The Impact of Peer Pressure on Muslim Girls in the West

Scrolling through my social media news-feed, I was intrigued when I saw “Practicing Islam in Short Shorts.” Since my initial click, I have read Thanaa El-Naggar’s article several times because it has caused me to reflect upon my experience both as a Muslim individually and a woman, respectively. Meanwhile, other Muslim women and men were also divided in their reactions to the article which was originally published on Gawker. People are at odds with El-Naggar’s choice of practicing Islam: a portion of female readers are quick to give El-Naggar kudos for stepping out of the shadows and revealing a lifestyle they also share (or may want to live), while some male and remaining female readers wish to critique El-Naggar’s claim as a practicing Muslim.

Unlike other reactions written regarding El-Naggar’s post, the purpose of this article is neither to validate nor invalidate how an individual (whether that is El-Nagger or people within our families or circle of friends) chooses to interpret his/her relationship with God. Regardless of whether or not one is for or against her argument, one of God’s 99 attributes is “The Judge;” meaning that God will preside over each of our cases and His mercy is not quantifiable. That is a victory for all those who sin – which is an attribute we all share, regardless of personal creed. However, we can examine the implications that such an article may have on its readers and a larger audience during a time when it is already confusing to discover what it means to be Muslim. While the internet is occupied with authenticating El-Nagger’s experience, I’d like to shift the attention towards the young readers upon whom this article may silently have left an impression upon.

Unfortunately, it appears that both sides are missing the mark when it comes to understanding the result of El-Naggar’s viewpoint. It is not a question of whether or not she is practicing Islam according to the prescribed guidelines because she writes openly about how she chooses to practice non-normative Islam. This is encapsulated in the title of her article as well as in her statement,

“Nothing in my outward appearance speaks to or represents the beliefs I carry. Some might even get to know me and still label me as a non-practicing Muslim – I drink whiskey and smoke weed regularly.”

Throughout her article, El-Naggar admits that she understands her interpretation of Islam breaks from its accepted teachings. Further, her perspective emphasizes more so the spirituality of Islam, as opposed to embracing Islam as a lifestyle. While it is her right to practice Islam and share a relationship with God as she so chooses, it is also important to discuss the deeper vibrations her experience may emit to young, impressionable minds.

Because El-Naggar speaks of drinking alcohol, it is presumed that she is of age. Unfortunately, the drawback to that is that many underage girls, both Muslim and non-Muslim, confront peer pressure on a daily basis –  young girls who are struggling with peer pressure to “just have one drink” or “just smoke one joint.” In addition, there are young girls who are the subject of bullying at school because they cover their legs and arms during hot summer days, dealing with the repeated condescending question, “Aren’t you hot?” or “Why do you always wear pants?” A conversation along these lines can deflate the self-confidence of a young girl trying to practice her beliefs or trying to figure out if her faith is worth holding onto. As young teenagers in the U.S., girls may often look for a way in, and this often means abandoning certain principles not valued or understood by their peers. Essentially, giving into peer pressure is one of the ways kids can blend in better and make friends more easily.

Regardless of a person’s faith, as a professional working in the field of mental health, specifically with youth, I have encountered many patients who now feel the consequences of regrettable decisions made under the influence of alcohol and/or drugs. Anyone acquainted with the mental health sphere will attest to the fact that a person’s judgment is impaired when under the influence of substances. This risk is further elevated in young and underdeveloped minds. Yes, there are some individuals of age who can hold their liquor or know their limits regarding alcohol or recreational drugs, and perhaps El-Naggar would classify herself as one of them; however, there are many other young women – Muslim and non-Muslim – who experiment at a young age not knowing what to expect. What’s worse, once they are pulled into such a lifestyle, it is difficult to break away. Perhaps El-Naggar practices moderation with regards to drinking and/or smoking, a choice that she is capable of making as an adult, but teens and young adults might not strike an immediate balance when they start experimenting with substances.

Perhaps the phrase “I’m Muslim,” is the only deterrent a young girl uses if someone offers her a drink, drugs, or sex. If after reading El-Naggar’s article – without considering the proper context of her experience – a young girl deduces that phrase is flexible, then she could feel more justified to participate in any of those three activities in spite of consciousness of faith alone. We all make mistakes and regret certain decisions we have made in life, so it is not a question of whether or not a certain class of women confronts peer pressure. We all do, regardless of gender or religion. But the empowering aspect of faith is that it enables us to find the strength in something greater than our mistakes and regrets so we can live a more conscious life.

The purpose is not to debate whether or not El-Naggar is practicing the “correct” version of Islam; she is a mature woman capable of making informed decisions based on her own experiences. However, what is worth discussing is the influence the sharing of her personal experience may have on a young girl who is seriously struggling to relate to an identity that is already dubbed strange.

The use of alcohol and recreational marijuana is not encouraged in most religions, so that is not a debate exclusive to Islam. What can be more difficult to discuss, however, is the issue of modesty and how we interpret that for ourselves. Frankly, it is very easy as a Muslim woman struggling to dress modestly to resort to wearing short shorts and tank-tops. Modesty can be relative and there are varying degrees depending on personal experiences. Often the hassle of finding modest clothing can leave women frustrated based on accessibility alone, especially in the spring and summer seasons. Couple that with gaining the attention and approval of young men – Muslim or non-Muslim – and a girl may feel pressured to alter her image to fit the norm. Again, perhaps El-Naggar has cemented her identity in this regard; conversely, it is important to consider that there is a large chunk of her audience who will receive yet another message discouraging dressing modestly – a message girls are bombarded with already.

For women who have collected enough experiences to understand who they are and how to function according to their will in their surrounding world, it is easy to consider El-Naggar’s as just another article without it impacting their life choices. As adults, we come across people whose stories help us appreciate and embrace the differences in others. However, for those young readers who aren’t thinking critically and already struggling to grasp onto their faith, El-Naggar’s essay may pour water on an already wet bar of soap – making it easier for the option of Islam as a lifestyle to slip away.

Image from La-Teen