10-Year Anniversary: Reflections on Weight and Faith

I like celebrating milestones. Marking the passage of time is something I do even when I don’t really need to. Augustine’s musings on time are more eloquent than mine, so I won’t indulge myself on the subject any longer.

However, this week (or last week rather since today is Sunday) marks my ten-year anniversary of two major life-changing moments: 1) I officially became more than half my former size and 2) I started wearing the headscarf.

I’m always a bit hesitant to go into a full explanation of why I decided to wear the headscarf full-time that jumu’ah in 2009. Unless one believes in God and unmerited blessings, I get the sense that my answer will not be satisfying (to non-Muslims; Muslims rarely ask), so I would rather not get into it. It’s also much more personally revealing than one would assume (funny, right? Talking about covering being revealing?). For me, beginning to wear the headscarf full-time is deeply tied to my weight loss. I dislike talking about my weight loss story in public forums, because it’s as if I’m openly inviting people to praise me (which I need to temper) and then that completely derails the conversation.

And yet, it’s so intertwined that I also cannot ignore it completely. So, on this ten-year anniversary, I need to revisit it.

Most of the women in my family don’t cover their hair, I say. Growing up, only two women (cousins, both American-born and living) wore it religiously (meaning, all the time and not just during Islamic gatherings or for prayer).

My mom started covering her hair in 2000 after her cancer treatment. But it wasn’t out of shame. Somewhat like my own reason, it was out of a sense of gratitude toward God that my mom felt compelled to wear the headscarf. She could have just worn a hat during remission and then when her hair grew back, gone back to the way things were. She had beautiful hair — and still does! My 70-year old mom STILL has thicker hair than I do. Why didn’t I get that from her? No, cancer strengthened her faith.

And in a less direct way, losing weight strengthened my faith, too, although much more gradually.

I don’t mean to imply that Muslim women who cover their hair are stronger in faith than those who do not. But to ignore my own complicated relationship with my body and its effects on my spiritual development would be misleading and obfuscating the reality.

As a young girl growing up in Toronto in the ’90s, whenever I saw a woman wearing a headscarf, the assumption was that she is super religious in a way that does not allow any room for fun: i.e. she doesn’t watch Bollywood movies. Because for me, my definition of fun for a long time was equivalent to Bollywood. But I watched movies, I loved to dance, and I loved to sing, all things some really conservative people say are unIslamic. So for me, there were “moderate” religious Muslims like my family who prayed, fasted, did all the five pillars and more, but still retained their Indian culture and practices. And then, on the other hand, there were the Saudi-influenced Muslims who said everything not from the Qur’an and sunnah was a bid’ah (innovation).

It wasn’t a conscious bifurcation on my part. I was absorbing a lot of political, social, and cultural movements that I did not understand at the time. I understand them now and have come to see that these blanket assumptions made on both sides have been damaging both on an individual and communal level. In some ways, I complicate this bifurcation today.

I was always bigger than most kids. By the time I was a senior in high school, I was close to morbid obesity. I knew I had to finally lose weight. Long gone were the days of stubbornness and refusal to stop eating two platefuls of rice for dinner each day (and sometimes even lunch!). Never mind the fact that I couldn’t find anything to wear and all that pain shopping trips caused. It was a diagnosis of pre-diabetes that really scared me into action. Over the course of 3 years, I lost more than 100 pounds. It was a shock, not only to everyone who knew me, and to my body (which I would only find out much later), but more importantly to my sense of self. Before, I was always “Fat Rafia” in whatever space I walked into. That’s why I absorbed myself into studies, because looks in a looks-obsessed (North American) society and (Indian) culture, weren’t going to save me. All of a sudden people who had once derided me for being ugly were now calling me beautiful? While I did enjoy being able to wear clothes I never imagined I would ever fit into, after a while I realized how superficial people can be… and that I was turning into one of them.

This is where things get a bit fuzzy. Was I feeling disconnected from God or was I being moved closer to Him, when on that Friday, the 14th of August, I felt a compulsion to not take my hijab off after prayer? I saw a vision of myself wearing the headscarf at work, smiling, and I interpreted that as a sign that this is what I had to do.

After wearing the headscarf, that’s when I started to become, I guess some would say, “obsessed” with my faith. I wanted to enroll in a madrassa (didn’t do that), but I consciously chose to work for Islamic organizations, got my Master’s in Religious Studies, thought about becoming a chaplain (also didn’t do that), and now, doing what I do and hope to do (perhaps more on that later). It’s safe to say that Islam consciously colors my life. It is the lens through which I see the world and how I live my life. Hajj has firmly cemented that, I pray, but I know there’s more for me to do.

And as of this week, I’m finally okay with my body. Just as recently as May of this year, gaining 10 pounds would have been enough for me to vow to not eat cake… until I lost that weight. Since June, I have gone up a size and may need to get slightly larger and longer shirts. But knowing that my body is doing what it’s meant to do is worth it. I thank God for this. In many ways, I’ve defied medical research in the past and I have done it once again. But it’s not anything I have done. It’s all been because of God. I can’t prove it to a skeptic, but I don’t care to. I know it in my heart.

That’s not to say that this journey of rediscovering my faith and learning about the delicateness of my body have been easy. They certainly have not, but both have been so intertwined that it’s hard for me to talk about one without the other.

Has the mission of My Body & Soul been fulfilled for me? Perhaps that’s a bit too early to say. But I no longer see it (i.e. my body) as a problem to be solved (i.e. just lose weight and then everything will be okay). So in a way, yes.

And, as I hoped for back in 2014 when I started that project, I now firmly know it is my faith in God that will ground me when I start worrying or get upset at myself for not living up to an unattainable ideal.

9 thoughts on “10-Year Anniversary: Reflections on Weight and Faith

  1. May Allah ‘aza wajal grant a long and healthy life to your mother, Inshallah. Illness takes a toll not only on the one being afflicted with it, but also their loved ones. I’m glad she found strength and purpose in her faith. Please give her my salam, I will keep her in my duas, Inshallah.

    Congratulation on your milestones, Rafia. Losing weight is not an easy task, I’m dealing with my fair share of that now. I clearly lack any sense of self-discipline where exercise is concerned loool.

    I remember when I decided to wear my hijab in 2001. Suddenly people I considered my friends drifted away, while others took their place. It became very clear that some of my former friends and work colleagues either held deep-seeded biases against the hijab, or simply didn’t like how I was becoming “more religious”. I remember making duas and asking Allah (swt) to replace these loses with something better. Alhamdulillah, everything worked out well eventually. My small circle of friends are very supportive and loving. I call that period of my life (2001-2002) the great cleansing looool. It’s been 18 years now, and I can’t imagine not wearing my hijab. It is such a major part of who I am and I can definitely say that it helped me mature. Congratulations on your hijab milestone, may Allah (swt) continue to shower you with his blessings.

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  2. Thank you for your duas! Alhamdulillah, my mom is such a source of strength. And I really do believe it’s because of her faith in Allah (swt).

    Don’t be too hard on yourself. I think it’s very easy to say, “Just eat less and exercise.” But it’s hard. It’s so hard. In fact, I was only really “successful” with weight loss because to some extent, I became obsessed. There was a time where my brother said that I liked to eat cardboard and don’t like to have fun anymore. I also have an obsessive personality. I don’t recommend the zeal with which I pursued my weight loss, because as I know, losing weight solved some problems but led to even worse ones.

    Haha, the great cleansing! I like that. You mentioned 2001. I hate to ask, but was this before or after 9/11? I was still in high school and was dealing with weight issues at the time, and other things, so unfortunately, my Islam was private. I didn’t have the confidence to live my faith “out loud” at the time. It’s weird now. I know I practice hijab, but even after 2016, I never considered taking it off or turning it into a turban wrap or whatever as some people have done. I was like, “I’m brown.” If people are going to have issues with my appearance, they’re going to have it regardless of whether or not I cover or how. At that point, it became sort of a part of me. Now, it’s non-negotiable. My faith comes with me in whatever space I am in. I don’t see it as a burden. I see it as an opportunity for myself (to strengthen my faith and resolve) and to others (to educate them). There’s nothing wrong with being more religious. I embrace it now. Although I must say, that one hadith about the end times is making me wanna stay home even more.

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  3. I was a freshly graduated nurse and my first day of orientation at the hospital was on 9/11. By the time I got to the hospital, everyone was glued to the tv screen wondering what the heck was going on. There was only two of us in our unit that were Muslims. The other sister was already a hijabi, I was not.

    Of course, we would hear some off colour comments about Islam after that, but we would try to ignore it. Until one day in the cafeteria during our lunch break an older nurse said that Islam is basically evil and Muslims too by extension. That was it for me.

    I asked the lady to step outside with me for a minute. She asked me why, and I replied so I can whoop your ass, you keep running your mouth about my religion let me teach you a thing or two about it then. The other colleagues intervened, I was led away, and she started to cry. Our head nurse and the manager came to me and asked me what happened. I told them that I have no intention of being bullied at my workplace, and if they are not going to do anything about xenophobic behaviours in the unit, then I have no other choice then to defend the integrity of my person. After that, everything changed. No one made anymore comments (at least to us directly) about Islam or Muslims. Most of the nurses would come to us when they had questions about Islam. If any of our Muslim patients were being treated unfairly, I would immediately mention it to the head nurse and have her intervene. It is during that time that I started wearing my hijab. For me it was important to be clearly seen as a Muslim when the prevailing impulse was to hide away. I was reading a lot more about the Deen and my relationship with Allah (swt) became very important to me. Honestly, it was a weird time. On one hand the hostility toward Muslims was at an all time high, on the other a lot of Muslims were either returning to their Deen or deepening their relationship with Allah (swt). Wearing the hijab meant I was opening myself to a lot to that and I received my fair share of it, but strangely I never felt more at peace.

    The worse incident at my workplace was when a patient refused to have me treat his wife and said he didn’t want a Muslim lady treating his wife. Then the head nurse assigned another nurse to his wife and he threw another tantrum saying “are there no white nurses here?”. Jovana was Indo-Caribbean, so her and I were giggling like crazy as he went on his rant. The head nurse called one of the doctors to talk with the guy, unfortunately for him the doctor in question was Egyptian…..he was almost in tears by this time. Amer (the doctor), Jovana and I just stood there like the a POC superhero team. We were basically his version of a nightmare…. black and brown folks everywhere LOL. It got so ugly that eventually, they assigned a “white nurse” to his wife, and the three of us got 4 days off (with pay) for emotional distress LOL.

    After a while, I decided to go into the social sciences. I wanted to understanding the social, political, and economic factors at play in this world of ours. Very few Muslims went into the social sciences and when the deluge of Islamophobic narratives hit us, we had no one to produce a counter narrative.

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  4. Wow, what a powerful story! Bravo to you for sticking up for yourself when that nurse was giving you so much crap. I’m surprised to hear things in Ottawa were as bad as they were in middle America. I like to think Canada is better than that, but I know it’s not, at least not across the country. As diverse and Muslim Toronto is now, it wasn’t that way in the 70s when my parents first emigrated. Do you miss nursing? Had you had more pleasant experiences, do you think you would have decided to stick with nursing?

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  5. For the most part, things in Canada were a lot better than in the US. But, the first months after 9/11 were very tense. Islam/Muslims were constantly in the news, and all sorts of things were being said about us. It lead to the proliferation of a lot of stereotypes about Muslims and straight up lies about our Deen . Some people were taking off their hijabs, changing their names to something less “Muslim” (Mo instead of Mohamed, Mira instead Ameera, etc…), or became obsessed with wanting to prove how pacifist Muslims are. There was a lot of fear in the community. But, Alhamdulillah it was not as bad as what Muslims were going through in the US.

    The reason why I went into nursing at first was to eventually get into Med School. During my nursing training I got a better look at what really goes on in hospitals, the kind of relationship doctors have with their patients, and the overall culture that exists in Medicine, and I became completely disillusioned. I created this whole fantasy in my mind about what it means to be a doctor and it was so far off from the reality, I lost any interest I had for the field. I really enjoyed Nursing however, and to some degree I miss it. I was planning on becoming a nurse practitioner, but the post 9/11 context made me question a lot of things. That is when I decided to venture into the social sciences. The most vicious and virulent attacks against Islam and Muslims were coming from social scientists (Pipes, Kramer, Lewis, Kepel, etc…), and there were hardly any Muslims to answer them. That fact really struck me, and made me change my plans.

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  6. Well, I for one am glad that you are in the social sciences, because I have learned a lot from you vicariously. But I get the sense that academia is also a bit disillusioning. But perhaps in a different way than the medical field is. What are your hopes for the future with your degree? How far along are you, by the way, if you don’t mind me asking?

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  7. I’m writing my thesis at the moment. It can be long and tedious at times lool.

    What I really hope to do through my work is advocate for a return to our tradition of knowledge production which unfortunately came to a complete halt in the late 19th/ early 20th century. Our current state as an Umma is greatly exacerbated by the fact that we no longer produce knowledge that could help us address our challenges. We’ve become consumers of knowledge, and we often find ourselves trying to desperately apply solutions that are not meant for us. It is my hope that I could humbly partake in that endeavour in the sociological field through a neo-Khaldunian sociology building upon the previous groundbreaking work of Ibn Khaldun, Inshallah.

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  8. I applaud you for your efforts! Do you see the problem arising with the Enlightenment and its global legacy? I think it’s quite sad how so many Muslims take for granted certain epistemological claims. I worry that the deeper that I get into this academic space, I will not be strong enough to argue otherwise. And yet it is precisely because so many Muslims in the West are affected by it that I want to understand this phenomenon. It changes how we perceive and interpret our religion and that really does not sit well with me. I too have to examine my own suppositions, but I hope Insha’Allah that I do this with humility and constantly seeking Allah (swt)’s guidance.

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  9. I would agree that the current cultural/political/economic hegemony of the Western world has conferred a global reach to the legacy of the epistemology of the Enlightenment. In many ways we’ve all been shaped by it and are now its custodians. However, those of us who are aware of this fact can then engage in a process of reflection in which we start to disentangle ourselves from the colonial script that inhabits us. It is not easy, and I’m not sure we will completely succeed at it, but we can at least start that process of reconnecting with our own intellectual heritage.


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