OH NOES! Hijab will make you sick!

The results of a new study on Arab women in Dearborn, Mich., have been released. The study revealed that women who wear “traditional clothing” (code word for hijab) are prone to lower levels of vitamin D because of less exposure to sunlight. Two articles on the study (here and here) read like,  “Oh noes! Those poor hijabis who get no sunlight will get so sick!” This recent study is just the latest in a line of studies on hijabis in various parts of the world which all have the same result: hijabis don’t get enough sunlight and hence don’t get enough vitamin D. We’re told of all the risks of not getting enough vitamin D: increased risk of cancer, diabetes, Crohn’s disease, multiple sclerosis, heart disease and infections.

I am highly skeptical of these studies and the way they’re framed in the media. Not because of the results (if hijabis aren’t getting enough vitamin D, then we need to go about other ways of getting it), but because they all seem to have the same message: hijab is making you sick! There are many ways to get vitamin D, with exposure to sunlight being just one of them. You can also get vitamin D through diet. However, what is stressed in the two articles about the study is that hijabis don’t get enough vitamin D compared to non-hijabis despite the fact that the study also found “There was no difference in rates of health problems linked to vitamin D deficiency, such as bone or joint pain or breaks, or muscle weakness” between women in the study who wear hijab and women who don’t. In the Scientific American post, we’re given multiple quotes about how hijabis can’t enough vitamin D even from diet.

While heavy doses of vitamin D are available in supplements, the body manufacturers the most through sun exposure (admittedly in short supply in early spring in Michigan, when the study was done), Hobbs says. The vitamin naturally occurs in only a few foods, including mackerel, tuna, salmon and eggs, and it’s added to milk in the U.S. To get the recommended 1,000 International Units of vitamin D a day (or no more than 2,000), you’d have to drink 20 glasses of milk daily, or eat 80 eggs, Hobbs says. Spend a few minutes in the sunshine, though, and your body will make 10,000 to 20,000 units, he says.

So what am I or any other hijabi suppose to take away from this study? That unless I take off my hijab I’m not ever going to get enough vitamin D? That makes me feel very hopeful.

What was also troubling was that the study was only done on Arab American women. The Muslim community in the U.S., even in the Detroit area, is really diverse. Why were only Arab American women used in the study? Why weren’t women from other ethnic groups who wear hijab also used? This is troubling to me because it once again reinforces the idea that Muslim=Arab. The way the Freep.com article and Scientific American post were framed reinforced this idea. The titles of the articles are “Vitamin low in Arab women” and “Does modest dress among Arab-American women promote vitamin D deficiency?”, yet the bulk of both articles focus on hijabis. The article itself says that vitamin D levels were higher in women who didn’t wear hijab and since the study was done on Arab women, I assume that the women who didn’t wear hijab were also Arab. Also, there are Arabs who aren’t Muslim. Yet the articles are framed in such a way that equates Arab with Muslim.

So while it’s good to know that I should be conscious of my vitamin D intake, I also know that studies like these aren’t perfect.

  • http://aaminahhernandez.wordpress.com Aaminah Hernandez

    Funny you should mention this… there was also a recent study in Australia. I wrote about this very “phenomenon” for the Crescent Times, an Australian Muslim newspaper. You can read my column at the bottom of the page here: http://crescenttimes.com.au/doc/P6_fEB09.pdf
    and it continues on page 10 here: http://crescenttimes.com.au/doc/P10_fEB09.pdf

    The reality is that Muslim women don’t need to be any more concerned about Vitamin D intake than the average woman (i.e. all women should be aware of the need), and hijab is NOT keeping us from getting sufficient sunlight. Niqaabis may need to be a bit more thoughtful, but still – we are getting Vitamin D. In fact, when I looked at my own vitamins and the extra calcium that I have to take, I realized that I get MORE vitmain D FROM SUPPLEMENTS ALONE than the recommended amount!

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  • Zahra

    This is a really interesting analysis. Thanks!

    It reminds me of a similar outcry in the US Orthodox Jewish community a few years ago. But there I thought the problem began with health problems (brittle bones) in schoolchildren. Studies found the problem was a combination of the traditional modest dress limiting sunlight exposure, and discouraging participation in school sports (so the kids could spend the time in lengthy after-school study classes). There may also have been a link to the strict interpretation of Jewish kashrut laws limiting dairy consumption. I think the community came up with alternatives, but I doubt anyone gave up modest dress. But of course OJ dress isn’t the overdetermined symbol that hijab is.

    I also think the Michigan study is odd, because I’ve also run across studies that show that the rates of certain types of cancer in the US correlate with seasonal sunlight exposure. In other words, everyone in the northern parts of the US has a much higher rate of certain types of cancer (particularly prostate cancer, which women don’t have to worry about) than in the southern states. I wonder whether there would be any differences between the hijabi & non-hijabi women if the study had been done in Texas and Florida.

    I think we’re going to be hearing more and more about this in the future. Nations with rapidly aging populations, like the US, are really pushing cancer research, and Vitamin D is a hot topic there (in part, I think, because people feel they can control it). At the same time, there have been a rash of studies concluding that vitamins taken in pill form don’t work, or have deleterious side effects. (See the New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/17/health/17well.html?scp=3&sq=Vitamin%20D&st=cse)

    Add the Islamophobia you describe, and the perennial Western obsession with hijab to the extent of all else, and you have a perfect storm.

  • http://theyaoireview.wordpress.com/ SakuraPassion

    I remember reading studies like this, but what gets me is that we’ve been told too much sunlight is bad for us, because of the risk of getting certain kinds of cancer.

    I understand why you’re skeptical. And why do the study on Arab American women? That’s wrong as well.

  • http://anisahsthoughts.blogspot.com/ Anisah

    I feel like going to my Doc and getting my level checked.. just so I can say..that’s not tue lol

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  • Ruchama

    My Vitamin D level has been tested as low. After that, I started looking up some information on it, and found studies showing low levels of Vitamin D in practically every population you can think of except pale people living in sunny places. (Darker skin takes longer to absorb Vitamin D than lighter skin. I remember one study showed that something like 80% of African American women had low Vitamin D.)

  • Muhammad

    As an epidemiologist…. this is why I have a problem with the way the media reports on studies. They never provide the entire study design, methods, results, limitations. They just pick and chose what they find to be “interesting” and use that as their pitch for the article. Thats is gross misinterpretation and intentionally providing bad information. Somewhere across the world, there is some little Muslimah girl saying “Look Umi…. the TV said my hijab will make me sick”.

    Until I have the FULL entire article to read and analyze, I maintain that there are key things left out and this should be taken with a grain of salt.

  • cTo

    Wow, that is a very astute and concise analysis of the science used and the possible problems with the study. Also, good point on the social implications in how they have more or less used “Arab” and “Muslim” interchangeably.

    Also, I am not a medical doctor, but from what I’ve heard on VitD production in the body, I would argue that sun exposure on the face and hands for 15 minutes or so a day would probably be enough (so long as they’re not covered in sunscreen).

  • http://tasnimx.blogspot.com Tasnim

    I read about a similar study once. It made me feel like a houseplant. I felt as though the paper would conclude that the optimal environment for a hijabi would be a seventy-degree room with indirect but natural sunlight and a humidity of about 30%.

    There’s this picture of Traditional Dress Related Vitamin D Deficiency in a health book:

    http://tasnimx.blogspot.com/2007/07/traditional-dress-and-vitamins.html

  • Ed

    Well, Vitamin D produced via sun exposure is the best usable kind b/c of its form, so no need to beat the article over that, however, I don’t get why a hijabi with hands and face exposed couldnt get all the vitamin D she needs, most of the time (as a male) only my hands and face are exposed to sunlight anyway and I would think that would be enough exposure. The arab slant is troubling, b/c darker skinned muslims would need more exposure. I guess muslim women need to start walkin around half-nekkid if they wants their Vitamin D.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    Ed, you’re right. Everything would just be SO MUCH BETTER if we took off our clothes! LOL

  • Ruchama

    Yeah, I’m olive-skinned and live in a not-terribly-sunny place, and was told that 10-15 minutes of facial sun exposure per day should be plenty. There have been lots of days I haven’t gotten that (I’m a grad student, so I’m stuck in a windowless office during most of the daylight hours), but I’ve tried to take a walk or something around lunchtime to get some sunlight. (And since my mother saw my low Vitamin D levels on that blood test, she always rearranges where everyone is sitting when I’m at home so that I end up in wherever the sunny spot is. I’m honestly not sure if Vitamin D even gets absorbed from sunlight that’s gone through a window, but it makes her feel like she’s doing something to help me.)

  • http://twitter.com/genieyclo genieyclo

    Sister, I think you’re misunderstanding the Arab part of the study. You’ll see that the study was conducted in Dearborn, Michigan, which does happen to have a very high Arab population, so they’re not mixing up Arab with Muslim in this case.

    Also, you’ll notice in the article, the scientists explicitly say that
    “We’re not trying to get anyone to take off their hijab,”

    So please make sure you don’t jump to conclusions and try to find all the negatives in something.

    Just somethings I wanted to point out.

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  • Faith

    @genieyclo: No, I understand that the study was done in Dearborn. However that still doesn’t explain why only Arabs were in the study. Dearborn is right near Detroit which has Muslims of various ethnicities. If it was a study on Arab women and vitamin D intake I wouldn’t have an issue with it but it appeared that the results of the study are being planted on on hijabis, who can be of any race.

    Yes, I know the scientists said they’re not getting anyone to take off their hijabs. I read the articles in full. ;) I don’t think that negates my points though which is about how the results of the study were framed and the overall idea that hijab is detrimental to our health because it prevents us from getting vitamin D.

  • lifeisannoying

    hiya, just popped in via a link and in the uk, it was not framed with the words “arab” or “muslim”, it was simply reported that women with darker skin tones from the middle east, south asia and africa and the caribbean needed extra supplements during pregnancy so their babies would not be born with rickets and soft bone tissue because the sunlight in the uk was not sufficient enough to be absorbed with our skin. paler skinned caucasian skins evoled to be able to absorb more vitamin d in an envoroment that did not provide enough.
    Anyhoo, sorry to see the press is so transparent in its it’s predjudice.

  • Farzana

    I think everyone has just jumped to negative conclusions regarding this study. Where have they suggested or alluded that we need to take off our hijabs in order to get adequate levels of Vit. D?? This is clearly a conclusion you have all jumped to. All it means is we need to get out more!! Simple as that. Where did taking off hijab come into this?? Let me balance this a little. It is not sufficient to say, well we can get all our nutrition from vitamin supplements, because they are not effective as the real thing and not not nearly as well absorbed by the body as if the vitamin were consumed from the food itself. Secondly, most of our food has been processed so much that the majority of the nutritional content as been stripped out and it needs to be fortified again. Most yoghurts on the supermarket shelf don’t even contain a live culture anymore. Finally, as regards Vit. D, the vast bulk is absorbed from sunlight.
    Some sisters, especially niqabis believe a woman’s place is in the home and they don’t get out much unless their mahrams are available to take them out. Otherwise they will stay indoors. They won’t even go out to do the shopping, as their husbands do that. Some sisters in our culture conciously don’t go out because they don’t want to go brown due to the stigmatisation in our culture.
    So let’s stop thinking the world is out against us or against islam all the time, cause we will just go insane.

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    Farzana, the reason the study is troublesome is because many will use to as “proof” that women shouldn’t wear hijab. If you look at this week’s Friday links, there’s a story about Uzbekistan telling women not to wear hijab on Uzbek tv. The program showed two doctors telling women that wearing hijab leads to vitamin D deficiencies, most likely citing this study.

    Science is held as objective, even though it isn’t and neither are scientists. The problem with this study is that it may enable people to twist the findings and say, “Hey, hijab is bad for your health! Science says so,” even though it’s not true.

  • Faith

    Fatemeh beat me to it! The results of these studies will definitely be used by some, even in the science community, to say that hijab is bad for our health. Another point though is how much are we suppose to get out and who’s to say that most hijabis don’t get out enough or less than the average American? I go out often to the grocery store, the masjid, the library, the mall, etc. lifeisannoying brings up a good point. Could it be that women of color in general have a harder time getting vitamin D in the US and European countries simply because there isn’t enough sunlight in those environments for us to get sufficient vitamin D?

  • Ruchama

    “Could it be that women of color in general have a harder time getting vitamin D in the US and European countries simply because there isn’t enough sunlight in those environments for us to get sufficient vitamin D?”

    This is definitely true. I remember reading somewhere (sorry, can’t find the link now) that about 80% of African-American women are at least somewhat deficient in Vitamin D. The sunlight and dark skin issue is probably compounded by the fact that people with African ancestry are much more likely to be lactose intolerant, and thus not drink milk, which is fortified with Vitamin D. (The incidence of rickets in the cities in the US was enormous until they started fortifying the milk, and it then dropped immediately.) So I’d imagine that a pale woman who wore hijab might get less sunlight than she would without it, but still maybe enough, while a darker woman might get just enough sunlight without hijab, but with hijab needs to either drink more milk or spend more time outside.

    (I’m sort of darkish — white, but dark coloring and olive skin, and people trying to guess my ethnicity most often go with either Hispanic or Indian — and have been tested with low Vitamin D. That was in the middle of winter, and after a period when I’d usually been outside for no more than about five minutes a day, at least during daylight hours. And I was taking a multivitamin that contained Vitamin D at the time. My doctor told me to make sure to spend at least 10 minutes a day in the sunshine.)

  • http://muslimahmediawatch.org/ Fatemeh

    @ Ruchama: I take a calcium pill that includes vitamin D, because I don’t drink milk. I also take a multivitamin. I’m a pill popper! HA!

    It’s Friday, so I’m going to excuse myself for going sorta off-topic…


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