Until two years ago, Uroosa Khan couldn’t imagine herself as a runner.
“Muslim women are not represented in mainstream media in regard to sports and athletics,” she tells Runner’s World. “I had few role models to look up to.”
The 24-year-old podiatrist from Leeds, U.K., also worried about standing out as a novice: “Would I be too fast or too slow or not running properly?”
But Khan needed an outlet to relieve stress. While working on her dissertation for graduate school, she was inspired by her friend Namrah Shahid, 26, who at the time was one of the few visibly Muslim women at local races. Her friend’s enthusiasm gave Khan the courage to finally run too. “If she’s doing it, so can I,” Khan remembers thinking.
Now Khan is proud to be one of nearly 50 women in Hijabi Runners, a Leeds-based group for Muslim women founded by Shahid in 2019. In the past year and a half, running once a week with fellow Muslim women, some who wear the traditional hijab head covering, has given Khan a community, one that’s increasing representation and building confidence for its members along the way.
“Running in a group with other women who are proud of the way they look—we are all different shapes and sizes and [come from] different walks of life—is really empowering. It made me proud of who I am and where I come from,” Khan says.
Shahid’s path to founding Hijabi Runners arose out of her desire to dispel stereotypes within the South Asian community around women exercising. Growing up in Leeds, 200 miles north of London, Shahid loved to participate in team sports and ride her bicycle around the city. But as she got older, she became more aware of gender norms in her British Pakistani community, which discourage women from exercising. This, coupled with the need to keep modest in accordance with Islamic beliefs, made finding fitness outlets challenging.
In her third year at the University of Leeds, a friend invited Shahid to participate in parkrun UK, which organizes a weekly 5K race in town. In April 2016, she toed the line with hundreds of local athletes for her first race. It was also the first time she had ever run.
“It was the hardest 5K of my life,” Shahid says. “I had to walk three times, I was out of breath…people would walk past, cheer you on, they’d clap at you. Every time I walked someone would say, ‘come on, you can do it!’”
Still, Shahid was disappointed by the lack of diversity at parkrun. “Not a single person looked even remotely like me,” she says. “It made me sad.”
Shahid wanted to return for the next race. Her goal was to run the entire distance—no walking—and improve on her time of 34 minutes. She also wanted to increase her fitness as a form of self-defense in response to increased hostility toward Muslims in the U.K. “The rise in Islamophobia and the rise in racism, particularly since Brexit, is when tensions heightened,” Shahid says.
According to a 2018 report from Tell MAMA—an organization that monitors anti-Muslim hate crimes in the U.K., attacks against Muslims rose 475 percent following the Brexit referendum result in June 2016. And in February 2020, The Independent reported that the rise in hate crimes against religious minorities has caused an exodus of British Muslims, as “harmful discourse in the media, politics and places of power continues to contribute to an increasingly hostile environment.” Some 720 Muslim women experienced street-based attacks in 2018, 480 of whom were visible targets because of their religious head covering or face covering.
“You hear stories of people being attacked and abused just walking down the street,” Shahid says. “It made me think I need to have some form of self-defense, and for me that is being able to run.”
After that first 5K at parkrun, Shahid continued to train on her own and sign up for longer competitions. In May 2017, she ran her first 13.1-mile race at the Leeds Half Marathon, where she finished in 1:59:29. She also improved her 5K to 25 minutes.
“[Running] is an outlet,” Shahid says. “I’m doing a Ph.D. and…it’s benefited me in so many ways. I feel fitter. I feel like I can run for ages comfortably, and I really enjoy that me time.”
As she progressed, Shahid posted about her experience on social media, sharing race results and notable running moments. In response, many hijab-wearing friends commented, congratulating Shahid on her accomplishments and asking how they could start running too. The interest made Shahid realize that Muslim women need a place where they can all run together. In June 2019, she designed a Hijabi Runners logo with a woman wearing a headscarf and created a Facebook group for members.
“The main thing was to get Muslim girls into running, and to feel comfortable and confident about it,” Shahid says.
The group’s first run included four women who agreed to do 4 kilometers around the local park, a distance that felt doable for all of them. Shahid remembers the run as a bonding experience. They shared stories about their lives, learned about running, and even enjoyed fruit at the end, thanks to one runner who brought snacks for everyone. “It was lovely,” Shahid says. They all returned the following week.
“Nearly all [who] came to our running club had never run before,” Shahid says. “For me, converting one girl into a runner is a huge achievement.”
Since the first run, Shahid has seen the group progress. The runners want to increase their distance and, before the pandemic, planned to sign up for local races. The weekly route is usually an out-and-back on a well-lit street in Leeds, and everyone runs with at least one partner at all times.
This fall, Shahid secured funding to purchase team kits and virtual race entries for the group, which aligns with her goal of making running more accessible and inclusive for Muslim women. Along the way, Shahid has developed a social media presence for Hijabi Runners with the hope of raising awareness and encouraging more Muslim women to take up running even if they can’t join the group in person.
Shaiba Afzal, 25, is one runner who participates virtually by following the group on Instagram and receiving the team’s weekly email. A podiatrist who lives southwest of Leeds in the town of Halifax, Afzal learned of the group through Khan, her friend and fellow foot doctor.
“I wasn’t keen on joining a [running] group,” Afzal tells Runner’s World. “I was self-conscious because I’m a hijabi runner. And then I met this group on Instagram, and I thought, there are people like us that go out and run.”
While she lives too far to join Hijabi Runners for meetups in person, Afzal still feels supported by the group online. She follows the Hijabi Runners Instagram account and several members of the group, who’ve helped her find athletic apparel and head scarfs that she can run comfortably in. She tags the group in her running posts and comments on their page, and Shahid (who runs the account) does the same for her, leaving motivating messages.
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Afzal says she still sometimes feels self-conscious wearing the hijab, but then she remembers the community of Muslim women who run too. And she finds strength knowing she’s not alone. “That little bit of support can make a world of difference,” Afzal says.
Aisha Begum, 38, started running in 2012 to cope with stress related to her son’s health. “Even though I go running on my own, once a week it’s nice to have a group that is almost like a family of runners,” Begum tells Runner’s World. The mother of three works in finance, and in the spring of 2020 she signed up for her first race, scheduled for October. It was canceled due to the pandemic, but Begum is still hoping to compete in 2021.
“If you asked me a couple of years ago, would I even consider [racing]? Absolutely not, but [running with the group] has given me the confidence to say, well, why not?” Begum says. “I think anything is possible. And when you have a passion, it’s good to have that drive and motivation from people on the same level of understanding. The group gives me confidence.”
While Hijabi Runners has not been able to meet in person for months, Shahid hopes to organize a form of virtual race participation and meet again once it’s safe.
Over time, her local community has been incredibly supportive of the Hijabi Runners’ efforts. “It’s chipping away at that stereotype,” Shahid says. “I’ve shown the South Asian and Muslim communities that it can be done modestly without compromise.”
And she loves that the group has not only introduced Muslim women to the joy of running, but the group itself is empowered by a community of Muslim women who are breaking barriers together.
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