Sisters playing sports: Muslim women’s modest exercise

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Nadia Huq grew up playing outside with her brother and other Apple Valley kids. ‘I played football, soccer, kickball, basketball—whatever the neighborhood was doing. And I loved it,’ she said. At age fifteen, Huq chose to begin wearing the hijab, the traditional modest Muslim dress.

Now a junior at the University of Minnesota, Huq wanted to encourage other Muslim women to be active, so last year she launched Sisters Playing Sports. Twice a month, Huq organizes some physical activity for the group, from swimming to soccer.

“Personally, I get so much more energy after I work out,” Huq says, sitting comfortably in the U’s Al-Madinah Cultural Center. The animated 20-year-old says she has “put her heart and soul” into the sports club, but concedes, “I think there are people who would say, ‘What are you doing? You can’t have girls doing that.’”

Huq insists her group abides by Muslim rules to dress and behave modestly. She finds places where women can exercise without men watching. They swim at one of the U’s special-needs pools with women lifeguards and the windows covered. At the campus Rec Center, women play volleyball in the squash courts where they cover the glass door so passersby can’t look in.

Swimming is the club’s most popular activity and often attracts more than a dozen women, but even in the privacy of a single-sex pool, the sportswear is conservative. Huq swims in tights and a long shirt and says there’s a range of bathing outfits. “It’s just the lack of owning a swimsuit,” she says with a laugh, “I’m pretty sure a lot of girls just don’t have one.”

Muslims’ modest clothing shouldn’t prevent anyone from trying sports, Huq says. “We do everything, it’s just differently. There’s not as many restrictions as people think.” This fall, for a beginning running class, she ran wearing tights, a big shirt, and a loose-fitting scarf. “When I’m running, I imagine I’m probably going through a lot more than the other people running,” Huq said. “I’m wearing a scarf and they’re not.”

Huq had to balance her morning running class with another aspect of her religion—fasting from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. “The teacher really sympathized with me because half of the class was during Ramadan,” Huq recalls. “We were running like two or three miles every other day and I was fasting. I didn’t mind running; it was just afterwards, I knew I had to just keep going for like another twelve hours (without eating).” Despite fasting, Huq said she kept up with the class and hopes to keep running.

Clad in a simple hijab, vibrant teal scarf, black sports pants and T-shirt topped with an Al-Madinah sweatshirt, Huq seems game to try any sport. “I want to play basketball so badly.” But last year, few women showed up to play basketball. She speaks wistfully about Ultimate Frisbee. “Back in the day, in my junior year of high school, I was just in love with that sport—it was just so much fun,” Huq says. So far, Huq hasn’t been able to persuade other women to toss Frisbees.

For now, badminton is Huq’s sport of choice. But her club ran into a problem when they tried badminton last year at the Rec Center. Male gymnasts who were practicing nearby repeatedly walked past where the Muslim women were playing. Huq says some Muslim women aren’t comfortable exercising around men. This year, the group hopes to find a more private space. Sisters Playing Sports is part of the Al-Madinah Cultural Center, whose share of student fees covers the costs of renting the pool or other facilities.

When Huq sets up an activity, she posts it on the club’s listserv and Facebook page. Huq says Muslim women who aren’t students have also joined the group after spotting its Facebook. The club is open to any Muslim women. Huq sees it is a good way for students to make new connections. “It’s just a better way to get to know each other. That’s my experience with sports—being on a team of some sort helps you fit in versus doing everything on your own.”

Social connections aren’t the main reason Huq savors sports. The chemistry major who hopes to follow her brother to medical school sees fitness as the key to good health. “It’s so important to keep your health in check,” she notes, adding, “A lot of people neglect their health as students. I mean our life style calls for moderation, you’re not supposed to eat a lot, do a lot of things really strenuously, but people when they’re students really neglect their health. To provide a venue where girls can actually get active is a great idea. Because if you don’t have your health, what do you have?”

Kate Havelin is a freelance writer in the Twin Cities.