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.