How do we wear self-esteem and how is it nurtured?

Islam offers guiding principles on wellness and health and taking appropriate measures to ensure it. When we are physically ill, we take precautions for rest or medication if and when necessary. We exercise to build healthy bones and keep our heart strong and oxygen flowing within our blood. We eat foods that nurture our bodies. But what do we do when something ails us internally? Certainly Muslims are humans who have emotions which can be abused, and thoughts which can be challenged.
With new opportunities of integration and assimilation come new challenges, and acclimating to a culture so different from that of the first Muslim immigrants is certainly one of them. For young Muslim girls, poor self-esteem or body image is especially problematic. In general, there exists too much stigma with depression or low self-esteem. It is as though we Muslims are collectively not allowed to feel depressed, sad or blue. In traditional cultures, low self-esteem or depression is often considered an indication of one’s low level of piety, or that s/he has ‘deserved’ that angst somehow.

When we feel good about ourselves, it shows in our dress, or communication and our interactions. Whether we realize it or not, we wear our self-esteem on our sleeve. Because it is so evident, we must learn to recognize symptoms of stress and anxiety, and collaborate to address their root causes. In a recent survey of young Muslim girls attending private Islamic schools, the most salient causes of anxiety and stress for them were their ‘dress, body image, and self-esteem’. If we are not giving our youth the opportunities to improve their self-efficacy, we are setting them up for emotional stress and anxiety. And there is much to be anxious about as a young Muslim girl. With images of confused sexuality in every corner, we as a community need to provide these girls (and boys) with avenues for self-efficacy to help boost self-esteem and body image. Many girls who have grown up in public school systems had the opportunity to be a Brownie/Girl Scout. I did, and absolutely enjoyed those experiences. Why not give the same opportunities to our girls attending private Islamic schools? We need parents to get on board and take leadership opportunities for the future successes of our young girls!

Our society places too much emphasis on physical beauty which provokes young girls to stress out, desperate to look a certain way to be accepted by the majority. Many Muslim parents extend this ridiculous emphasis further, and focus on whether or not girls are fair-skinned, hijab-wearing or are tall and how that will factor into an eligible suitor. Unfortunately, many girls are brainwashed into believing that beauty is a means to an end: marriage. Our community needs to re-examine what is really important, which is the bright future of our young girls (and boys, of course). If left unchecked, girls who suffer from low-self esteem can become vulnerable to complicated situations often involving boys. Especially in schools where girls are segregated from boys and are not participating in team-building exercises, girls are susceptible to bullying and chastising. In co-ed situations, girls look to boys for validation and acceptance. Girl-girl bullying, however, must not be ignored, and has recently come to my attention via a Chicago-area Islamic school. A letter written by a female student wrote prolifically about the physical attributes of another student in a most hateful way. While the letter was intercepted by an administrator, the Islamic school is not equipped to handle problems stemming from social and peer pressures. We need more social workers in the Islamic schools to provide a safe space girls can receive mentoring, and more activities that help girls improve their self-esteem, not reduce it.

I would be remiss not to mention hijab. Muslim women living in non-Muslim countries tirelessly fight for their right to wear hijab, and not subjugated as a sign of oppression. We mass e-mail images of Muslim women who cover with images of nuns, and highlight similarities of modesty. What a respite it was to read an article by Naomi Wolf, who welcomed the hijab and chador as an experience to feel free, which gave her a “novel sense of calm and serenity”. As she correctly points out, the choice belongs to the woman, but that feeling of privacy and sanctity is invaluable. By donning the hijab (and in this article I am using it in the loosest term as ‘covering’ to include arms and legs), Muslim women are not oppressed but rather liberated and strong. An empowering self-image is expressed by choosing what to wear and what to conceal, how would that be oppressive? What about traditional western wear? How is that not oppressive? Every where anyone looks are hints of sexuality in advertisements for clothing, of course, but also in ads for laundry detergent and even toothpaste. Why does everything have to be so sexy?

Compound the hijab as dresscode issue with the rather conservative environment that is a private Islamic school. Uniforms are drab and boring, sexuality is repressed and ignored. Wanting to fit in and look beautiful is an issue that becomes exceedingly problematic (as I have found in my experience). Where will these girls explore their adolescent curiousity and feelings? So they wear their hijab in school and retreat to their homes and look to the peer-selected Hollywood celebrity to emulate. Is this a problem or a common consequence of any adolescent girl commuting between home and school? By not addressing these issues and looking the other way, our girls are creating microcosms of fantasy lives. A life in which they are accepted for who they want to be, not who they really are; and that is because we are not allowing them to be unique.

I’d like to believe we wear our self-esteem on our sleeve, and as such, need to be conscious of disquieting symptoms, celebrate happiness and be responsive when we see trouble in our youth. Let’s begin a healthy discussion on how we can create these opportunities for young Muslim girls. What are you doing in your communities to give them experiences that enhance their body image and self-esteem?

(Photo: Kamal Zharif)
Ayesha Akhtar is Director of Policy & Research at HEART Women and Girls Project. HEART empowers women through: Health Education (increasing access to accurate information and resources about one’s body and health issues), Advocacy (advocating for culturally-sensitive health care services & education for faith based communities), Research (conducting research to generate data and information about the status of women and girls from faith based communities), and Training (training women and girls to become leaders of wellness in their communities).


  • Rabya says:

    Thank you Ayesha for writing this article on a timely, critical and overlooked topic. Thank you Altmuslimah for posting it. We often lose sight of young Muslim women who are dealing with these issues- even in an Islamic school setting. This is an area which definitely needs more attention, more research and more thought on how to assist and serve those in need. Great article and hope to see more like it on this topic and from other perspectives (like teachers, students, social workers, etc). – Rabya

  • Saadia says:

    How is self-esteemed defined? Why did the author limit its application to very young girls instead of women and their development as a collective?

    What do you think should happen when emotional assaults are rendered on Muslim girls/boys?

  • muqarnas says:

    I echo what Rabya has said.  Thank you for this article and for addressing this very important issue.  It’s time to turn our attention to this in a big way. 

    @Saadia – you’re right in that this issue extends to grown women as well, but given that this is a huge topic, I think the author simply started off the discussion by addressing self-esteem issues in young girls, because it’s around puberty that the seeds of low self-esteem are planted and can carry on into adulthood if not addressed early enough.  I agree with the author in starting off the discussion from this point. 

    the only part of the article i don’t like is the paragraph on hijab (though the paragraph after it, discussing sexual repression in the conservative environments of islamic schools, is spot on).  I don’t see the point of extolling how liberating hijab is. The author speaks of hijab in absolute terms here, which is dangerous.  We have to consider hijab in context – it can be liberating in some contexts and extremely oppressive in others. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, there’s always pressure to go in one direction or the other (esp. these days), making the terms “choice” and “liberation” problematic. I’ve personally seen Islamic schools place enormous pressure on girls regarding hijab, to the point of ostracizing them if they don’t wear it outside of school. It’s truly disgraceful. 

    I’ll share some more thoughts from my experience working at an Islamic school – a fellow teacher had to fight very hard to get the school to hire a trained counselor, and once hired, students flocked to her, desperate for someone to share their problems with.  I agree completely with the author, counselors and social workers are a necessity, not an option!!  And these professionals should never be the neighborhood aunties and uncles (the school tried to pull that stunt).  That would cause significantly more problems than it attempts to resolve, as it would compromise confidentiality. 

    Currently, Islamic schools are barely able to keep pace with giving their students a normal education, and so all these other issues like self-esteem building, team-building, things that students NEED in order to function properly, particularly once outside the islamic school bubble, get pushed aside.  It’s a horrendous thing to happen, as many of these girls and boys leave the school completely confused, unable to navigate the scary real world.  They end up going through a much-delayed adolescence, having to learn life lessons the hard way, and that is sometimes extremely costly.  I’ve seen it again and again.  Islamic schools as they currently stand, are a place I would NEVER send my children. 

    The author’s point about young girls creating fantasy lives to make up for the repression they experience at Islamic schools is excellent.  I’ve seen that as well.

    During my time at the school, I took a number of girls under my wing, sensing their need to talk to someone who would not judge them, who could understand their feelings and frustrations.  These girls need that so badly.  Like the author says, we need to learn how to read the signs of a girl’s cry for help and reach out!  Even just having a simple conversation about their hopes and dreams is a good start.

  • aakhtar says:

    Thank you Rabya, Saadia, muqarnas and Kate for your insightful comments.

    @Rabya, I definitely am anxious to hear what social service professionals working in the schools have to say about this. I have my sources but they are limited to one or two schools and am curious to see what else is happening around the country.

    @Saadia and muqarnas – muqarnas, you astutely noted that I began to tackle this difficult subject with the younger, more delicate age. Certainly there are multitude of issues as women age, and that is not to say the issues diminish in any way.

    Regarding the hijab, I am not speaking of hijab in the literal concept, as I indicated in the text, but rather in context of modesty itself.  I threw it in there because culturally, we have created a problem of placing hijab on high moral grounds, whether or not it is liberating or not. I was merely pointing out an article that brought to light the liberation of being a ‘human’ of wearing it, and that certainly many girls and women may feel that way when fully covered. But then I did mention how the uniforms girls are forced to wear are demeaning and ugly and unfeminine. That also contributes to a low self esteem.

    @Kate, I think the issue of depression in Muslim societies is going to explode in years to come. It is such a taboo topic and the problems will really burst one day. We currently have no support system to pick up the pieces when that happens.  What’s interesting is how high levels spirituality and piety can instantly be a weakness when dealing with depression or the low mental health.  We must dissect the two and recognize they are not related.

    I’m really happy everyone took the time to read and comment.  My next piece will delve into this topic more and flesh out some of the issues facing older girls and adult women.

  • Kate says:


    That’s an interesting notion that high levels of spirituality/piety can be a weakness when dealing with depression. Would you be able to expand a little on this for me? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

    Looking forward to your next piece, too!

  • aakhtar says:


    Absolutely!  I will explain my thoughts sequentially, beginning with physical health.

    So the phenomenon that I have researched is so interesting and archaic.  When it comes to physical health, traditionally Muslims are not known to seek preventative care (regular PAP smears, mammograms, etc). The way Muslims have traditionally viewed illness and disease (at least 1/3 based on my survey) is that it is a will of God, or simply, God’s plan.  Any motivation for an intervention is moot.  Additionally, if there is no external illness (ie, not coughing up blood, or no physical lump) there is no pressing reason to take care of one’s health. The unfortunate consequence is that many morbidities have silent symptoms until an episode occurs(diabetes, unless you take insulin; high cholesterol, unless you have a heart attack).

    Now to your question.  Mental health is a completely different ball game. Consider the above worldview of illness and disease, and you will find that mental illness is not at all discussed, displayed or accepted because it is not understood.  Consider the symptoms.  Mental illnesses, as you may know, can be manifested in a multitude of ways: bulimia, children acting out, withdrawal, etc.  These symptoms are treated for other morbidities, and are NEVER considered as an indication of a mental illness. 

    Because religiosity is *so intertwined* in the daily routine of Muslims vis a vis 5 daily prayers, abstaining from certain foods and drinks, etc, feeling blue or depressed is merely an indication (in traditional speak) that Mariam, for example, is not praying enough, because there can be NO REASON to be unhappy as she is Muslim, and that is sufficient in itself.  Oh and add to that Mariam goes to an Islamic school and so she must be living and breathing Islam and God’s name all day and therefore has NO ROOM for any problems in her life.  What happens when people sin? They say, oh you are going astray! Pray more and come back, but the root causes of sin are never explored. Or are they?

    Depression cannot be solved by reading more Qur’an or praying more.  It must be dealt with for what it is: depression.  We cannot use our beautiful and spiritual tenets of Islam as a means to solve internal conflict. 

    Did I raise more questions? What do you think?

  • Kate says:


    Your theory definitely makes sense. I’m familiar with the idea that (physical) illness can be seen as God’s will, but I’d never actually transferred that to mental illness. Which is surprising, seeing as I myself have suffered from depression for many years.

    So, actually, it’s sort of similar to how non-Muslims might overlook depression in others, by thinking that there is no real reason for this person to be depressed – except that here, it can be seen as linked to God and Islam and (a lack of) piety. Interesting.

  • muqarnas says:

    @Ayesha – I have definitely seen what you’re describing in the community.  Would you say educating Muslims about the actual chemical imbalance related to mental illnesses would start to open people’s eyes, since it’s something more concrete and scientific?  Perhaps it wouldn’t do much, people are capable of denying as many fact-based points as they want to if they conflict with their own entrenched views…but how can we get Muslims to start treating these issues honestly and realistically?  Every moment we hold back on addressing this issue, there are countless people suffering because of the community’s overwhelming ignorance.

  • aakhtar says:

    @muqarnas – I think you are right, it wouldn’t do much to educate Muslims about chemical imbalances, as in many cases the imbalance itself may be an adjunct, effect, or cause of the depression as the case may go (my husband is a psychologist and would attest to that).  Sometimes people are simply feeling blue, and that is not attributed to a chemical imbalance. 

    I think we need to dig deeper and examine what caused the chemical imbalance? Was it a crisis of faith or hopelessness, a stress reaction, injury, etc.

    Before getting into scientific theories about causality and cure, it is worthwhile to educate on the real nature of depression, and that begins with typical symptoms. A good place to start for example, is the DSM-IV and to look at what many researchers have found to be a syndrome of symptoms that constitute depression:

    Of course, you need an unbiased expert to make the determination, but those working with children as a first-line of caretakers or teachers should be educated on these things.

  • muqarnas says:

    “Of course, you need an unbiased expert to make the determination, but those working with children as a first-line of caretakers or teachers should be educated on these things.”

    Yes, and unfortunately from what I’ve seen, most Islamic school teachers are not even qualified teachers, let alone ones who are knowledgeable about child developmental issues.  They are often community members who have never been educated on how to properly interact with and nurture their students. 

    Perhaps a first step would be to organize an event for Islamic school parents and teachers (BOTH) by inviting a psychologist/counselor/social worker to lead an intensive training workshop on understanding mental illness and how to detect it.  It’s one thing to train the teachers, but I saw one student at a school who very clearly had serious mental problems, but the parents refused to do anything about it, and so he wasn’t helped.

  • aakhtar says:

    Fortunately, my organization, HEART, is working on this last goal. We had a very successful workshop in the fall, with 100 participants. We are slowly bringing issues to light and inshaAllah with persistence and continued involvement of counselors and social workers, we will begin to tackle this problem and create a game plan for when it really hits (because we both know it will get worse before it gets better).
    Thanks again for your insightful commentary.

  • muqarnas says:

    yes, I took another look at the description of HEART and see that this is in fact part of your effort!  I’m so glad to hear that you’ve had a successful workshop and I wish you many, many more!  Keep up the GREAT work!  And please keep us Altmuslimah readers informed on ways we can help as well!

  • Kate says:

    “In traditional cultures, low self-esteem or depression is often considered an indication of one???s low level of piety, or that s/he has ???deserved??? that angst somehow.”

    As a non-Muslim, this is really interesting to me. Particularly in light of the contrast between the lack of acceptance of depression amongst girls and women (and in general, too) amongst Muslims and non-Muslims. In the latter, depression is rather seen as a form of selfishness and self-centredness, as an issue that doesn’t really deserve attention due to its non-visible nature.

    So it’s intriguing to find out that there are different ‘reasons’ behind depression in Muslim societies.

  • aakhtar says:

    I absolutely will! Thank you! We are always looking for workshop sponsors so if you know of anyone in your community that would want to do that, please let us know!  We are currently applying for grants, so it’s a long road ahead, but a good one and a road worth traveling, inshaAllah.
    We are also on facebook 🙂

  • Saadia says:

    Where I object is using personal correspondence, notes, and conversations into articles without permission or unless its helpful. I think this isn’t ethical and yet people are not drawing the line.

  • muqarnas says:

    Saadia, what are you referring to? Example?

  • Saadia says:

    Muqarnas: It’s is a general sentiment.

    “It is as though we Muslims are collectively not allowed to feel depressed, sad or blue.”

    This is a helpful statement because some people come from cultures where more emotions are expressed in public places. Looking for the good is important, but not everyone is trained to wear a certain face all the time. Acknowledging problems and resolving them without dwelling is a skill in itself.

  • zehra rizavi says:

    I enjoyed reading your piece Ayesha. Two points in particular stood out to me:

    1. I think you hit the nail on the head when you suggested that for non-Muslim women beauty is an end in itself. All females desires to look a certain way to garner praise and the attention of the opposite sex. For many Muslim women however, beauty is an a means to an end—the ultimate goal being marriage. This link places enormous weight and anxiety on the shoulders of young girls as they come to believe that their appearance, something over which, in large part, they have very little control, will determine where and with whom they end up!

    2. While I disagree that Muslims fail to seek a diagnosis and medical treatment for physical ailments (diabetes, hypothyroidism etc.), I too have noted that mental illnesses are often dismissed among the community as syptomatic of a lack of piety. Unfortunately, such an attitude fuels an insidious cycle—one feels depressed and immediately assumes if he/she possessed strong faith in God’s mercy and plan he/she would not feel such sadness and anxiety. Such reflection, in turn, further deepens the depression and feelings of worthlessness. I must confess that I myself have questioned the strength of my Iman when feeling melancholy. As you wrote, if one is a Muslim who believes in the wisdom and benefit of all that Allah brings into one’s life, however trying,  a person should always remain content.

  • Sobia says:

    Sorry…I just skimmed the article, will come back to read the whole thing but I noticed one mistake. You meant Naomi WOLF not Naomi KLEIN. Two very different people.

  • aakhtar says:

    @ Sobia Yes! big typo! Not sure how that slipped through – I love her works and have her books. Good catch, thanks! Will look forward to hear your comments.

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