Being Muslim and doing Islam: narratives that shape the physical activity of Muslim women in New Zealand

Ali, Nargis
Payne, Deborah
Hinckson, Erica
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Doctor of Health Science
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Auckland University of Technology

Muslim women in New Zealand form an ethnic and religious minority. Research related to the physical activity levels of these women and their health status is sparse, particularly in the New Zealand context. International literature shows Muslim women are at risk of various diseases related to inactivity. Islam is perceived by many Muslims as a way of life that influences almost all aspects of their lives. Particular understandings of Islam and women’s roles within Islam influence the norms and expectations about health beliefs and physical activity. This study explores the role religion plays in shaping the physical activity of Muslim women in New Zealand.

Using a postpositive narrative approach, this study explores some New Zealand Muslim women’s narratives regarding engagement in physical activity and how their identification as Muslim women influences their engagement. In this study fifteen Muslim women told their stories about the meaning they attributed to Islam and to physical activity. The women belonged to diverse backgrounds, marital status (married, divorced or unmarried), employment, educational qualifications, ethnicities and cultures. The age of the women ranged between twenty and sixty-two years. The meanings the women brought to the consideration of religion and physical activity reflected the complexity of this issue and highlighted the interwoven nature of religious identity, health beliefs and physical activity. These women’s narratives showed that there were two distinct ways in which Islam was conceptualised by the women, which I identified as “being Muslim” and “doing Islam”; both groups of women showed different ways of relating to Islam and to physical activity. The meanings the Muslim women in the study gave to physical activity also depended on the level of their assimilation into New Zealand society, and the way in which they situated themselves and their culture in relation to mainstream culture.

The “being Muslim” women’s narratives showed that physical activity was acceptable as long as it conformed to their beliefs about Islamic practices. However, “true” Islamic practices and beliefs were often conflated with cultural ones, forming a complex and sometimes contradictory belief system. The women “doing Islam” displayed a more flexible approach to Islamic practices than the “being Muslim” women and identified with a secular interpretation of the religion. These women found it easier to assimilate into the sporty culture of New Zealand and had developed social networks through their sporting activities.

The findings of this study have contributed towards the development of a culturally appropriate model to enable the uptake of physical activity among Muslim women in New Zealand. The intended audiences of the research findings are Muslim women in New Zealand, policy-makers and healthcare practitioners who work with Muslim women.

The thesis concludes with recognising that not all voices of Muslim women in New Zealand were included in the study, and that the model proposed to increase physical activity needs robust discussion with key stakeholders before its applicability to the Muslim community and to health practitioners can be put into practice.

Muslim women , Physical activity , Health , Model for inclusion , Postpositive narrative inquiry
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