SAN FRANCISCO, Calif.--The women entered the brightly colored room with sets of kickboxing equipment lined up on the side. Some slowly took off their scarves, also known as a hijab, and jilbab, revealing their workout gear underneath.
Their fitness instructor, Phalestinah Abdo, welcomes them with the words, “Assalamu ‘alaykum” (Peace be with you). Responding with the words, “Wa ‘alaykum salaam,” they began stretching their arms, starting their cardio kickboxing routine with two sharp jabs and a hook.
Although there is nothing in the Quran that forbids Muslim women from exercising, they are not allowed to exercise uncovered or have physical contact with men. However, there are many stories well known to Muslims about women going to battles.
During the Battle of Khaybar in 629, fought between Muhammad and his followers against the Jews living in Khaybar, 20 Muslim women went along with Muhammad and his followers. “If these women from the past were warriors, then they were probably jumping or riding a horse,” said Jittaun Jones, a Muslim fitness instructor.
Western perceptions of Muslim women often revolve around images of passive figures shadowed by both men and the robes that enshroud them. “I find it interesting that other religions - despite their histories of oppressing women - are not seen in the same light as Islam,” said Yuka Nakamura, a York University assistant professor who studied Muslim women’s participation in sports. “Perhaps this is because the image of the Muslim woman has become so emblematic, and the image of the veiled Muslim woman is so vivid.”
Empowering Muslim Women in a Safe Environment
In 2004, the Muslim Community Association (MCA) of the San Francisco Bay Area saw a need to provide a place for Muslim women to have fun and get in shape while observing their religion. MCA Bay Area offers fitness classes, such as cardio kickboxing and a boot camp designed for Muslim women with infants.
Abdo, 33, was inspired to teach cardio kickboxing at MCA when she saw the need for fitness designed for Muslim women.
“I want to focus on empowering women in the Muslim community,” Abdo said. “Many of them do not have the opportunity to exercise in their home countries or in a women’s environment where they feel comfortable.”
To the women in Abdo’s class, this multipurpose room is a safe haven to take part in fitness classes along with other Muslim women. It becomes a place to strengthen themselves physically and mentally.
Abdo was born and raised in the United States. Besides working as an MCA fitness instructor, she is also the director and founder of Tenacious Preschool, an Islamic preschool located in the Bay Area.
“I wanted to incorporate Islam as a moral and spiritual guide and provide the best strategies the American system of education has to offer,” Abdo explained. She believes that the American system offers critical thinking, creativity, public speaking, and an opportunity to thrive, and she wants to give Muslim children in the Bay Area an opportunity that others may not have.
Meanwhile, Jittaun Jones, an African-American who converted to Islam 12 years ago, teaches baby boot camp classes at MCA. “There are women who are more mosque-going and more practicing,” said Jones.
“I happened to be one of those people, and I kept thinking that it would be nice to start something for those women.”
Jones taught three classes each week from January to mid-February this year. In the classes she works out with 20 mothers with their babies. Two of the classes were designed for women who have never attempted a squat or push-up. Mothers took breaks when their babies need to be fed.
Muslim women like Abdo and Jones challenge the misconception that Muslim women are frowned upon by other practicing Muslim men and women when participating in sports.
True, there are countries, notably Saudi Arabia, that do not allow women to drive, vote or compete in sports events. However, as Jones indicated, the faith of Islam does not prescribe these prohibitions.
“We’ve got to the point where people have made the religion a lot more restrictive than it should be,” Jones said. When Jones was raising her daughter, some Muslim women would tell her, “Don’t let your daughter ride on a bike because she will lose her virginity,” or “Don’t let her play sports because something may happen to her.”
Looking at the big picture shows that Muslim practices vary.
In Indonesia and Malaysia, for example, Muslim women are allowed to be police officers and soldiers, and they participate in international sports events. There are also plenty of Muslim athletes who are successful and are observing Islam as well.
Take Ibtihaj Mohammad, for example. Mohammad, the first hijabi to represent the United States in the Olympics, is the first Muslim African-American female fencer to make it to the U.S. World Championship Team.
Also, Nawal Al Moutawakkil, a Moroccan hurdler, won the women’s 400-meter event at the 1984 Summer Olympics and is considered a national hero. These women have helped defy the stereotypes about Islam.
Embracing Faith--and Accepting Sports
Abdo has never let anyone stop her from her passion in sports. Other kids laughed at her and her sister when they went swimming because of their clothing, but they were still able to swim quicker than them.
“The biggest question we always got was, ‘Aren’t you hot? How can you wear that on your head?’” said Abdo. “Of course it’s hotter, but we get used to it, and it becomes part of our identity and source of strength, not oppression.”
Like Abdo, many other Muslims in the world are working their way to overcome stereotypes by embracing their faith while gradually accepting sports as part of their lives.
In fact, Saudi Arabia is considering sending their first female athlete to the Olympics in London this year. This move marks a significant progress for a country that has hindered women from exercising the same rights as men.
“Twelve years ago when I converted, nobody was encouraged to work out,” Jones said. “As a Muslim woman, playing sports in public is something that is still evolving.”
Image by Shutterstock.com