My research with Muslim women showed that there are several reasons that a majority of Muslim women do not exercise. Studies in Western countries like Australia, New Zealand, England, America and Greece where physical activity is encouraged, also demonstrated a low uptake of exercise. Consequently, the negative effects of low activity levels, such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease, overweight, osteoarthritis and low vitamin D levels are common in this sub-group. There are very few theoretical constructs offered for improving physical health among Muslim women. Such a model is desirable.
One of the earliest and most influential Western health models, the Health Belief Model (Lizewski, 2010; Tanner-Smith, 2010), is based on the assumption that a person will seek health-enhancing behavior if he or she believes there is potential harm by not seeking that behavior, and where the benefits of pursuing that behavior outweigh the costs. However, I suggest this model is not workable for Muslim women living within an Islamic paradigm. A threat to health or potential harm from a health condition does not translate directly into health-seeking behavior for most Muslims. I propose that Islam holds men and women responsible for the maintenance of their physical body. The Sunnah of prophet Mohammed illustrates the importance he placed on being fit and active:
Any action without the remembrance of God is either a diversion or heedlessness excepting four acts: walking from target to target (during archery practice), training a horse, playing with one’s family, and learning to swim (At Tabararani, n.d. in Stacey, 2008, p. 1)
The expectation that Muslim women will increase their physical activity levels and take on the mantle of conveying health-seeking behavior to their families and communities is grounded in a Western and individualized concept of self-hood. A workable model of physical activity for Muslim women needs to challenge two existing health beliefs. One is the Western belief that Muslim women are autonomous entities who will become physically active, even if exercise is outside of their frame of reference, as long as they are educated about the health benefits of exercise. The other is the cultural pattern of normative behavior which holds Muslim women in a sedentary lifestyle in the guise of religious requirement. A sustainable model of physical activity will situate Muslim women within an Islamic paradigm and facilitate education about the religious requirement to maintain physical health, as well as provide the knowledge and skills to enhance health. A new model is needed to question existing health beliefs based on socio-cultural practices and traditions among Muslim women, by using the “real” Islamic religion underpinned by the Quran and Sunnah.
The proposed “Physical Activity Model for Muslim Women” is represented in diagrammatic form below. Its salient features are:
- It places Muslim women at the center of the theoretical construct. Their role expectations, duty toward family members, familial responsibilities of childcare, housekeeping, cooking and, for some, paid work are articulated within the sphere of the Muslim woman. In doing so, the invisibility of Muslim women’s domestic work is given credence; a significant barrier to many women’s ability to exercise.
- The concentric circle around the Muslim woman represents the Muslim community. At present, there is little evidence suggesting that physical activity has been promoted to Muslim women for its health benefits. The problem lies both within the Muslim subculture regarding women’s ability to exercise within a religious framework, and the lack of awareness about Muslim women’s needs in the wider community. Education within the Muslim community about the Islamic need to maintain good health is necessary to bring about an attitudinal change regarding exercise. The relationship between physical activity and the Sunnah of prophet Mohammed and Muslims’ duty to maintain their health needs to be emphasized. This message could be most effectively conveyed by imams to their congregations. The biggest congregations are those held on Friday afternoons which are obligatory for men and which many women also attend. Congregants can attend physical health workshops before or after these meetings.
- Health professionals who can encourage women to exercise more, such as general practitioners, need to be educated about the specific religious norms within which Muslim women can exercise. This will translate to practical solutions, like “Green Prescriptions” written by physicians directing women to women-only gymnasia.
- An understanding of ‘awra’, the prohibitions regarding exposure of body parts, as well as the need to exercise in gender-segregated spaces, will enable health practitioners to make feasible recommendations to Muslim women.
- Many women felt that exercise facilities at the mosque would solve access issues, and would also ensure that they are exercising within an Islamic framework as mosques already have separate buildings or halls for men and women. Equipment such as exercycles and treadmills, or even locations such as tennis and basketball courts, have been cited as viable options.
- The outermost concentric circle represents society at the mainstream community level, and includes changes at the macro level which will facilitate physical activity for Muslim women.
- Partnerships between government organizations and mosques, the Imams’ Association, as well as Muslim sports groups will help integrate Muslim women’s physical activity into the mainstream activity guidelines.
- Education of primary health organizations, general practitioners, and allied health professionals such as physiotherapists, public health nutritionists, community gymnasia instructors and midwives about the roles of Muslim women, and the religious restrictions on exposing the body (awra) and contact with males (mahram and non-mahram) which affect their participation in physical activity.
- Education of health professionals about the importance of Muslim women making family-based decisions regarding physical activity, and impact on the sustainability of health-seeking behavior.
- Funding to develop sport and exercise facilities on mosque premises, and Increased and flexible availability of women-only sessions at community swimming pools and gymnasia.