on a prayer mat sometimes. It felt so counterintuitive to busy myself with my body and trying to shrink it to fit on a prayer mat or in a prayer line during prayer when the goal of prayer that I was seeking was to get out of my body and into my mind and soul. Praying in prayer lines caused more anxiety and body consciousness than religious experience and sisterhood.

In socio-religious gatherings at the mosque and affiliated with the mosques and/or Muslim organizations, there are often vendors selling long outer garments for women. I never found a garment with the size and length I required. Even worse, I would sometimes be approached by someone outright telling me or insinuating that my obesity was a reflection of weak iman (faith). There are many obese Muslim women who are much shorter than I, which caused me to wonder if my height also contributed to well-meaning-but-highly-offensive Muslims noticing me and feeling as if they needed to save me by religious shaming my body for its size. I can’t count the times, in person and online, I have been reminded of the prophetic saying regarding eating in which Prophet Muhammad reportedly told the Muslims to fill their stomach 1/3 with food, 1/3 with drink, and leave 1/3 for air. On the other hand, I can’t even count how many times I have caught Muslim men staring and practically salivating at my backside, hips and breasts often while saying “mashaAllah (as God has willed it)” under their breath as they pass. Both types of unwanted attention and comments continuously show me how my body is not just mine; it is exposed for the visual consumption of, evaluation, fat-shaming and chubby-chasing by others.

Jameelah X. Medina, Ph.D., is an educator, author, orator, and business owner residing in southern California with her husband and daughter. www.jameelahmedina.com She is also a contributor to I Speak for Myself: American Women on Being Muslim, a collection of 40 personal essays written by American Muslim women under the age of 40.

 



Categories: Islam, Prayer, Spiritual Journey

Tags: , , ,

35 replies

  1. Hi Jameelah from another big girl (6’1″). I am finally able to admit to my height, though like Michelle (?) I have never actually measured over 5’11”. My Mom always told me that because I was so tall, I should never gain weight because then I would be big. I was lucky to have been naturally skinny, though unfortunately before the anorexic look became popular. But then when I gained weight I found I could not buy clothes anywhere as I was not the right height or shape for plus sizes. Thank goodness Marks and Spencer came to Greece with regular fit sizes up to 22 (US 20) and long lengths on both slacks and skirts. I know my height has “intimidated” a lot of people, including my parents and when you add “smarts” to that, well…don’t get me started. Yet people who are willing to sympathize with lots of things have trouble “feeling for” someone who is bigger than they are. Sympathy seems to be reserved for children, animals, and small people. Sigghhh. Big girls unite! Carol

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  2. This is a very sensitive and brutally-honest posting. If you could “own” your body and do what you wanted with it, maybe the “religious restrictions” of thought would not be so tight around it. You have chosen Islam as your religion? It has called you? If not, why would you put yourself through this sort of prejudice? If you weren’t Muslim, what would you do different? These questions I ask with all due respect, asking from one woman to another, asking from a Pagan perspective, and perhaps trying to ask without any religious affiliation (if that is even possible).
    While she might not exactly be a role model, let along have anything to do with religion, Marilyn Monroe was a “big” woman. So was Peggy Lee, Mae West, and currently, Queen Latifa. They “owned it”… Just sayin’…

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    • I love my religion but cannot say the same for all its followers. A mosque happens to be one space that I think should be safe for all people regardless. I love to fly and am also hyperaware of my size and notice myself trying to shrink when on airplanes. It sucks, but it is not unexpected on planes. Also, there really is a different between being chubby and curvy and being obese and curvy. I have not been chubby since 2005.

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  3. At 5′ 2 1/2″, I am (would you believe it) one of the tall women in my family. I’ve always had friends who are truly tall. Good for you both and good for tall women!

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  4. “Laury” not “Laura”.

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  5. I’m about 5’5” and 180 lbs. My doctor (male) was always nagging me about my weight until I finally told him to let it go. I’m healthy, eat good food, and have the build of my grandmother, some aunts, and cousins. What is it with our obsession with “perfect bodies” that are totally unrealistic except in Corporate imagination. (thinking of “Barbie and Ken” here)

    Jameelah, I hope that your community finds the love to be flexible and accommodate your size. Meanwhile, give the woman in front of you an extra “butt in the behind” just for the heck of it. And sing a little of the songs of Saffire, the Uppity Blues Women. This is one of my favourites!
    http://www.last.fm/music/Saffire,+The+Uppity+Blues+Women/_/Too+Much+Butt

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  6. Oh jameelah I am so glad I stumbled across this … I have found you again ( remember me ? ) .
    But it truly saddens me to read this , YOU are a fantastic person , hold onto that .
    Plsssss get in touch with me !!!!!!!!

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    • hiiiiiiii khadija! Thank you!!! Yes, i remember. Wow, it has been years! I hope you and your family are well. I do not know how to contact you, though. Don’t be sad; it’s just life and I’ve dealt with so much worse and have thrived, mashaAllah. Salaamz!

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      • Yessssss yrs !!!!
        I noticed the word daughter up there MABROUK !!
        I still have the same email address if you still have it or can you not get it from my posting here ?
        As for this issue I wish people/muslims would take from their mind its related to level of faith (ie 1/3 food etc ) that’s such narrow mindness .
        Jameelah love yourself for just being you don’t shy away from anything you love doing inshaAllah that inturn will reflect out upon others and they will love you for just being you .
        Like we all do !!

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      • Khadija! Yes, we have a daughter finally. lol. She just turned 2. :-) I now have ur email address since I saw this post in my email. I will email you now. I love me but would be lying if i said i always like me. I’m a work in progress and not just on this issue. peace to you!

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  7. Interesting. I am 6ft tall and 260lbs. I am just now starting to delve into the ways that being of this stature and girth is yet another way in which I am an affront to society. It didn’t occur to me until I was 50 and discovered that I was considered fat.

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    • Inga, I feel you. I have only started thinking about my size like this the last few years as I have gone from chubby to obese.

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      • When I think of this in the spiritual sense, I am an initiated priestess in the Lukumi tradition. The great water Orisa, Yemoja/Yemaya/Imanja, is my guardian. She is said to be a large woman with a healthy buttocks and extreme, pendulous breasts. From the original post, I started to think about the fact that within my spiritual realm, I am often said to personify Yemoja’s physicality. Maybe that is a part of the reason I never noticed I was considered fat until I left safety and moved to fitness-focused Seattle. Hmmm. This gives me food for thought. No pun intended.

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      • Inga! You read my mind here. i was thinking of her after reading about the the pagan goddess in the other reply. I have often been told that I am Yemaya for my size and curves, my love of swimming and the ocean and all water, and the blues and purples i love to wear. Among those santeras I have felt at home and accepted when thinking of the Orishas, specifically Yemaya! Thank you!

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  8. You comment on how your body is not just yours is interesting. I once stated that in many religions, for women, our bodies are never really ours. We have to suppress our physical desires, when we get married submit our bodies to our husbands and then use our bodies to give birth to children.

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  9. It is likely that you have already found wiser solutions to the problems than what I can offer…so this is just to express my opinion…….

    1) Prayer mat–When I was young and short, my mother made me a prayer mat to fit my size. It was great to have one that “fit” me than praying on an adult size one. perhaps a custom made quilted prayer mat might be interesting……….
    2) Size problems during prayer—I was really proud of my Western Muslim brothers and sisters when after 9/11 they fought prejudice and bigotry by trying to increase understanding of Muslims and Islam. They went out of their way to talk with their neighbors and communities and opened up their mosques…etc….It is hard to be different, but difference can be a source that helps to increase compassion and mercy and decrease prejudice and bigotry….if understanding and empathy can be created. If you explained the problems you have to your Muslim sisters, perhaps some solutions can be found…?….
    3) Insults—There will always be those among us who are ignorant….God made us all different so that we may grow in tolerance and compassion….humor may perhaps be a good way to deal with this type of situation…?……

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  10. Wow, I resonate with this so much. One of the really strange ways in which I and other big Muslim women…and they were typically converts white and black…were kept in line was snide comments on our body, body language, the cadence of our voices.

    I am 5-10 and have weighed between 140 and 200 over the past 25 years. I am also from LA by way of New York Jewish culture (on my dad’s side) and Southern culture (on my mom’s side). My manner of speech is colloquial inflected with NY and Southern accents and sayings. My laugh is hearty. My smile is huge. And boy do I speak with my hands. I would not say I am a graceful person.

    Too many South Asian and Arab Muslim women lost no opportunity to point out how I did not fit in. How many times was I reminded not to smile or laugh so indelicately, to take up less physical space, to fit in better! I felt a lot of kinship with my African American sisters who were similarly warm and joyful in their expression. But my African American sisters had it worse. At least I had the much treasured “white skin,” for many of these South Asian and Arab sisters, black skin was in itself ungainly. That said, cue violins, being openly treasured for one’s whiteness was offensive to me in the extreme. On the positive, being treasured for my whiteness required that I counter it wherever I detected it, allowing me to become more and more self-conscious of white privilege over time.

    In the end, I hardly ever felt like a proper woman then. A proper woman was delicate, quiet, never questioned her place in the community or with her husband, had a job, took care of the family (if a woman had no children, like me, she had bear up under the pitying and accusing comments for being barren or, worse, selfish), kept her husband happy, and gave to community. In other words, if we didn’t fit in, we were doomed socially but also literally since our proper performance as women was constantly being linked to God’s satisfaction with us.

    One of the awful results of all this is that those particular South Asian and Arab women made me believe that all SA and A women were perfectly feminine in this ideal way, and I resented them for it. Thank God, I had the opportunity to interact with SA and A woman who did not act in such hateful ways, who were not “perfectly feminine” (meaning they were human), and who accepted me as is. But how hate breeds hate! I am ashamed that I got pulled into it even for a time.

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    • Laury!!!!! Yes yes yes, you’ve nailed it. In mosques with more US American women who tend to be taller than the Arab and Desis, it is much less of an issue. And, I think it is quite normal to go through that period of resentment and hate. The important thing is to move through it to the other side.

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    • Also, I hugely apologize for getting your name wrong, Laury.

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  11. Sending virtual hugs from a short but curvy sister. (Just imagine me on a step ladder.) If it’s helpful, my suggestion for a response to the hadith regarding how much one should eat and drink would be to point out that such proportions leave absolutely no room for you to swallow their judgmental attitude, so you’ll be leaving it with them. Smile, and waltz away.

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  12. Thank you, Jameelah, for writing this. I loved Laury’s piece and this one makes me think even more about the embodiment and Islam. I’m a relatively tall woman (5′ 8″) and although not large, I do take up a decent amount of space, especially when my elbows are sticking out to the side as my hands are folded over each other. I’ve always disliked praying in jamaat because I ALWAYS get squeezed out of line. I never have enough room and always end up taking a few steps back whenever I pray. At this point I don’t care if people around me don’t like it – I can’t stand there if there is no room! Anyhow, that’s my experience.

    I didn’t realize though that there was fat-shaming happening in mosques and Muslim spaces. I’m so sorry you’ve had to experience that. There is already so much body shaming happening of Muslim women in Muslim spaces, I really should have expected fat-shaming as well.

    As someone else commented, your comment about how your body is not just yours, was really important. It’s very true. We’re often very conscious of how society in general objectifies women and assumes it has the right to their bodies.Fat-shaming, pageants, comments on female celebrities weight gain/loss – all these assume that women’s bodies are for public consumption. Many Muslim women believe it’s because of lack of modesty or because women show skin. But what we often don’t want to discuss is how the same thing happens within Muslim communities to Muslim women. Our communities also assume they have a right to our bodies – cover it up, don’t take up too much space while praying, don’t talk/laugh too loud, don’t wear jangling jewellery, and whatever you do DON’T BRING ATTENTION TO YOUR BODY!!! As if our bodies are offensive.

    Along with being critical of the hypersexualization and objectification of women in mainstream society and media, we must also be equally as critical of hypersexualization and objectification of women within our own spaces which deem our bodies public property.

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  13. There was a discussion thread on fat shaming on FB recently. I was shocked to see a Muslim sister entering into the fray to say….~Sorry, but if you are not slim it is your fault and body positivity only supports ill health.~ So real. People were pretty balanced with her as they let her know exactly why she is wrong, but it was not hard to see that she was basically thinking…~Yeah, well you say that because you are fat and lazy.~

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  14. HI, Jameelah —

    I wonder if Arab personal space might not be part of your problem. From my reading, it’s the smallest in the world, I.e. Arabs stand closer to each other than any other national group, and since Arabs were the first Muslims (and still the hegemonic Muslims, I would assume) their personal sense of space probably still influences the spacing of prayer positions.

    I’m typing for the first time on a Kindle, so I’ll keep it short, but I know that the Goddess of Willendorf and other large-sized goddesses have been self-affirming for my pagan sisters who consider themselves “big girls.” Islam is a non-iconic religion, it perhaps just knowing that
    Goddesses were made for thousands of years that look like you might help. You look like a goddess, Jameelah!

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  15. Jameelah,

    I very much enjoyed this post. Thank you so much for your honesty.

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  16. I don’t understand why you have to shame skinny girls tho?????

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