Breaking barriers: Canadian-Muslim women and fitness

The barriers that have kept some Muslim women from participating in organized sports are finally crumbling in Canada

By Lindsay Borthwick

Breaking barriers: Canadian-Muslim women and fitness

For the first time since she left the University of Toronto’s varsity squad and a regional league more than 10 years ago, Shireen Ahmed is playing competitive soccer again. She’s still a fierce player and just as swift, but her kit has changed ever so slightly: These days, she wears a headscarf, or hijab. She adopted it as a student, while attending a conference where wearing it was required. “It was a very unprompted act,” recalls Ahmed, an observant Muslim. “It was always presented to me as a choice. After the conference, I was very hesitant to take it off. So I didn’t.” Her decision meant she had to hang up her cleats, at least until local soccer officials warmed to the idea that a “footballer” (as Ahmed calls herself) could wear a hijab.

That fact makes her choice to return to the pitch—where, in Ahmed’s observation, women of her faith are still a rare sight—all the more impressive. Though she remains extremely modest about it, she considers herself an advocate for women and sport—an example that moms can play hard, too.

The 35-year-old winger from Mississauga, Ont., who works in social services helping immigrants, doesn’t face the same social and political barriers as do female athletes from, for example, Saudi Arabia—notably judo competitor Wojdan Shaherkani and sprinter Sarah Attar, who last summer became the first women from the ultra-conservative kingdom to compete in the Olympic Games. But Ahmed is nevertheless blazing a trail.

The barriers that kept her off the field are finally beginning to crumble. Last July, international soccer’s governing body overturned a ban on headscarves, paving the way for national and regional clubs, including Canada’s, to follow suit. Ahmed’s summer league, originally based in Burlington, Ont., but now in Oakville, amended its rules in 2012 to allow the hijab, as well as longer, capri-style pants. (Some Muslim-Canadian women choose to wear long sleeves and pants, in addition to a headscarf.) But things aren’t changing everywhere; a regional soccer association in Gatineau, Que., made headlines last year for removing a nine-year-old girl from a match, citing safety concerns about her headscarf.

Off the field, other obstacles face Muslim-Canadian women who may not be into competitive sport, but are simply trying to stay fit. Consider today’s Lycra-clad workout culture: Fitness and Islamic standards of modesty don’t always go hand in hand.

But things are changing. Fortunately, some recreational centres and fitness clubs are beginning to create women’s-only workout environments. Since 2011, for example, the City of Edmonton has offered women-only swims at one of its community pools, and these are frequented by Muslim-Canadians. For many, it is a more comfortable environment.

Another option is women-only health clubs, including GoodLife’s. Though not exactly new—the first GoodLife women’s club opened in 1983—there are now more than 60 across the country. (Another 35 of its clubs have women-only sections.) And the fitness chain Curves, which launched in the U.S. in 1992 just for women, now has more than 300 Canadian locations.

Samar Assaff, a 24-year-old personal trainer at a women’s GoodLife in London, Ont., began wearing a headscarf about a year ago. She estimates that close to half of her club’s members are Muslim, including several of her clients—which she says is proof that an all-female environment appeals to her community.

But Assaff also feels the club’s hours and locations are not always as convenient as those of coed facilities. “Some of the coed clubs are 24 hours, which is easier for me to access with my schedule,” she says. But at those clubs, she needs to dress differently, which is definitely more trouble. “And it’s obviously a lot warmer when you’re covering up.” Assaff is referring to the fact that she dresses modestly in the presence of men, in observance of her faith. For many Muslim-Canadian women, that means covering the head and body.

Jessica Keats is a 34-year-old yoga teacher who lives and teaches in the west end of Ottawa. Back in 2007, when she was training for her Canfitpro certification, she says she was the only headscarf-wearing trainee in the room. She’s still a rare sight. But she says she has never had a negative experience working out or leading a class—and has occasionally had Muslim women seek her out because they know she will be sensitive to their needs.

In fact, her classes attract others who want to be modestly dressed for fitness classes, including women from the Orthodox Jewish community. “They want to be fully clothed and might want the windows covered so there’s no one looking in on them,” she says. “So I’m mindful of that when I’m teaching.”

Shireen Ahmed’s experiences on the soccer pitch, which she blogs about at Tales from a Hijabi Footballer (, have also been positive. Sure, her clothes make her a curiosity on the field, but as the Canadian-born daughter of Pakistani immigrants, she says she’s used to the attention. “I grew up in Halifax in the ’80s. I accepted from the beginning that I was different.”

One of Ahmed’s reasons for returning to competitive soccer—a decision her husband fully supports—is for good health. Games give her “90 minutes of hard-core cardio.” But it is also for her four children: an 11-year-old daughter and three boys, age 13, eight and seven. “I want them to see me play, to see that I’ve got a scarf and that it doesn’t impede,” she says. “Sometimes crashing assumptions is a good thing. And I’m doing that.”

These three women are on the leading edge of a large and rapid demographic shift: By 2030—the year Ahmed will celebrate her 52nd birthday—the Muslim population in Canada is expected to nearly triple to 2.7 million. That means there will be many, many Muslim-Canadian women looking for ways to stay active that are consistent with their customs. Ahmed is already seeing that change on the pitch. “I’m very obviously the only woman with hijab out there, and one of few women of colour. But under 25, the diversity is fabulous.”

Watch a behind-the-scenes interview with Shireen Ahmed, below.

This article was originally titled "Game on!" in the Summer 2013 issue of Best Health. Subscribe today to get the full Best Health experience–and never miss an issue!

Best Health magazine, Summer 2013; Photo by Michael Alberstat

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