Women's Health

Demystifying women’s health in the Muslim community

Women's Health

Muslim doctor talking with a Muslim woman.
Talking about women's health issues with respect and dignity reduces the stigma in the Muslim community.

Growing up in a Muslim household, girls and young women often learn about gender-specific health challenges in vague or cryptic ways – if at all. Topics such as periods, pelvic pain, sex, and relationship dynamics are often considered taboo.

The result is young women with health concerns may feel too embarrassed or ashamed to ask for help when they experience physical or emotional symptoms that they believe clash with the pillars of purity and modesty in traditional cultural lifestyle.

As a Muslim woman and a physician, I understand the fine line women walk in faith and health. It’s not uncommon in my primary care practice to meet women who have struggled for years with vaginal pain, not knowing that painful intercourse is a treatable condition – not a normal part of life or an indiscretion. Similarly, conditions such as depression, addiction, and infertility in the Muslim community don’t have to exist in the shadows.

Dallas-Fort Worth is home to about 37,000 Muslims, making it one of the largest Islamic populations in the country and a destination for people looking to plant roots in a supportive community. When the COVID-19 pandemic started, many of us took to the video platform Clubhouse to stay connected during Ramadan, our holy month. In one such meet-up, several community members asked questions about how to fast while pregnant or breastfeeding. After the call, a religious leader invited me to address these questions for the community.

In January 2022, Islamic scholar Aalimah Sarah Ahmed and I launched Empowher Health, a pilot program and safe space where we could demystify women’s health matters while honoring our faith. I answer the health questions, Sarah speaks to the spiritual questions, and collectively we create a sisterhood and important outlet for Muslim women in DFW. Our meetings are on the first Thursday of each month at UTSW Family Medicine at Texas Health Dallas.

See upcoming meetings and events.

We expanded our reach in 2023 with a weekly podcast, She Should Know, drawing listeners from 26 countries – highlighting the deep need for respectful, culturally appropriate women’s health education around the world.

Treating physical and emotional pain

Some of our most meaningful meetings have included the opportunity to start normalizing topics that prior generations of women may have felt uncomfortable talking about, especially in public. Here are a few topics around which we get the most questions from women.

Is vaginal pain normal?

Pelvic floor dysfunction (PFD) is a condition caused by weakened or damaged ligaments and muscles that support the vagina, uterus, and bladder. PFD is common among women and prevalent in the Muslim community. It should not be dismissed as a “normal” part of being a woman.

Women with PFD may have pain in the abdomen, lower back, and hips, as well as painful sex, groin pain, and mental health concerns like anxiety or depression. PFD can lead to pelvic organ prolapse, which is when the uterus and bladder bulge into the vagina. A primary care provider can help you pinpoint the cause of pain and connect you with a gynecologist and a pelvic floor physical therapist to help treat the condition and strengthen the muscles.

Can I fast for Ramadan while breastfeeding or pregnant?

During pregnancy, most women need to consume about 300 more calories per day. While breastfeeding, that number increases to 500. Islam offers exemptions from fasting for breastfeeding and pregnant women. Health must always come first, religious leaders say.Some women choose to “make up” the fast at another time, decrease the duration of their fast, or participate in other ways, such as donating to charity.

If you choose to fast, talk with your doctor about acceptable options to nourish the baby and maintain your energy and milk supply. For example, you may need to eat and drink more at the pre-dawn suhoor and at iftar, when you break fast for the day. If you take medications with food, drink, or time requirements, talk with your doctor about realigning your schedule to accommodate the fast.

Is it normal to feel this stressed, sad, or resentful?

It’s no secret most family caregivers are women. While we are proud of everything we do for our loved ones and communities, it can sometimes come at the cost of self-care and attention to own health.

In our workshops and podcast, we address topics such as anxiety, depression, birth control, miscarriage, and postpartum depression. These are real, treatable conditions and your doctor can help you find a solution that aligns with your health and cultural needs.

How can I break unhealthy habits, such as smoking or pills?

Addiction is a disease, and you shouldn't have to face it alone. But it can be humiliating to bring up addictions that conflict with Muslim culture, such as drinking or smoking. Whether you need help quitting alcohol, nicotine, or prescribed or street drugs, a primary care provider can answer your questions and offer discrete, effective solutions. The same goes for concerns about diet and obesity.

Even when the topics are controversial or uncomfortable, we take great care to develop a safe, non-judgmental atmosphere. So far, our community members have all come to the room with care in their hearts and a willingness to share their stories. In one session, for example, we were discussing how to prepare the body and mind for childbirth. Women in their 60s discussed their experiences and passed down intergenerational wisdoms, many of which might be deemed too personal to discuss in some Muslim households.

'Talking about bodies in a respectful sense'

Sarah Hemeida, M.D., M.P.H., hosts monthly in-person meetings and a podcast to help create frank but comfortable conversations about physical and mental health issues for women in the Muslim community.

Learn more

3 big takeaways for women

As women, we play a vital role in the health of our families and our communities. These are three big points that we hope all women can take from this story, the podcast, or our in-person meetings:

  1. Women must understand our bodies. The better we understand our body, the better we can make conscious choices about our health. By talking about our bodies with respect and dignity, we teach future generations to do the same thing and reduce the stigma surrounding women’s health issues.
  2. Find a trusted health resource. Dr. Google is not always reliable. Make sure the facts you gather and share online come from reputable sources online, such as the American Heart Association, National Cancer Institute or academic medical centers such as UT Southwestern.
  3. Connect with a health care provider you trust. You are your own best advocate. Speak up about what’s concerning you. Look for someone who listens to you, respects your culture, and takes your questions seriously. If they don’t do that or you don’t feel comfortable with them, find someone else who will.

Our in-person workshops are just for women, but the podcast allows us to discuss health and psychosocial topics with a wider audience, including men who wish to better understand their wives, daughters, and mothers.

We hope you will join an upcoming workshop or listen to our podcast. It’s been a beautiful experience hearing women from multiple generations telling their stories and sharing their strength.

To find a primary care or women’s health care provider, browse our provider directory.