During lockdown, barriers that had previously stopped Muslim women from frequenting the gym were eliminated. Here’s how the pandemic is enabling Muslim women to reclaim their fitness.
In the summers leading up to 2015, my mum, sisters and I would head to our local gym every Thursday for their women-only swimming sessions. Adding a dash of colour and culture to the pool scene, South Asian aunties, grandmas, and cousins happily splashed together in chlorinated waters, with the elders stopping to gawk briefly at the few women wearing swimming costumes sans leggings and T-shirts underneath. In subsequent years, the gym – located in a Tower Hamlets heartland – stopped its women-only classes and my mum hasn’t been to the gym since.
My mum, who wears a hijab, isn’t the only one who thinks fitness spaces haven’t facilitated her needs. A recent study by creative agency Mud Orange found that 86% of British Muslim women say they’d prefer to attend women-only gyms, fitness classes or swimming pools. Many feel that before the pandemic, limited health and fitness options had curtailed their access to exercise. This isn’t just for those who wear hijab or identify as ‘very religious’ either, as the findings were consistent across women of all levels of religious practice.
Oddly, it’s the current climate of being in a global pandemic that has provided new relief – with 55% of Muslim women saying that the increased availability of home workout plans and free time to pursue fitness has provided a sustainable way to exercise.
According to the research, governmental exercise plans such as Couch to 5k and a plethora of online workouts (from Strong Women Training Club to Joe Wicks) has helped British Muslim women overcome barriers to fitness as they are able to get active from the comforts of their own home. This is a welcome change as, according to Sport England, physical activity levels were lowest amongst Muslims.
Lockdown has certainly changed many people’s relationship with fitness, providing a unique opportunity to utilise time saved from commuting to work or having more free time from being furloughed. 23-year-old Fatima from St Paul, who has become more active during lockdown, can attest to this.
“I’ve gotten into the best shape of my life during the pandemic,” she explained. “It started when I needed reasons to get out of my house and decided to set personal goals for myself. I’m learning to care less about being ‘gym fit’ and more concerned with enabling my body to be healthier in general. It was mostly the amount of free time that I had on my hands. I’m not the type of person who can sit around for days and do nothing, so having much of the day open to me helped me to become more consistent with exercise.”
Personal trainer Nazia Khatun, who offers personalised fitness programmes, says these attitudes are common among her largely South Asian clientele. “One of the biggest obstacles is women feeling shy in gym spaces. They lack the confidence to train and to exercise safely. There’s nothing [at the gym] that caters to our needs. Some want female-only spaces, and they need people to relate to and understand their culture, lifestyle and mindset.”
Another factor that stands in the way is the lack of halal-compatible nutritional supplements. 62% of British Muslims experience vitamin deficiency, especially those from South Asian backgrounds, according to Mud Orange. Whilst shopping for supplements and vitamins, many Muslims have to watch out for animal-based gelatine – a common ingredient in such staples – which is prohibited from consuming. Though there are halal-certified alternatives which can be found online, these are not as widely available. You can’t just walk into a Holland & Barrett store and find them.
During Ramadan, Muslims experience a routine shift as they abstain from food and drink during daylight hours and many go to the mosque during the night. Those who generally exercise may struggle to maintain their workout plans during this time. While men may be able to visit gyms that are open 24-7, this is often not a feasible option for Muslim women – or women in general.
Once gyms start reopening, they have an opportunity to re-strategise, says Arif Miah, director of Mud Orange.
“When gyms and fitness centres eventually open up again, brands need to think about diversifying and how they can remove barriers in fitness by capitalising on some of the momentum gained during the pandemic.
“This opens up many exciting opportunities for brands who want to have a real impact; be it curating fitness content suitable for people from diverse backgrounds (and based on real insights), to innovating technology to make it readily accessible wherever you may be.”
While some progress has been made during the pandemic, it’s important to consider how other parts of the industry have alienated Muslim women. One issues that remains is the availability of durable modest wear – only a minority of brands such as Nike and Under Armour offer Muslim-friendly exercise gear. But even these have a long way to go.
Khadija Mamsa, a finance analyst, says: “It’s really nice to see big brands launching their own hijabs and modest clothes. It’s great to see other women who look and dress like me and it makes me feel included. However, when it comes to wearing the hijabs in real life, the designs are similar to what I used to wear to the mosque when I was five years old. They’re not fit to wear while doing HIIT or yoga. They feel uncomfortable, and don’t look very good.
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“When working out, what you wear is almost a fashion statement, and the current branded activewear on the market just makes me look odd. The gym is intimidating enough, without feeling like I look like I stand out.”
Khadija points out that, by comparison, there is an abundance of choice available for non-Muslim women.
“One hijab, one size, one colour - fits all. What I would love to see is a wider range of designs that are suitable for different workouts (such as running, weight-training, or yoga), so that I can look and feel good while working out and wear something that is actually fit for purpose and enables me to focus on my workout instead of having to keep adjusting my hijab.”
The motivation for Muslim women to get fit and stay fit are all there – the fitness industry just needs to catch up.
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