Love, Wellness, Interviews

Meet the incredible woman breaking taboos on sexual health and building a more inclusive Muslim community

The best thing a male ally can do is to hand over the mic to a woman. There is absolutely no excuse for all male panels - or for male allies speaking for women.

Nadiah Mohajir is the founder and executive director of HEART Women & Girls, a group of diverse, empowered professionals who are committed to building safe, inclusive communities for Muslim girls. Nadiah has led HEART in providing health education programs to over 5000 Muslim women and girls in the Chicagoland area as well as cities across the country. Her organization helps break through many cultural barriers and raises awareness on issues including sexual and reproductive health, sexual violence, and media literacy.  We sat down with Nadiah to discuss her work, health education, and inclusive communities.

The Tempest: HEART works to create a world in which “women and girls are valued for their character and personhood, rather than their body type, skin color, or what they choose to wear.” Can you give our community a few ways in how they can do this as well?

Nadia Mohajir: Absolutely. First, stop focusing on the external. It’s our collective responsibility to stop focusing on the external appearance of any woman – Muslim or not. When we continually focus on a woman’s appearance – what she wears or doesn’t wear, or how she looks – we are perpetuating a cycle of systemic patriarchy. We live in a world where, most of the time, what men wear or don’t wear or how they look is rarely analyzed, and almost always irrelevant to the conversation. When will that become a reality for women and girls? Only if we collectively work hard to push back on that type of dialogue.

Second, let them speak for themselves. We’re everywhere now – there isn’t a single profession or space that we haven’t explored and a lot of the times, excelled at. There is absolutely no excuse for all male panels or male allies speaking for women. The best thing a male ally can do is to hand over the mic to a woman.

Third, invest in them. We need more leadership building efforts investing in women and girls. We need more programming and professional development investing specifically in women and girls of color. We need more scholarships recruiting women and girls from underrepresented, hard to reach communities.

What would you say is the most challenging part about doing the work that you do?

The sexism and patriarchy. It’s exhausting fighting it from all angles. You say something to take control of the narrative and many in the community comment on how you did it wrong, or could have done it better. You challenge patriarchy or racism within the community and people will line up to discredit what you’re saying. You speak up against an abusive or violent situation, only to face additional bullying, intimidation and gaslighting from those watching from the sidelines.

And men aren’t the only ones that perpetuate this cycle of sexism and patriarchy  – often times, it’s the women in the community that perpetuate the sexism.

Moreover, outside of the Muslim community, the right wingers and Islamophobes also try to co-opt the narrative to reassert their beliefs on how terrible Islam. With the rise in Islamophobia, receiving consistent funding and support for this work in the fields of reproductive justice and anti-sexual assault continues to be a challenge. Additionally, this “knowledge” about Muslims perpetuate stereotypes, which often translates to oppressive policies targeting Muslims and negative real life consequences.

How is it that women in the wealthiest country in the world still struggle with basic reproductive health issues?

[This is] a perfect example of what systemic patriarchy looks like. Historically and currently, women’s reproductive freedoms have always been a politicized issue where much of the time, wealthy men in power are in charge of controlling access to certain information or services.

Moreover, it’s not just about increasing access to information and services – we need to reduce the systemic barriers and build systems that support women to safely, privately, and easily access the services and information they need.

What are some things we can do to create a safe space in our communities for women who want to open up about First off – protect their privacy. Build the kind of space and relationship where they will know that their privacy will be honored. Then, we have to believe them. Don’t silence them when they tell their story or question how true their story is. We also have to validate & affirm. Don’t dismiss their feelings. Give them permission to feel the emotions they are feeling – whether it’s anger, sadness, frustration.

Commit to inclusivity. Create spaces that acknowledge the diversity of Muslim women and girls and actively are committed to building a space that is inclusive and welcoming to people of all lived experiences.

Eliminate blame and shame. One of the main reasons women and girls do not seek help for sensitive issues is because they feel they will be shamed and blamed for their situation. It is crucial to eliminate blame and shame so that people feel more comfortable asking questions or seeking help.

What do you think is the impact of media literacy on women’s health outcomes?

The media has a tremendous influence on both men and women’s attitudes, and ultimately health outcomes. Media messaging, especially those targeted toward young people, often reinforce gender stereotypes, idealize unattainable standards, and pressure young people to meet unreasonable expectations.

The age at which girls are expected to dress sexually has become younger and younger, and if we don’t teach young people to think critically about media messaging and challenge it, we aren’t preparing them for when they need to make decisions regarding their sexual behaviors.

It’s crucial to teach young people to think critically about media messaging through advertising, TV, movies, and music. Is that ad really selling cologne? Or is it selling sexuality and beauty? What techniques are advertisers using to sell their product? What feelings of inadequacy are they trying to appeal to you? Teaching young people to critically think about and be more aware of media messaging protects them from falling prey to advertising techniques.

You can learn more about HEART Women & Girls here. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.