Muslim women are among the least likely demographic to take part in any physical activity outside of the home – but that doesn’t mean that we don’t want to go to the gym or train as part of a club. Here’s why it can be difficult for hijabis to break into the fitness world, and what the community could do to make it easier.
According to This Girl Can, a campaign run by Sport England to encourage diversity in fitness and sport, Muslim women are among the least likely to take part in any physical activity outside the home – with only 18% working out in public, compared with 30% of women overall. Sport England was so concerned about that gap that they have been actively looking at ways to encourage more Muslim women into sport and fitness, including looking at how current facilities can be more inclusive. In my experience, joining a gym can be intimidating at the best of times - but add a hijab and there’s suddenly whole new layer of complication.
“There continues to be gaps in activity levels between people from different ethnic backgrounds which is very concerning,” explains Kate Dale from This Girl Can. “This includes things like a person’s gender, religion, ethnicity, culture and lived experiences, and the role that these and other factors play in shaping attitudes and motivations towards being active. We found that many of these barriers were linked by one theme – a fear of judgment.”
She’s spot-on: while Muslim women fear judgment across various parts of their lives, but in my experience it’s especially prevalent when it comes to fitness because of the family and community taboos associated with going to mixed-gender gyms. There’s also the issue of what gym kit to wear if you practice modesty and when the majority of activewear on the high street revolves around tight leggings. (And let me tell you, no matter what those certain fitness brand ads might have you believe, working out in a hijab isn’t easy. It gets hot and sweaty under there – and that’s before you factor in the icky feeling that comes from being incessantly stared at by other gym-goers.)
“When I first started going to the gym as a hijab-wearer, I’d wear baggy tracksuits – while everyone else was in sports bras,” says Lou Jane, from Newcastle. “I felt like the odd one out. Being the only ethnic minority in that space, I felt like I was being judged – not only for my body size and gender, but also the way I dressed.” The fact that Lou Jane felt she stood out as being “different” in that space was enough to give fire to the “little voice in my head telling me I don’t belong there,” she added.
“Although the majority of people were fine, there would always be the odd person who would look at me strangely or smirk. I just wish people would respect the way that Muslim women choose to dress and that they’d leave any judgmental thoughts outside, because the gym is one of the few places where I am at my happiest.”
The exercise gap affects the whole spectrum of sport, from individual and grass root level to the elite. Mo Salah might be one of the most famous footballers in the world, but how many of us can name a famous Muslim sportswoman? In fact, it was only in 2016 that fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad became the first athlete in hijab to represent the USA at the Olympics, winning bronze.
That total lack of representation is as prevalent on the gym floor as it is on the podium, and this is yet another barrier to fitness. When women do sum up the courage to go against cultural norms to attend a training session, the fear of judgement is compounded by the dearth of Muslim women in that space. It’s clear that if gyms are going to be more accessible to women like us, we need better representation from within the industry. Zahra Chowdhry, a former English teacher, was inspired to retrain as a fitness instructor to tackle this problem. She believes that it’s crucial Muslim women have better representation in the fitness industry if it’s to be more accessible. Like many others, she says that when she first started to get into fitness, “the idea of going to a mixed setting where people like me normally didn’t go was intimidating.” Unfortunately, when gyms have attempted to encourage inclusivity, it hasn’t always been welcomed. Last year personal trainer, Bianca Jade made headline news after she revealed she was inundated with racist abuse and death threats after setting up a fitness class for Muslim women at a gym in Nottingham.
Abuse aside, just the layout of many gyms can make them feel daunting to some of us. Few studios have a women-only section and in those that do, that space is often very small with a limited amount of equipment. All too often, they’re heavy on the cardio and light on the weights – working on the assumption that women want to get lean rather than strong. For those of us who want to lift heavy but don’t want to be around men, it can be a tough trade-off to make.
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“Gyms aren’t necessarily welcoming for Muslim women who wear the hijab or who just wish to workout in a female-only environment,” Zahra explains. “The weights section especially can be intimidating for Muslim women, and if you don’t ‘fit’ the image, you can feel out of place.” Even with her years of professional expertise, Zahra admits that even she can sometimes still feel intimidated by men at the gym or “feel ‘lesser’ wearing my loose-fitting tops”.
Clearly, Muslim women are struggling to get fit for a number of reasons but given how important it is for women to move, lift and exercise, this isn’t an issue that society can afford to ignore. So, what can we do to make gyms more accessible for this hither-to invisible sector of society?
Firstly, encouraging more diversity within the fitness industry would go a long way towards making gyms more accessible. Zahra says that in her culture, “personal training is still not an industry that is as respected as it should be,” and that as physical fitness is almost “taboo” in the Muslim community (according to the Women Sport and Fitness Foundation), it’s an industry in which women are necessarily under-represented. A bigger effort to recruit more diverse trainers that Muslim women can identify with would help, she says, as would more female-only classes.
If your gym is big enough, why not suggest that the management create a separate women’s section – one that has the necessary equipment to lift heavy as well as increase cardiovascular fitness? It’s not just Muslim women who benefit from these spaces; many women feel more comfortable in their own spaces for a host of different reasons. Obviously, a number are cool with working out alongside men which is great, but having that option of a safe space is never a bad thing. If that’s just not possible, even small changes in gym floor layouts can help: spreading the free weights along a wall rather than having them grouped in one corner, for example, makes them so much more accessible. “Some simple adaptations, like women-only sessions and clarity about the type of clothing that women can wear such – as burkinis – would help,” Kate adds.
As for us gym-goers, it really is as simple as giving everyone a smile or acknowledging their presence. A simple “hello” is enough to give a sign to women like me that we’re welcome – whether we’re wearing a hijab or hot pants.
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