The end, but maybe not… :)

I know this post is a little late coming, but I promised that I would write this — I need to write this.

Our final meeting of My Body & Soul was almost two weeks ago. I won’t say THE final meeting, but definitely my final one in the form that I had envisioned it for this year.

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Although Spiritual Life will no longer be sponsoring My Body & Soul in the way they did this year, as MBS I learned in retrospect was always meant to be just a year-long internship project, that does not mean that it cannot continue at UChicago in some way, shape, or form. I think that it needs to.

I had two students (I can say that now as an alum!) come to me saying they would like to continue the program next year — and that makes me happy.

But it’s not about me.

Sure, the idea to start an interfaith discussion group for women of faith on the intersection of body image and religion started in my head, based on the experiences I had — being an overweight child and adolescent, losing all that weight in my early 20s, re-finding my faith, deciding to wear hijab and not realizing at the time that it was more than just a piece of cloth on my head, struggling with body image in the wake of hijab AND weight loss, feeling like a failure for not sustaining a weight that was most likely too low for me anyway…

But my story is just one story.

All the stories that I had the opportunity to learn more about in the course of our discussions are stories that still need to be told.

They should continue. They must continue.

I never started this project thinking I would solve the problem in the course of two quarters – yes, a lot of material is covered in the quarter system, but like every other class we take at UChicago, we never really become experts in the material, we are only led to the gates of further discovery.

I know that in the course of having these discussions with all of these lovely ladies – acquaintances turned into friends and friends turned into sisters – I’ve grown and learned so much about myself.

So thank you ladies, for giving me this opportunity. Like I’m sure I must have said before we parted (and if I did not, it was because I was overwhelmed with emotions and gratitude): This would not have been possible without you. Because you showed up at every meeting (which was not required, by the way), YOU made My Body & Soul the success that it was.

And yes, it was a tremendous success, especially if at least one woman has come away hating her body less.

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I love and will miss you all!

Love,
Rafia

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The Final Meeting

I can’t believe it. It’s ending.

My family still has no clue what My Body & Soul is. When I went to the grocery store to get some items for this afternoon’s meeting, I had announced: “This is for My Body & Soul” and my brother was like, “WHAT?”

Even though my family already thinks I am crazy, for them to hear that I am getting food for my soul from the grocery store… well, that’s a little too much, even for me.

“It’s the interfaith group I started as part of my internship at the Spiritual Life Office, people!”

And now, it’s almost over.

I’m sad and it’s only 7 AM.

But it happened. It actually happened. I don’t know what MBS‘s fate will be for next year, but I know one thing for sure — that I will take it with me wherever I go and I hope everyone else involved took some nugget for their own development and self-worth.

The work must continue. And if we changed the conversation for the better, even if very slightly, then we did good work.

On belonging and judgement

I went to the gym this past week for the first time in… well, let’s just say that it’s been a while (shout-out to a wonderful friend of mine who gave me just the push I needed).

It may have just been in my head, which I am sure many things can be attributed to, but there was a moment while I was on the treadmill when I got this look from some random dude walking by. Maybe he’s one of those people who have perpetual “rude” face, but the way he looked at me made me feel like I, with my hijab and long tunic top, did not belong in this space.

I’m not going to lie, I felt odd from the very beginning. The gym is a place where most people wear either tight-fitting or more exposing clothing (or both!). It makes sense. If you’re going to be sweating, why would you wear a parka?

I felt like I had a parka on in any case.

This has been a major reason why I decided “walking to class” would be my form of exercise during my time as a student here. But little did I foresee I would be cast under the thrall of all the FREE unhealthy food available on campus, that walking, while otherwise sufficient, would simply not be enough.

And then there’s the whole pants thing.

When I encountered a fellow skirt-wearing hijabi yesterday on the way to the gym, I almost instinctively placed my bag in front of me. I’m sure she didn’t even notice, but I felt exposed. It’s not that I felt totally comfortable before or after this encounter, but there is something to be said of anonymity.

My nonsensical to the outsider thought-patterns stem from this existential fear of judgement. Not just from people, but also from God.

As I shared with the ladies in our last meeting — how fitting that our scheduled topic was “Judgement and Society” —  a lot of the weird things I do are grounded in the fact that I constantly think of what I will say to God when I am brought up to recount my actions in this world. I can’t be all like, “Well, God, I took it easy on earth because I knew You would forgive me.” I pray and hope that He does, but I have no knowledge of that. So when I see a model of perfection (however interpreted), I try to emulate it.

Haphazardly, of course.

I don’t judge other women who interpret hijab differently, because I don’t know what’s in their heart and the other things they may be doing. But I know my imperfections and if there’s something I can do to mitigate my failings, I will try. I don’t believe it should be limited only to the internal.

Beyond the acceptability of the hijab itself (a debate that is beyond the scope of this blog post), I wonder if my interpretation of hijab is particularly untenable in the society in which we live. Notwithstanding the difficulties that come along with exegesis, the question I am left to ask myself is whether there really is a conflict? Or, as with many other things in my life, is it all in my head? Am I (still) letting the fear of judgement affect me so much that I am limiting the ways in which I can live a (permissibly) healthy and happy life?

Maybe I completely misconstrued that glance. But even if I didn’t, why should it matter? I can’t live my life according to other people’s perceptions of how things ought to be.

The problem is that I think way too much. And that’s why it’s been over… well, it’s been as a long as it has been since I last went to the gym!

The economics of women’s bodies

I have a love/hate relationship with HuffPo, especially their female-targeted sections. But I came across an article today that was just refreshing to read and it was written by a young man. I had to post a link:

Not Everyone Is ‘Sexy’… and That’s Okay

It really bothers me when companies try to affect change. You are a freakin’ corporation in the business of selling things we don’t really need just so you can make oodles of money and leave us feeling not only horrible about ourselves because we don’t look like the people in your advertisements, but also with less money to actually spend it on things that matter.

I’m obviously very anti-laissez-faire/free market capitalism, but that’s another story for another time.

The thing is is that our problems are systemic. And no, I don’t applaud the efforts of corporations “trying to change the dialogue,” because they are not. Not Dove. Not Lane Bryant. They are manipulating the already subversive messages and unstated dictates of the degrading consumerist society we live in.

I am as much a victim of this mentality as anyone. But my own personal experiences with my body in trying to attain this ideal and the difficulty – nay, impossibility – of trying to do so, serve as a much needed reminder to keep me from falling too far into that mentality again. And that is why My Body & Soul is so important to me.

In order to change the dialogue, we need to look within. What is it that is driving us? Really ask this of ourselves. Why am I in school? Why am I in this profession? Why am I spending all my money at J.Crew (to be fair, I only have 5 items from J.Crew and I am content).

Everything that we do is a means to an end. But do we know what this end is? I don’t think many people really realize the end that we are working towards. So yeah, I have a teleological conception of the universe and all that is in it. But we all do, whether we are conscious of it or not.

Until we know what our goals are and why we do the things we do, corporations will continue to do the things they do best: control and manipulate our true ends to conform to theirs: profit.

So maybe my undergraduate degree in Economics was not a total waste? 🙂

Colourful activity and lively conversation

First discussion/meeting of the Spring Quarter was yesterday.

We started off with, what I thought was, a fun and informative group activity to get the ideas flowing. I’m still thawing from the Winter Quarter. And it’s good to get everyone comfortable, since it’s been a while, before we get into the really deep, personal stuff.

So, the prompt was two-fold, starting with the headline “RELIGION & WOMEN’S BODIES” — 1. When you hear these three words, what immediately comes to mind? 2. What would you like to see changed? I will definitely refer back to this chart when formulating future “suggested” questions for discussion and hopefully the discussants will see them as springboards for further discussion outside of My Body & Soul.

Since I love pretty colours and writing things down for recollection’s sake, here’s what we came up with:

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It was nice to learn what others think when they hear these words. I kinda wish I had done this activity on my own first to see how my concerns might be different, but oh well, I don’t have the best memory, maybe I can do it in a few weeks.

I then asked whether they found these words they came up with largely negative or positive. I was assuming that all would agree that they were mostly negative. But I was surprisingly wrong. The pluses located on the top half are not mini-crucifixes, but positives. It was good to see that the women present recognized the ambiguity of many of the words and associations. Conceptualization and context are really important. I am reminded of R. Scott Appleby’s Ambivalence of the Sacred, a great book that I read for my Ethics of Religion and Violence class during undergrad (it was one of my latent motivations for graduate studies in Religion)

The second part of the activity was particularly hopeful for me, especially when one of the women rightly pointed out that our religious traditions do already contain women’s voices, but they’re often *surprise, surprise* ignored. Not just by men, of course. It’s difficult to see (or rather, hear) these voices today, when we approach our texts and traditions wearing our largely unconscious (post)modern hats.

I attended a lecture the other day on Women in Jewish and Islamic Law, and I took issue with this asserted need for “religious feminists” (a term employed by one of the speakers) to assert their presence in juridical exegesis. I hadn’t read the book so I can’t comment on the entire work, but the presentation seemed to suggest that women have not historically had any place in our religious traditions. There’s no denying that patriarchy is as old as man (pun intended) and this surely must be taken into account, but to ignore the thousands of female scholars in the history Islam, for instance, seems rather negligent to me. I kinda wish I was more quick on my feet and brought this up during the Q&A session, so here I am blogging about it!

Anyways, after the activity, we opened up it up to the scheduled topic, “Are our bodies truly our own?” As always, the girls brought up topics that my planned sub-questions did not address, which honestly is the greatest thing as a discussion facilitator. Awkward pauses are never fun! You can only stuff your face with food so many times before you start eating your plastic utensils and paper plate! We officially ended at 6:00 but the conversation continued well until 7:30, which is just wonderful. Can’t wait for the next meeting 🙂

First Week of Spring!

Not according to the Gregorian Calendar, of course. But in the 10-Week Calendar that is the quarter system of UChicago, it is the first week. And today, it really does look and feel like Spring! Yay 🙂

Next Wednesday, we will resume our bi-weekly My Body & Soul meetings. People have asked me whether the program will continue and I really do hope that it does. But since I hope to be graduating this June, I can’t say for certain 😦

My hope for My Body & Soul was to get the conversation started. I never for a second thought that by the end of this academic year My Body & Soul would be able tackle the problems of body image/confidence that women of faith face, not even here on campus. This is a conversation that needs to continue within our faith communities. But in the least, I hope that it continues next year with Spiritual Life.

Before I get too visionary though, we still have this quarter ahead of us! And with the topics we have planned this quarter, I hope y’all are as excited as I am!

I took some time this morning to go over the evaluations our participants filled out at our last meeting. One common trend was the desire to have men be a part of this conversation (The other one being how we sometimes got off-track. Part of this has to do with how I structured the discussions in the first place. I wanted them to be organic and really participant-based. But, I will think of ways of providing a better balance, possibly through more structured group activities like the one we had in our first meeting. Everyone seemed to really like that activity. I will need to put my Thinking Hat on and wear it for a while!).

In the planning stages of My Body & Soul, we had a lot of semantic back-and-forth, as is the UChicago way 🙂 One thing I was clear on however was the need for it to be a safe place for females and those who identify with the female body to discuss these very sensitive issues. Body image in general is a topic many women intimately deal with on a daily basis. And when you add religion into the mix, it gets even trickier. The truth of the matter is, expectations for men and women are different, both socially and within many of our different faith traditions. Often times, these latter expectations are only just commanded by our religious leaders without having the practicality of their fulfillment explained.

As good and fun theory can be, it is rendered valueless if it can’t be implemented. To quote my favorite teacher from high school, a true Mr. Keating and Mark Twain doppelganger: “A good theory with bad practice is a bad theory.” Women need to be able to articulate these issues and why they affect them as much as they do, so that when men do enter into the conversation, they can be partners rather than just passive (or aggressive) listeners. That is my ultimate goal. It won’t be achieved when My Body & Soul meets for the last time this academic year in June, but it is my hope that our participants, myself included, are inspired to continue the much-needed work that My Body & Soul has only started to broach.

Still, I wonder if My Body & Soul can engage with our fellow male students in a way while still staying true to our goals. If you have any thoughts, please do share them with me! I’d love to hear from you.

Final Meeting of the Quarter!

So, I can be a bit histrionic at times… but other than the fact that I am always waiting for the opportunity to whip out them jazz hands, I think it’s because I can’t believe things when they turn out well.

I was so nervous about My Body & Soul.

First of all, I wasn’t sure if it was even going to be a “thing” at UChicago. The future scholars of the world struggle with body image? Nuh-uh. I didn’t fit in on both fronts, I told myself.

But I was wrong. The responses I have gotten have been really tremendous.

But much more scarier, was I the proper person to lead the group? I still struggle with body image and I am most definitely not a leader. I’m the girl who sweats bullets even when she has to make 30-second announcements to a small gathering… of people that she knows, for God’s sake!

I need this space as much as anybody else who comes to our meetings does. I’ve come to learn that it’s not about who’s the most eloquent speaker, or whose struggles are the most heart-wrenching. There are no right answers here, something, as a Religious Studies student at UChicago, I have had to come to terms with very quickly. But unlike in the classroom, I don’t have to wear an “academic” hat in order to respond. My response doesn’t even need to make sense! But it is still respected because it is genuine.

There’s something special, warm and fuzzy, about the group we’ve got. I love all you girls in your own unique ways. I am learning so much from you all and look forward to continue to learn from you in the Spring! 🙂

LOL. We haven’t even had today’s meeting yet! 

Reflecting on our reflections

Before I forget, I wanted to post the hadith [saying of the Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him)] that one of our lovely participants mentioned and reminded us of at last week’s meeting. I especially needed this reminder.

اللهم كما أحسنت خَلقي فأحسن خُلقي

Allahumma kamaa ahsanta khalqi fa ahsin khuluqi

“Oh God, as you have perfected my creation, so too perfect my character.”

This need not be recited solely when looking into a mirror, because the message goes beyond physical appearance. The fact that I can even look into a mirror is a blessing I ought to be more grateful for. And it reminds me that the reflection I should care more about is not the one that the mirror displays.

The Ideal Woman

For those of you who were unable to make our first meeting, we did a group activity that came up with a list of traits that “the ideal woman” supposedly possesses. You’re most likely familiar with this notion of the ideal woman depicted in the media. I mean, she’s everywhere you turn!

But what’s less ubiquitous but still pervasive, particularly in faith communities, is this notion of the ideal virtuous or chaste woman.

So we came up with a list of traits that each woman possesses as a way to highlight the contrasting demands that women of faith face.

This is what we came up with:

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Y’all came up with some really good ones, too. “Superwoman with no bodily functions” is wonderful. The entire Spiritual Life team was very much intrigued.