Beauty sickness epidemic: Islam’s solution to protecting women in society

Asif Munir, Missionary New Zealand
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Ali Pilevar| Unsplash

In today’s society, there is a huge clamour for absolute gender equality and women’s rights. But, ironically, there is also a pervasive trend that often degrades the image of women inadvertently. That is, they often find themselves subjected to sexualisation.

It is a disconcerting time, just like before the advent of Islam, when women were routinely objectified and pressured to conform to societal standards of objectification. The stark difference today is the existence of a double standard within society.

A relentless proclamation of “women’s rights” is made while simultaneously reinforcing the notion that a woman’s worth is intrinsically tied to her physical appearance.

In today’s digital age, users of modern technology feel compelled to compare their lives to others. Vulnerable young minds are now exposed more than ever to the glittering facade of celebrity culture as they endlessly scroll through Instagram and other social media platforms. Regrettably, this exposure has given rise to an unfair and unattainable standard of beauty because of deceptive photo-editing apps and cosmetic surgeries.

Female psychologist Professor Renee Engeln explains this phenomenon in her book “Beauty Sick: How the Cultural Obsession with Appearance Hurts Girls and Women” as follows:

“Today’s young women face a bewildering set of contradictions. They don’t want to be Barbie dolls, but still feel they must look like Barbie dolls. Many are angry about how women are treated by the media, but they hungrily consume the same media that belittles them. They mock our culture’s absurd beauty ideal. They make videos exposing Photoshop tricks. But they can’t help wanting to emulate the same images they criticise. They know what they see isn’t real, but they still long for it. They download apps on their phones to airbrush their selfies.” (p. 28)

These heightened standards have set a new standard of societal pressure, causing many women to fall into an inferiority complex with low self-esteem. Regrettably, studies have found that this negative impact disproportionately affects girls in comparison to boys. (“Social media may affect girls’ mental health earlier than boys’, study finds”,

Dr Engeln makes a very shocking study where she defines “beauty sickness” as “what happens when women’s emotional energy gets so bound up with what they see in the mirror that it becomes harder for them to see other aspects of their lives”. She even states that “90% of women today have no problem identifying a body part they’re unhappy about,” claiming this to be a pandemic for women across the globe.  (Ibid., p. 19)

Western society has cultivated a culture that places an overwhelming emphasis on a woman’s physical beauty. Consequently, women often face societal pressure to adapt to these beauty standards, feeling compelled to constantly strive for approval because society often links a woman’s worth primarily with her outward appearance. And, therefore, women face widespread objectification worldwide, which can be seen in advertisements where they are often portrayed in a seductive manner to boost sales.

Western society needs better protection of women

Researchers at Ohio State University developed an assessment of how often women are on the receiving end of any type of sexually objectifying behaviour. One of the questions asks, “How often have you heard a rude, sexual remark made about your body?” Over 70 per cent indicated that they had been the target of such kinds of remarks. (Kozee HB, Tylka TL, Augustus-Horvath CL, Denchik A, “Development and psychometric evaluation of the Interpersonal Sexual Objectification Scale”,  Psychology of Women Quarterly, June 2007; 31(2): pp. 176–189)

This shocking percentage highlights a pressing issue in Western society – the desperate need for better protection of women. Some may question the role of the hijab in Islam, arguing that men should exercise self-control.

There is no doubt that men should exercise self-control, and this is what God Almighty states in the Holy Quran:

وَلَا تَقۡرَبُوا الزِّنٰۤي اِنَّہٗ کَانَ فَاحِشَةً ؕ وَسَآءَ سَبِيۡلًا

“And come not near unto adultery; surely, it is a foul thing and an evil way.” (Surah Bani Isra’il, Ch.17:V. 33)

Unlike the Biblical commandment, “Thou shalt not commit adultery”, the Holy Quran says, “Come not near unto adultery”, which is clearly a more comprehensive and effective commandment. The Quran not only prohibits and condemns the actual act of adultery but also seeks to close and shut all those avenues that lead to it, such as free and promiscuous intermingling of the sexes. The Quranic injunction that even the occasions and places that are calculated ultimately to lead to the commission of sin must be avoided applies as much to persons of very strong moral calibre as to those of weak moral calibre. Whereas the latter class of people are warned to avoid going near the places of sin lest they actually fall into it, those who can withstand temptations are commanded to avoid them in order that many others morally not so strong may be saved, by their example, from falling into sin. (Five Volume Commentary, Surah Bani Isra’il, Ch.17:V.33)

Divine wisdom behind Islamic teachings

As society advances, the wisdom of Islamic teachings becomes increasingly apparent. There is a profound wisdom behind Islamic traditions related to hijab.

The Holy Prophetsa is reported to have said: “That which is lawful is clear and that which is unlawful is clear, and between the two of them are doubtful matters [mushabbahat] about which many people do not know. Thus, he who avoids doubtful matters clears himself in regard to his religion and his honour, but he who falls into doubtful matters [eventually] falls into that which is unlawful, like the shepherd who pastures around a sanctuary, all but grazing therein. Truly every king has a sanctuary, and truly Allah’s sanctuary is His prohibitions.” (Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith 52)

A shepherd’s primary responsibility is to ensure the safety and nourishment of his flock. Should he allow his herd to graze near the boundaries of a sanctuary or another’s property, he risks the animals straying into prohibited zones. This boundary symbolises the line between lawful and unlawful deeds in our lives.

Similarly, in our journey through life, we are often confronted with choices that might not be explicitly right or wrong. These are the mushabbahat the hadith refers to. By actively avoiding these grey areas, we safeguard our faith.

In essence, the hadith implores believers to be discerning in their actions. It encourages a life of principle where one not only refrains from clear wrongdoings but is also wary of situations that might lead to potential transgressions. Such an approach ensures that one remains within the sanctified boundaries set by Allah the Exalted.

Muslim men are reminded of the story of Prophet Mosesas, who assisted two women, one of whom became his future wife: “And when he arrived at the water of Midian, he found there a party of men, watering (their flocks). And he found beside them two women keeping back (their flocks). He said, ‘What is the matter with you?’ They replied, ‘We cannot water (our flocks) until the shepherds take away (their flocks), and our father is a very old man.’ So he watered (their flocks) for them. Then he turned aside into the shade, and said, ‘My Lord, I am in need of whatever good Thou mayest send down to me.’” (Surah al-Qasas, Ch.28:V.24-25)

After helping the two women, he did not remain with them and began conversing openly. In fact, he immediately moved to the side, ensuring he segregated himself from the women, contrary to the standards of today’s society.

God Almighty instructs Muslim men: “Say to the believing men that they restrain their eyes and guard their private parts. That is purer for them. Surely, Allah is well aware of what they do.” (Surah an-Nur, Ch.24: V.31)

Hazrat Musleh-e-Maudra comments that in this verse, God Almighty has provided a means to abstain from vice in that believers, both male and female, are instructed to lower their gazes. This action reduces the likelihood of sinful behaviour and stops the spread of evil. Additionally, God Almighty has directed women to dress modestly. However, in situations where men and women may be together, it is commanded that both men and women lower their gazes to shield themselves from Satan’s influence and to keep their hearts pure. (Tafsir-e-Kabir, Vol. 8, p. 484)

In Islam, women are encouraged to be modest and cover themselves as a means of safeguarding their dignity and protecting themselves from the dubious standards of society. However, Islam’s wisdom extends beyond mere external appearances.

The Holy Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, advised that a woman is married for four things, i.e., her wealth, her family status, her beauty, and her religion, and he advised prioritising religion when seeking a spouse. (Sahih al-Bukhari, Hadith 5090) This guidance directs men to prioritise a woman’s religious character when considering a life partner, rather than fixating solely on her physical beauty and appearance.

The Holy Prophetsa has also taught us that Allah does not look at our faces and wealth but rather at our hearts and deeds. (Sahih Muslim, Hadith 2564c)

In essence, these teachings remind us that, in the grand scheme of things, our physical appearance holds very little significance. It is the purity of our hearts that truly matters in the end.

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