Fit For Action: How Arab Women Aren't Letting Modest Fashion Hold Them Back

BY Anna Brady / Mar 14 2017 / 16:01 PM

Bazaar speaks to three CrossFit coaches on a mission to create a fitness sisterhood among Arab women, spreading the message that wearing the hijab doesn’t stop you deadlifting with the best

Fit For Action: How Arab Women Aren't Letting Modest Fashion Hold Them Back
Fit For Action: How Arab Women Aren't Letting Modest Fashion Hold Them Back

One chilly December day in New York’s SoHo, a few hundred women are jumping around in Lycra. So far, so normal. Except this mass boxing workout is led by supermodel Gigi Hadid and her trainer Rob Piela from Gotham Gym. A motivation if ever there was one. This is Reebok’s #PerfectNever Revolution, a global campaign about accepting your imperfections with the help of exercise. It’s inescapably ironic, however, that its figurehead is seemingly pretty perfect. Gigi does acknowledge in the panel discussion that follows, her voice trembling, that it is strange “that a model who is supposed to be perfect is the face of a #PerfectNever campaign, but I guess that was the point to me. Everyone calls me perfect but I’m not.”

But arguably more interesting were the ‘real women’ present, each with their own stories to tell, including Rahaf Khatib, aka @runlikeahijabi, who stood out at the event as she wore the hijab. The Syrian mother of three from Detroit has run multiple marathons wearing the hijab, and is passionate about inspiring other Arab women to run and improving the range of modest running gear available.

Rahaf is a reminder of how rare it still is to see a covered woman competing in serious sport; last September, she was the first woman to appear on the front of US magazine, Women’s Running, wearing a hijab. So, perhaps things are changing? Last year’s Rio Olympics were something of a landmark moment for female Arab athletes. Egypt’s Sara Ahmed became the first woman from an Arab country to win an Olympic medal in weightlifting when she took bronze, competing in a long-sleeved top and sports hijab. Fellow Egyptian Doaa Elghobashy also wore a hijab, trousers and long sleeves while competing in the beach volleyball against Germany, a sharp contrast to her opponents’ barely-there bikinis.

Continuing the theme, in October Reebok MENA held its own PerfectNever launch at Dubai Opera House, inviting 48 women from different backgrounds across the region to discuss pushing boundaries as women, countering societal expectations and how exercise can strengthen us, make us more resilient physically, mentally and emotionally. Those gathered included Bahraini Ironman (and grandmother) Myrna Saliba, Emirati businesswoman Mthayel Al Ali, yogi Tara Stiles and Sheikha Asma Al Thani of the Qatar Olympic Committee, who is planning an all-female expedition to the North Pole this year.

Also present were three CrossFit coaches, the Emiratis Abeer Al Amiri and Abeer Al Khaja and Haya Alsharhan from Kuwait. None of them were athletic as children, but in the past few years they have transformed their lives and their bodies through exercise. As they prepare for Bazaar’s shoot, all three bemoan the fact they cannot get their legs to bulk up. For these women, it’s about being as strong as possible and showing that a girl can deadlift in the hijab and still remain both modest and feminine.

Abeer Al Amiri

Emirati | 27 | Crossfit Coach And Co-Founder Of #TheADMovement 

Abeer wears: Top, Dhs125; Leggings, Dhs185 and Shoes, Dhs425 all Reebok

“I don’t remember any Arab female, sports role models growing up, and although they are increasing, I still don’t think there are enough,” says Abu Dhabi-based Abeer Al Amiri. However, social media, she says, has been key in giving women a platform that mainstream media has not, and assists those in need of inspiration, and support, to find them. “Through this I have come to find amazing, strong women who are great role models and are really making positive changes in our communities.”

Never one of the sporty kids at school, at college she remembers going to the gym twice. Like so many of us with those amateurish, half-hearted gym trips, daunted by all that equipment, all she did was run on the treadmill, and got bored.

Then, working in a corporate job, she fell into that familiar sedentary lifestyle of eight hour working days and no exercise. Until one day, she and a friend went cycling. “As we were riding, we came across a group of people that were jumping, crawling, throwing tyres around and running after each other – it looked like fun. When we asked what they were doing, they told us it was a bootcamp class that was held weekly and open to everyone. I showed up the next week and I was hooked.”

Abeer found that a women’s only CrossFit trainer’s course was being offered in the UAE for the first time, and signed up. Afterwards, as she started coaching, she noticed a lack of focus on women in fitness. “There weren’t that many activities for ladies only, or places where ladies could feel comfortable to exercise.” So, she started a women-only running club, #runlikeagirlAD, as a “way to get together, be active, be social, and create a support group.” When Abeer teamed up with two other women, this grew into #theADmovement, an online community that also organises physical events, to create “an environment for women to learn from and inspire one another” through exercise.

“The beauty of exercise,” she reflects, “is that in some way it forces you to accept your limits. What’s more beautiful about it is that with hard work, dedication, and grit, you can grow stronger, faster, fitter, and realise that those limits you had accepted were also limits you set for yourself, and it is completely in your hands to break them.”

Abeer Al Khaja

Emirati | 30 | Crossfit Coach

Abeer wears: Leggings, Dhs295 and Shoes, Dhs545 both Reebok

Abeer Al Khaja’s petite frame bubbles with enthusiasm and energy. But during Ramadan in 2013 she was volunteering handing out meals to fasting workers in Dubai just before Iftar when, suddenly, “I felt weak and everything in front of me turned white. I had to quickly run inside and lie down,” she says.

Then only 26, Abeer was shocked by her body’s sudden show of weakness, so resolved to get healthier and start to work out. That soon turned into an obsession, trying everything “from body building to boxing, fencing, CrossFit, and finally running.” So, come Ramadan 2014, a much fitter Abeer went back and volunteered again. “That day we managed to hand out over 200 meals to fasting workers.”

With every class and activity, Abeer found friends, including Amna Bin Bahar, Salha Al Basti, Amna Al Marri, and Maryam Al Mazrooei, with whom she founded the Ana Gow Running Club. “We are now a community of sporty sisters who came together because of fitness,” she says.

Abeer is now a qualified CrossFit coach too, teaching at CrossFitMetaliZe in Dubai, and her own Instagram following of more than 40,000 is testament to the fact that she now finds herself an inspirational figure and fitness influencer.

She thinks there are plenty of other publicly visible sporty Arab women too, “From running
to weightlifting, tennis, soccer, racing, basketball and CrossFit. Every year we see more and more Arab women in various sporting events and competitions in the region, such as Battle of the East, or internationally such as the Rio Olympics.”

Abeer uses a women-only gym, and says the appetite for female CrossFit classes among the Arab population is growing fast, as more and more women seek out the challenge and aspire to the strong, lean physique, perhaps once considered un-feminine in both Arab and non-Arab society.

For Abeer, exercise has given her both a sense of community and boosted her self-esteem. But like the two other women here, it’s not all fluffy messages of self-love; getting better and fitter requires discipline, grit and, if not blood, then certainly plenty of sweat and tears.

“As an athlete you face quite a few mental and physical challenges along the way” says Abeer, “Having determination and the willingness to be better is a start. That, and with good guidance from a qualified coach, there’s nothing you can’t overcome.” 

Haya Alsharhan

Kuwaiti | 29 | Crossfit Trainer And Athlete

Haya wears: Leggings, Dhs295 and Shoes, Dhs425 both Reebok.

Jacket Dhs989 C/MEO Collective at LE66 Concept Store 

“When I first decided to wear the hijab in 2015, I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to train and be dressed modestly,” says Haya Alsharhan. Her first workout was a shock, her breath constricted by the material round her neck. But she struggled through and started searching for a solution. After researching athletes who wear a headscarf, Haya found a DIY solution that was light and airy. “It did make me look like a scuba diver but I didn’t care because I could train comfortably in it. 

You’d think that, in 2017, finding modest workout clothing would be easy, but not so – particularly when sourcing longer tops to cover the upper thighs. “I usually wear compression tops, leggings and top it with a long jersey from the men’s section. Recently, I have noticed some women’s athletic apparel stores releasing longer tops, but they’re hard to find. One of the girls that I coach made me a skirt, which I love to wear over my leggings.” At university abroad, she gained the ‘Freshman 15’ and, for years, her fitness regime was trial and error. “I had been desperately trying to fill a void in my life, feeling like I just couldn’t find my passion. CrossFit filled that void.”

Haya discovered both CrossFit and her husband, Yousef Albaqsami, in 2012; conveniently, he was her trainer. She soon became the first female trainer in Kuwait with a CrossFit level-1 certification to coach classes, and now has her level-2 and coaches at CrossFit Q8, started by her husband – the first of its kind in Kuwait.

Haya says that exercise challenges her “physically, mentally and emotionally,” and cites her proudest moment as standing on the podium holding her then one-year-old daughter when she won first place in the 2015 Battle of the East. But becoming a mother challenged her in entirely new ways. “Motherhood changed many things in my life. Having to face the drastic changes to my body during pregnancy, the emotional breakdown of an emergency C-section, the roller coaster ride of the world of breastfeeding, and discovering exactly what it means to be raising another human being.”

Being a wife, mother, competitive athlete, coach and managing a business is something she is still learning to juggle, but has accepted there is no perfect balance. “Coming to terms with that has set me free.”

Photography: Ethan Mann. Styling: Malak Rabbat

This article appears in the March 2017 Issue of Harper’s Bazaar Arabia