Muslim Women Slowly Breaking Sports Barrier

April 18, 2012


Originally published at New America Media

by Rochelle Bargo

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 is an American Muslim with Palestinian roots from her father. 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.

Challenging Misconceptions

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

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