On Thursday 29th November 2018, I had the honour of leading a sisters only circle which focussed on Mental Health in female Muslim Students. I started this off with the question:

‘Are mental health struggles more or less likely to be recognised or treated in non-Muslim students compared to Muslim ones?’

Our discussion was filmed for a documentary on BBC1 around anxiety. It was our pleasure to have Nadiya Hussain as a guest to our discussion. Nadiya is best known for winning the Great British Bake-off in 2015.

The following is my personal reflection of this experience.  

As the host and facilitator of the discussion, many thoughts entered my mind as I prepared for this discussion which I knew was going to be filmed. Having hosted many halaqahs and discussions of this style amongst sisters, I am comfortable and confident in discussing taboo topics with a variety of different women, muslim and non-muslim alike. However, this was the first time I allowed this to be filmed, alongside a group of women consenting to this too. Our aim was to shed light on the discourse occurring within our ummah, the variety and depth of understanding in young Muslim women today as well as our awareness of the issues faced by our young people. It was felt by attendees that this was an opportunity to discuss in an open manner with a prominent Muslim woman, and to share the nuanced understanding of how Islam fits into our lives with regards to mental health and women’s issues.

I wondered about how filming would impact our discussion, as well as my delivery. I decided to not change aspects of the discussion to suit the filming, as I thought to myself that it would be edited and trimmed down, and you can never guarantee which parts are used in the documentary. It was more important to me that the session itself went well, with attendees gaining from the discussion and each others views, and leaving enriched. I didn’t want the filming to disrupt the session too much, (despite there being in a camera in the middle of our circle and a boom mic too!).

The discussion began by posing the above question. We explored together some ideas about the struggles faced by contemporary ‘young’ muslims. We found some commonalities amongst the attendees, namely the idea that ill mental health can often be labelled as being due to ‘weak iman’. There was a mutually shared frustration at this misunderstanding of the Muslim community, shared by everyone who attended. Interestingly, the discussion flowed towards the ways that the ladies used islam as a shifaa, a healing, for their problems. It was interesting to me the ways that Islam was embedded deeply into peoples’ lives in a positive way; instead of admonishing themselves with Islam, the ladies discussed turning to it as a soothing source. People were discussing quranic ayat and hadith in their conversation, reminding us that ‘Verily in the remembrance of Allah do hearts find rest’, as well as the struggles of the prophets before us. The diversity of thought and open discussion about the struggles faced by attendees was refreshing and honest, and I hope this is able to be reflected in the clips filmed by the BBC. There was a range of ages and backgrounds in the attendees, yet Islam seemed to unite us all.

Up to this point of our discussion, our guest Nadiya has sat quietly as she gained a bearing of the discussion and the different viewpoint. It was my feeling that she had never attended such a gathering before, as she took in the diversity, eloquence and intelligence of the girls in the room, all from university educated backgrounds and all striving to be Muslim women in this 21st century in the melting pot that is London.

Additionally, there was a male cameraman in our midst, and usually these circles are a safe space for women to come together and discuss all taboo topics. This generally can include venting frustrations about our male counterparts – and we did take care to apologise to the male cameraman who took it in good humour!

After sitting quietly for some time, Nadiya shared her thoughts, expressing how she was surprised by the ideas expressed by the group that faith can be used as a tool for healing. She described how protective she is of her iman and her islamic identity, and how she separates her struggles with anxiety entirely from her identity as a muslim. This was found very interesting by the group, who reflected on how this could be a way to say that mental health and faith are entirely separate and that one can thrive whilst the other can decline. However it was discussed at length how faith can be used a tool to improve mental health, and this brought on much debate and discussion with our guest as she had not considered this. We all agreed that being fiercely protective over your deen is important, and understood how sometimes mental health difficulties can be used to undermine your faith as people deem you as struggling with low eman etc. We agreed that there are different ways to deal with struggles, and everyone shared how they utilise islam and the support network of muslims to do this. We also shared the detrimental factors of a large Muslim community.

The discussion was wrapped up by addressing both our commonalities and differences as a group and the varying levels of self development both as people and within our religion. We thought about the new perspectives we learnt from each other. We discussed moving forward and what steps we can take to make our communities stronger, as future women in our ummah. We recognised our privilege as educated women in the city of london with freedom to discuss and live our lives, and thought about our duty to carry on working for ourselves and for the betterment of others, both in this life and the next.

Overall, as the group facilitator I found the discussion to be fruitful and one that had a strong take home message. I was left thinking about the strong intelligent women who had attended and spoken so eloquently about their feelings, and how Islam embeds into the lives of emerging Muslim women of today, who face many challenges. I thought about how this BBC television show may edit and paste clips together to create an entertaining narrative for viewers, and realised that our 90 minute discussion will definitely not be reflected in a TV show that is designed to follow Nadiya’s Journey. Thinking about this, I am happy even if we don’t make it into the television show, in the knowledge that our work was showcased and a discussion that we frequently have has been attended by others. I reflected on my aim in doing this, and worried about renewing my intentions. I realise that much work is being done in our Muslim community without being filmed, and that is amazing and that our reward is Allah swt. Recognition is nice and important for human beings, but is not as important as getting the work done. My aim in taking part is not only to highlight the need to Muslims, but also to show non-Muslim mental health practitioners the role of faith as both a protective and healing factor for clients of faith (be it Muslim or otherwise). We need faith sensitive practice to truly provide holistic care. I hope that all the attendees, viewers and facilitators of this discussion benefit, and that we can go on to continue benefiting others. Whether we make it into the documentary or not, it was a pleasure to take part with all the beautiful women I met. Alhamdulillah.

~ Written by Zahra Samih

Please check out the article below about the event!