Speaking the Unspoken
By Maria Zankey
Photo by Jared Castaldi
February 02, 2017
Mona Elgohail grew up in a tight-knit, all-American family of six in Monmouth County, New Jersey.
Her supportive parents encouraged her to speak her mind — and she often did.
“As long as topics were discussed in an appropriate manner, we could discuss anything,” she says.
But the candor Elgohail experienced within the walls of her childhood home was the exception among many other American-Muslim families.
“Growing up, discussions around sexual health, reproductive health, and mental health were essentially nonexistent in the American-Muslim community,” Elgohail says.
But it’s not religiosity that stymies these types of discussions, she says.
“I purposely use the phrase ‘cultural taboos’ and not ‘religious taboos,’ because religiously, it is permissible to discuss these subjects.”
“If discrimination doesn’t kill you immediately, it can kill you slowly…”
So, it was somewhat natural for Elgohail — an outspoken Muslim woman with a fervent curiosity for social justice issues — to make breaking down these cultural barriers a part of her life’s work.
“People have a right to be educated about these topics, and I want to be a part of that process,” Elgohail says.
It’s that drive that attracted her to Drexel.
While completing her bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavior at Barnard College of Columbia University, her studies focused on the ways in which biological, psychological and social factors interact and influence individuals’ physical and mental health.
She came to Drexel to pursue her PhD in clinical psychology with the aspiration to alleviate human suffering through practice and research.
It was at Drexel that she hit her academic stride — and promoted social justice advocacy from a personal interest to a professional goal. She was even elected by the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students to serve as the Member-at-Large, focused specifically in the area of diversity, for the 2016-2018 term.
“It really wasn’t until I began my clinical training in graduate school that I gained a more complete understanding of the impact of social factors on an individual’s wellbeing,” Elgohail says. “I naively believed that therapy would be enough to help my clients overcome the problems in their lives, but I learned that many psychological problems are the result of systemic failures.”
Systemic problems, Elgohail believes, require systemic solutions.
“It is critical that as psychologists and psychologists-in-training, we use our expertise, privilege and authority to challenge and dismantle the systems of oppression in which many of our clients are undoubtedly embedded,” Elgohail says.
As a hijab-wearing Muslim woman, Elgohail speaks from experience.
She recalls visiting a friend in an apartment complex, where the doorman asked, “Are you a terrorist?” before chuckling and letting her in.
She tells the story of a 9-year-old family member whose third-grade classmate told him that she wasn’t allowed to be friends with Muslims.
There are many more examples of discrimination experienced by minorities across America, she says, and they’re not only morally unconscionable — these experiences are detrimental to their health.
“Minorities, particularly people of color, are more likely to be seen and treated as criminals, terrorists, second-class citizens — the list goes on,” Elgohail says. “A significant amount of research details the harmful effects of discrimination on mental and physical health, such as suicidal ideation, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, hopelessness, pain, fatigue, obesity and cardiovascular disease.
“If discrimination doesn’t kill you immediately,” she adds, noting the recent high-profile cases in which black men have been killed by police officers, “it can kill you slowly, or significantly decrease your quality of life through these long-term mental and physical health consequences.”
In Drexel’s Women’s Health Psychology Lab led by her mentor and thesis adviser Pamela Geller, PhD, Elgohail focuses on women’s reproductive health issues with an emphasis on minority women’s infertility and pregnancy experiences.
The two are currently collaborating on a research study that examines the impact of faith on the mental health and coping of Muslim women with fertility issues — it’s a project Eloghail expanded to include the long-term goal of establishing a national support group for Muslim women.
She launched the study, dubbed the Muslim Fertility Project, in January 2016 with a Facebook video exposing the lack of resources for Muslim women struggling to become pregnant or carry a pregnancy to term, and encouraged individuals to take an anonymous study survey.
The survey poses questions not only about their fertility struggles — whether conceiving or carrying to term — but also about their identity as a Muslim.
Knowing the cultural taboos within the Muslim community, Elgohail feared her effort would be met with whispers.
But almost instantly, people clicked, shared, viewed and commented — to the tune of nearly 3,000 views a day within the first week.
Through the Muslim Fertility Project’s Facebook page, Elgohail watched women form regional support groups, share their infertility struggles publicly, and even engage with others through the #MuslimFertility hashtag.
Almost 1,600 individuals have completed the study survey to date — half of whom completed the survey within the first 10 days — and many participants have shared that they found the process of completing the anonymous survey to be therapeutic.
Even the White House took notice. Elgohail was invited to DC for the launch of the Know Your Neighbor Coalition, a campaign created to increase interfaith dialogue in America, especially in light of surging Islamophobia after the Paris and San Bernardino tragedies.
“Their inspiring and unexpected response to the study, Facebook page and video really speaks to the fact that many Muslim women are silently struggling with infertility, and often without proper support,” Elgohail says.
Unfortunately, academics have conducted very few research studies on Muslims’ infertility experiences.
Elgohail hopes her research will lay some of the groundwork needed to develop interventions that will ultimately benefit infertile Muslim women physically and mentally, as well as continue to expand the dialogue on reproductive health issues within Muslim communities.
“The video shattered the wall of silence around infertility in the Muslim community,” Elgohail says. “Since the launch of the study, I’ve been inundated with touching messages from Muslims worldwide who are struggling with infertility. Many women — and men — have expressed their support and gratitude for the Muslim Fertility Project, and affirmed that this is a conversation they have needed and wanted for so long.”
This article originally appeared in the College of Arts and Sciences' Ask magazine feature story, "Agents of Change." For more Ask stories, visit askmagazine.org.