Ramadan, a period mostly known to non-Muslims as a time of fasting, began the evening of April 12. What does Ramadan, or being a Muslim, have to do with fitness? Possibly a lot.
Many Muslim women feel that they cannot engage in mixed gender sports and some follow a dress code that is not welcome in certain sports. While there is little statistical data available by religion, some surveys on Muslim women’s attitudes toward sport indicate that women in traditional Muslim countries are actually far more positive towards physical activity in schools than women in Western countries. This was because of requirements to use communal showers and wear clothing considered “inappropriate”. Conservative Muslim men also have these modesty concerns, and some also avoid public gym facilities for these reasons. You can read more about the issues and ways to promote participation here: https://www.womeninsport.org/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Muslim-Women-in-Sport.pdf?x99836.
The whole debate about access to various sports for Muslim women athletes at all levels of ability is something that could fill many posts. Access to women-only time at swimming pools, with female lifeguards and instructors, women and girls fighting to play soccer or basketball while wearing a hijab, bans on modest swimwear, the media stories just keep coming. But there are role models too: Stephanie Kurlow, the girl who dreams of being the first hijab-wearing professional ballerina, Zahra Lari, the Emirati figure skater who has competed internationally, the 14 Muslim women who won medals at the 2016 Olympics, and all the female mountain climbers, skiers, marathon runners, cyclists, skateboarders, martial arts fighters, soccer players, swimmers, and more in places like Afghanistan – fighting against huge odds to pursue their sports dreams in an ultra-conservative society. My current favourite is Maryam Durani, who recently started a fitness club for women in Kandahar, former stronghold of the Taliban. If you do a search for Muslim women and sport, you will find many inspiring images.
Of course, not all Muslim women athletes wear hijabs, but may still fast for Ramadan. Women are exempt if they are pregnant or menstruating, and everyone is exempt if they are sick, traveling, or if they are a child. So how should they maintain their fitness with no food or liquids for up to 16 hours a day for a month? Devinder Bains, a personal trainer from Dubai, recommends exercising after breaking the fast, but before the main evening meal, or early in the morning so you can eat before starting your fast for the next day. Hydrate often, and focus on resistance training rather than cardio, though a walk before Iftar (the evening meal) is fine. Ramadan is not the time to start a new exercise regime, or even worry about anything more than maintenance.
Ramadan Kareem to all my Muslim friends. I look forward to seeing you walking in the park or riding your bicycles over the next month. And when I do, I will quietly cheer you on for staying active while also carrying out this important part of your faith.
Diane Harper is a public servant in Ottawa. She has worked on women’s rights issues in Afghanistan and Pakistan.