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.