Misconceptions about Muslims and Modesty in Movement and Massage, a collaborative conversation between

Cordelia Gaffar is a Transformational Coach inspiring women to be influencers and positively impact the world.

She also serves as the Social Media and Branding Chairperson for ALL (All Ladies League) on the Entrepreneur committee for the USA and as a member of the same committee for UK WEF. She is an award winning author and speaker, certified in Sports Nutrition, hostess of the Replenish Me show and founder of Workout Around My Day. Her mission is to help women to use the Body Soul Shift, so that she can radiate her true self and be aligned in all areas of life. She offers 1:1, group coaching programs and self-paced online programs.

Meg Donnelly, Licensed Massage Therapist, focuses on the Weekend Warrior. . . runners, cyclists, recreational athletes and fans of fitness in the Northern Virginia area through her work as a Licensed Massage Therapist and her NoVA Weekend Warriors podcast and community television program. Meg has a strong focus on understanding the unique, individual goals of each of her clients and creating a session plan based around those goals, whether its recovery, performance or just some much needed down time.

There are many misconceptions about movement and massage in regards to modesty and the Muslim faith. Since discussions are a great way to address misconceptions, Cordelia Gaffar, Tranformational Coach and founder of Body Soul Shift and Meg Donnelly, Licensed Massage Therapist and host of NoVA Weekend Warriors sat down for a candid Q&A on the subject. . . bringing a stronger understanding, shedding light on stereotypes and bringing those of us interested in fitness and self care closer together in the process.

Meg D: It seems there are many misconceptions about modesty when it comes to exercise and self care. Can you share some of the misconceptions you find in regards to this?

Cordelia G: From non-Muslims, people have asked if I get too hot during a workout. The answer is obvious, “Everyone gets too hot during a workout. You have to be wise about fabric selection and stay hydrated”.

From Muslims, I find there can be lots of misconceptions surrounding self-care. Most often if I mention that I go for a massage at least every 6 weeks, I am sneered at with “isn’t that indulgent for a mom with six kids!” Again the answer is obvious, “A mom with 6 kids needs frequent massage to stay civil, sane and compassionate towards her children. Never mind it maintains my muscle tone after a workout, because after having six kids you need more help with that!”

MD: What are some ways we can we avoid defining someone by their dress?

CG: At the end of the day we are all souls in these life suits for a few short decades. There is a beautiful quote in one of my favorite songs called Find No Enemy by Akala:

The only way we can ever change anything

Is to look in the mirror and find no enemy

I agree that we must have more self-compassion so that we can project compassion.

MD: What are some of the outside influences that health and wellness professionals can consider to make their space more accessible for women who chose a modest lifestyle?

CG: It would be great to have women’s only areas or classes and places with no windows. I don’t frequent gyms but I do go to yoga studios. I am sometimes surprised when men show up, so I stay in the back of the class. When I go for a massage, I haven’t had that problem so far.

MD: The sports world is (albeit slowly) recognizing that women of many different religions and backgrounds compete in sports and is starting to address different levels of modesty dress. Sports Illustrated recently featured Muslim supermodel Halima Aden in a hijab and burkini. Nike has a new Pro Hijab. Adidas’s She Breaks Barriers campaign features international marathon runner Rahaf Khatib (her Run Like A Hijabi blog is amazing too). Major publications like Rolling Stone, The Washington Post and Outside Magazine have articles on the subject. But women in sport are still only 4% of the coverage in sports. How much or how little has this recent coverage changed perceptions of Muslims women and modesty dress?

CG: I have a daughter who plays soccer and over the years she has had issues on the field with other players. For the time being she has decided against wearing hijab on the field. Hopefully, since FIFA changed the rule regarding hijab in 2014, we will see more players wearing it. The more players we see the more we can affect that change.

MD: Are there topics, tools, surroundings or decor that health and wellness professionals should avoid when addressing those who dress modestly?

CG: Cultural awareness is so key. The more we know one another the more we see that we are the same. I encourage adding questions on your intake form to include what environment would make you most comfortable for changing clothes, exercise or massage (depending on your focus). And get rid of questions that include religious preference. This question is divisive in that whatever the answer is does not give you as the service provider a clear indication of anything regarding that individual. Modesty for one Muslim/Catholic/Jew is not the same, although we as humans believe that it should be. This is the open door of misconception.

Things to have available include a room with blacked out windows for women who are modest and would like to shed long pants or a head covering during a workout. A wooden screen or opaque sheets for massages.

MD: While everyone who chooses to wear a hijab or make other choices in modesty dress may have different reasons for doing so, are there similarities across the board that can help health & wellness professionals better understand these clients?

CG: People are individual and have their own interpretation of best practices. The best policy is to communicate with the individual.

MD: How does the Muslim faith allow for self care, especially for women with families?

CG: Our bodies are our temple and must be returned to Allah as close to the way we received it (completely paraphrasing). When I became Muslim, I realized that it was all about self-nurturing beginning with spiritual fitness.

There is an entire tradition surrounding using food as medicine, moderation in all things and even outside of Ramadan recommending that we live on ⅓ air, ⅓ water and ⅓ food. Moderation means not overworking, oversleeping, overeating, overgiving, etc. or the opposite. However, in this day and age, we have people doing all of these things.

In our tradition, we are taught to honor our body type, work in community, live in harmony, remove ourselves from toxic situations and relationships. There is actually a verse in the Quran that states, again I am paraphrasing, if your relative is abusing you after you tell them to stop, physically distance yourself and love them in your heart and make dua (or pray) for them.

The most important part of self-care that Islam encourages is forgiveness. Allah is the most forgiving and we begin by forgiving ourselves. Have compassion for ourselves and then others. We are taught that heaven lies under the feet of your mother and to honor your mother three times before your father. These are just the highlights of what Islam teaches surrounding self-care for women.

MD: For those of us who are health and/or wellness professionals, I think it is very easy for us to make assumptions based on someone’s outwardly dress and/or appearance, but it is very important for us not to fall into that trap. From my experience, listening skills are the most important asset I have as a Massage Therapist for all of my clients. In regards to modesty dress. Whether it is a personal, religious, spiritual choice or a combination of these, it’s my responsibility to not make assumptions. But rather, to work with a client to uncover their goals, both long term and for each session, discuss the modesty options available during a session (fully clothed, partial clothing but fully draped, or unclothed but fully draped with only the areas we are actively working with uncovered). It’s my role to understand their level of comfort with physical touch and discuss any outside factors beyond my control that may influence the level of comfort of my client. Providing safe, non-sexual touch through therapeutic massage within a client’s boundaries is what is most important.

CG: Before we started this conversation what misconceptions did you have about modesty when it comes to exercise and self care?

MD: I have always felt that treating each client individually without preconceived notions is important, and our conversation certainly solidifies that. But I think I will make a much more conscious effort to pause before a session to recognize whether I carrying any assumptions.

From my studio perspective, while I have both blinds and curtains in my studio, along with sheets and blankets that provide full coverage, some light does come through into the room. And while the changing area is in a section of the room that isn’t directly in front of the window, I have decided to add a roll down black out shade for anyone who feels more comfortable that way.

In regards to gender specific classes or sessions, since each massage client has a private session and there is typically 30 minutes between clients, this is less of a concern. We also have two separate areas in our relaxation zone (lobby/waiting area), so if someone arrives early and prefers to have more personal space, there is room to do so. I do pride myself on being welcome to all, regardless of a client’s religious identity, gender, social values, political views, sexual orientation, or other perspectives. So I think perhaps that making that known, from a marketing and outreach perspective, allows those coming to see me to make their own decision on whether I am a good fit for them.

But there are additional changes I can make. I work with many clients with active lifestyles and most of the fitness referrals I make are co-ed classes or sessions. So, since our conversation, I have ensured my client resources include options that are exclusively offered to women or have a strong focus on women. This includes women focused personal trainers and coaches, the Reston Runners Women’s Training Program (run by women for women), the Reston Runners Seize The Day Women’s 5k (women focused 5k with volunteers of all gender identities) and Rowan Tree, a unique local co-working space that is both women and fitness focused, but open to all.

CG: I am curious if you have have any unusual request with Muslim clients, regarding decor, draping etc?

MD: I work with clients of all faiths and I work with those who are not religious. Most times I do not know, as I typically do not ask or discuss this unless the client brings it up. But I can answer this in terms of modesty, including those who chose a level of modesty that may include head covering or hijab. Treating each client individually to make them comfortable is very important to me. So I have a conversation before the session begins on their goals, their preferences for level of undress, the areas they would like addressed and areas to avoid. I work with clients who remain fully clothed throughout massage sessions, some chose to wear some of their clothing and be fully draped, and others are comfortable unclothed but fully draped.

CG: For myself, I like massage to help with my muscle tone but have also found that it helps with my ability to completely relax in other ways. Do most of your clients seek the therapeutic or meditative properties of massage?

MD: It’s a great combination of many different reasons that clients come to see me. My job is to find out the client’s goal or goals and cater session(s) to that. One of my favorite things about massage is that it can bring focused awareness of specific muscles or specific movements to the client. Or through working with the soft tissues, it can bring about a sense of overall relaxation. And still, other clients will have their own definitions of what massage accomplishes for them. I love the versatility of what massage is, what massage can be and what massage can help accomplish from client to client.

CG: What have you found most challenging to do your job with some request?

MD: Challenges are a great way for growth. When I first started my career as a Massage Therapist, I had a client that preferred to stay fully clothed and asked if I could assist them. At first, we set the appointment only for 30 minutes, as I was new to my career and unsure of how I would fill a full hour or 90 minute session. Because of that experience, I took extra time to learn techniques that can be done fully clothed. Traditional Swedish massage includes effleurage, which is sliding or gliding techniques traditionally performed directly on the skin. Through my additional training over the years, I have found ways to include effleurage over clothing or replace it with long holds… gently but firmly stretching the skin to give a feeling of length to muscles and fascia, that clients enjoy. This includes a incorporating personalized approaches to MyofascialRelease with an updated narrative and DermoNeuroModulation. I also found new ways to incorporate compression, kneading, assisted stretching and other techniques that ensure each client has their full time filled with a good variety of work based around their goals.

CG: What are some of the topics, tools, surroundings or decor that you have changed for addressing those who dress modestly?

MD: As mentioned earlier, I am adding a blackout shade in my studio. And while I pride myself on partnering with businesses and organizations that are open to all, I think it’s a great idea to have resources that focus on specific client populations, such as the women focused running program mentioned earlier, as a client’s comfort is truly one of the most important pieces of my business.

CG: As long as we start with a lens of love for ourselves and reflect it onto others, misconceptions will stop. We are all given a few short decades in these life suits. If we allow, we can share the best ways to take care of ourselves.

MD: Agreed. Conversation and communication like this is so helpful in allowing that lens of love to flourish!


This article first appeared at https://massagetherapybymeg.com/blog and https://cordeliagaffar.com. It may be reprinted with proper attribution and express consent from either Meg Donnelly or Cordelia Gaffar.

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