22-year-old university student Namrah Shahid had never run before taking part in Woodhouse Moor parkrun for the first time last April.
By her own admission she was instantly hooked, and Namrah is now working with Leeds University to encourage other female Muslims to take part in physical activity by breaking down some of the barriers that stand in their way.
When it comes down to it, the key difference between being a hijabi runner (wearing a Muslim female head covering) and any other runner is simply the dress code. As a hijabi runner I am no different from the next runner, but yet female Muslims are enormously underrepresented in running events and organised physical activity in general.
I’ve always been a fan of swimming but being able to keep at it has been highly dependent on the availability of women’s only swimming sessions. For me, for religious reasons, keeping modest and covered is a must.
I am studying towards an Integrated Masters in Chemistry at the University of Leeds and on campus we do have a sports facility that holds women’s only swimming sessions and this has enabled me to keep at it. Despite my swimming I still felt like I wasn’t doing enough exercise, so when some friends of mine who are keen runners mentioned parkrun I really wanted to give it a try. I just wish I’d heard about it sooner!
I went along with one of the friends who had recommended it because I would have been far too shy to turn up alone at that first one. I’m certainly not a runner and I did throw myself in at the deep end. Having never run before did have its advantages though because I genuinely didn’t know what to expect. It was a really tough run and I had to a walk a couple of times, but on that first run my aim was to just finish, irrelevant of the time. Just being able to say ‘I ran 5k’ was an achievement itself for me.
I wore joggers and a comfy shirt rather than any ‘proper’ running gear, and afterwards I went and bought some more appropriate clothes for my next parkrun. Nevertheless I discovered that it was (and still is) rather difficult to find modest sportswear. Long-sleeved running shirts aren’t so hard to find but tracksuit bottoms/joggers of appropriate material are much more difficult to get. Eventually though I did find some online and they have been great.
Also, wearing a hijab whilst running proved to be uncomfortable and an inconvenience too as they often involve a lot of pins to hold them together. So I bought a sports hijab and that has been brilliant – much easier and comfy to wear and of a breathable material.
parkrun has really had a positive effect on my life. I do try to run regularly during the week now too when I can, particularly in the lead up to races, and I feel as though parkrun has made me a more motivated person generally. I definitely have been trying to incorporate living healthier too, for example cycling into university.
I must admit that getting PBs was a huge motivation to keep going at first and it was really exciting. Every time I got an new PB I set myself a new target in my head, even running one second faster than the last time is both a personal achievement and a motivation to parkrun a little bit faster the next week!
Being involved with parkrun has also initiaited loads of conversations. Some of my Muslim friends say they want to join parkrun too and get into running, which has been great to hear. Our Social Sport Manager at university has asked me to attend focus groups on Muslim women participation in sport and I’ve been working with the University to implement women’s only gym sessions. I’ve also been asked to speak at our Women at Leeds Network about my participation in health and activity and the work I’ve been doing about the gym sessions, and I’ve collaborated with the ‘Uni Girls Can’ campaign too and hope to promote a ‘Hijabi Girls Can’ branch of it.
Having a parkrun local to the University is a huge advantage too. It is a wonderful vehicle for promoting social integration and a great starting point in general for anyone who is looking to exercise for the first time or get that little bit more active.
There is certainly a lot of work to do, for example addressing concerns about maintaining modesty whilst running because it does involve a lot of movement. Add to that the lack of modest sportswear out there and you start to understand the reasons why participation from Muslim women may be low. I do hope that some day big sportswear companies will recognise the gap in the market of modest sportswear and consider catering to the demand.
After all, modest sportswear doesn’t just cater for religious people but anybody who feels insecure in general. I don’t think anybody, male or female or of any religion, should let clothing or worrying about their appearance stop them from getting out and being active and benefiting from the feel-good factor you get from exercise.
Just look at the Saudi women who ran at the Rio Olympics last year – how inspiring!
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