There is something about sport that has the power to inspire and create passion – in those who play and even in those who watch from the sidelines. We see the emotion and excitement in almost every sporting event. What is not always so common however is when this passion comes with such a momentum and positivity that it is able to inspire and empower a whole generation of women. Enter Manal Rostom, an avid runner, cyclist, mountaineer and all round fitness enthusiast who has become a role model for Arab women in sport, encouraging women to step out, hijabs and all, and get moving. Hand picked by Nike to become a key ambassador for the brand, the 36 year old Egyptian was the first Hijabi woman to become a qualified Nike running coach, and then in 2014 to attend the renowned Nike+ Training Club Summit held at the Nike Headquarters in Portland, Oregon where she was the only Arab woman present representing the Middle East.
It’s not just on the sporting field where Manal has made an impact either, seeing a need to support other Arab women in sport she started Surviving Hijab – a group dedicated to offering guidance and advice to those who might be facing challenges. Through her passion and determination, she is ushering in a new brand of women in sport in the region. In the lead-up to the Nike We Run DXB event on November 13, we sat down with trail blazing Nike athlete to get her views on women in sport in the Middle East.
Covered women (hijabis) are often reluctant to work out outdoors because of the heat and also because of the perceptions of the community…
It’s perfectly normal to see a western women running in the street while a Hijabi would turn heads. In other parts of the Middle East it can even be more than that, with many women receiving unpleasant comments whilst they are out being active. Thankfully in cities like Dubai it seems the tide is changing and there’s a rising culture that supports working out and running outdoors.
I personally never thought of my Hijab as being my main obstacle, as I received negative comments even before I was covered back when I was running outdoors in Egypt. For me, what I found most challenging was the community’s lack of understanding when it came to sport. Until recently when I became certified and involved with Nike, I used to get many comments about how I was doing “too much” or “always running” or ” always in the gym”. Now people have finally stopped seeing this as a negative and have joined me (since they couldn’t beat me). They look up to me for inspiration and for me that’s a great honour. I want to do everything I can to maintain that positive image.
Recently I started a women’s only support group on Facebook for women wearing Hijab. The group is called Surviving Hijab and it targets those struggling with being covered in all aspects of daily life – but it’s main focus is on sports, as this is something I can speak strongly about. After starting it, I was really surprised at how much impact I could have so quickly.
While we are making a lot of progress, there is still a long way to go to make Hijabi women more comfortable with playing sport…
It would be great to have more women only 5K and 10K races and I would love to see more Arab women running and not perceiving it as a male dominated sport. The media also have their part to play and need to recognize and shed light on women who are going the extra mile so they can help to inspire and push this new generation forward. I wish I had known it was ok to run in Hijab back in 2001 when I first decided to cover. It would have been great to have someone like myself to tell me that it would be ok and it would never stop me from exercising, climbing mountains, cycling, running and achieving my goals.
Women only events, like the Nike’s N+TC (Nike+ Training Club) event which was held last May was such a positive initiative that made such a big impact in the region. When I was on stage supporting the N+TC workout, I received so many private messages from strangers and young Arab girls who felt so proud and inspired to work out in their Hijab.
I get a lot of questions from veiled woman about how I choose my clothes and how I manage the way I sweat…
First of all when you work out, whether you’re veiled or not veiled, you’re going to sweat, this is actually good and one of the reasons why exercise is so liberating. It’s good to feel your body work hard, heat up, and start to release toxins, that’s when you get that sense of satisfaction. Everybody sweats but that should not stop you from exercising or confine you to ladies-only classes or ladies-only gyms. You have to get out and get active and participate in any sport that is close to your heart. Everyone has to start somewhere, and the good news with exercising is that you can only get better and your stamina, fitness and endurance will only ever improve.
Clothing can also be a concern, especially in terms of dressing modestly or not feeling comfortable if you are veiled. However, this can easily be managed with the sports clothes that you pick. Nike for example, and many other sportswear brands offer a wide range of long, dri-fit, dress-like tops that can be worn on top of tights. If I’m not comfortable with a pair of tights I will always go for a size bigger just to get that looser feel.
So much is coming and happening and we can all feel the era of change…
Women are becoming supported in the Middle East with the availability of ladies-only classes and ladies-only gyms. Through this, women are encouraged to get involved, thus they have become more aware of their health, body-image and weight. So many of the new events and races are targeting women only and encouraging women of all shapes and ages to participate.
Women’s running events are on the rise and the overall perception of women in sports is changing in this region. It’s a honour to be part of this journey and UAE fitness movement in particular. Even in Egypt there are now many running clubs being formed like Cairo Runners and Alex Runners where men and women are encouraged to join which has never been done before. In Jeddah and Kuwait, there are also similar running clubs there as well which is marking a real change in our community.
I have personally run with Kuwait Runners Run Club and the Alex Runners Run Club in Kuwait and Alexandria in Egypt. Both clubs are very close to my heart. Watching sport develop in countries where I grew up and lived is a dream come true and highly inspirational.
In Jeddah women are running in their Abayas which is so amazing to see. They are just getting out there and doing it. Despite the laws and regulations to be only seen in Abayas when outdoors, they still want to stay healthy and active and not confined to running on a treadmill indoors. This change is very inspiring.
In the UAE, Nike launched the women only Run Club, this is the first of its kind and it’s a great honour for me to be the one leading it. There are also the N+TC classes that primarily target the women in the UAE.
I have appeared in Nike commercials. I don’t think people are used to seeing a Hijabi appearing in a sports ad and for me that’s beyond a dream come true…
It’s such an honour and it gives me great pride as an athlete and a Hijabi who grew up with the brand. To top it off I was also invited to attend the N+TC Summit at the Nike Headquarters in Portland, Oregon last year. This was definitely the best thing that has happened in my life. I was the only Arab trainer there representing the region and Arabs in Hijab. Being around so much positive energy and inspirational Master Nike Trainers from all around the world was such an honour for me. I am also a certified in Les Mills as an RPM trainer, I’m one of the only covered instructors in the UAE who teaches this program to ladies-only and mixed classes.
Finally, last August I became the first Egyptian Hijabi woman to climb mount Elbrus in Russia, the third big mountain I have cimbed. This is the highest mountain in Europe and one of the 7 summits.
Fitness is my passion and I’m so happy that I am able to help others and inspire them to exercise and become fitter. I finally followed my dreams and heart and went against the current and got certified to do something that I truly love.
We Run DXB is inspirational and its awesome to see women from all backgrounds invited to participate in the event…
The “Just Do It ” slogan really captures and encourages everyone and take part in sport and the fastest 10K in town. Abroad, Nike holds regular events like this for women only which is the sort of thing I would love to see more of here so women in the region can get used to these kind of events, and push themselves to move past any fears and be involved. Crossing that finish line whether it’s your first or tenth 10K run is always so rewarding and you feel self-fulfilled and accomplished beyond words.
WE RUN DXB takes place on November 13th. To learn more, click here for information.