I first met Fatima during my second year of medical school. She was full of energy and so excited to meet a fellow hijabi. While I enjoyed our daily conversations as we hurried to class, I soon realized the only thread holding our friendship together was our passion for medicine (and chai). She loved to work out. I loved to bird watch. She wanted to go running in below freezing temperatures. I wanted hot chocolate! This girl was always on a mission; whether it was to beat yesterday’s record for squats under a minute or number of laps around the track. Despite our stark differences in personalities, I would like to think that we still “hit if off” and learned a lot from each other.
Listening to all her high school track stories would make me smile, wishing I had been more athletic growing up. Why hadn’t I cared for my body like Fatima had? As, Muslims, we’re taught to honor the body Allah swt has blessed us with. Why did I think it was okay to eat greasy burgers and snickers for dinner and complain about our 10 minute walk to campus? Eventually, I let her show me proper form during workouts. Sadly, I was usually dreaming of some sort of candy bar in my bag as she pushed me to do a few more squats. Sorry Fatima!
Looking back now, the biggest lesson Fatima taught me was to always respect my body and consistently give it the proper care that it deserves. Although I never told her, Fatima became one of my biggest champions, after my brother, when I finally started working out. Now when I hit the gym or go for a run, I can still hear Fatima saying, “Come on Sadaf, you know you can push a little harder.” Fatima’s energy and passions permeate into every conversation, every encounter. I am convinced that her story will leave you feeling inspired to set higher goals for yourself and chase them like a boss!
Currently, Fatima has been weight lifting at her her CrossFit gym and participates in low-level weightlifting competitions in her area. CrossFit, for those less aware, is one of the most popular intensive workout programs currently out there. It incorporates high intensity and varied movements, including gymnastics, Olympic lifts, and high intensity interval training, just to mention a few.
Fatima begum is a old high school science teacher in her thirties who loves working out and staying fit. She currently resides in California with her husband and young son.
Tell us a little about yourself
I’m married with a three year old son. I work as a high school science teacher in Watts in California. I served as my school’s cross country coach last year. In my free time, I love to workout, watch my favorite TV shows, and travel to old and new places. My greatest passion is being a political and social activist and finding ways through which I can help create more socially just and equitable communities.
I know that you’ve always been athletic and ran track in high school and college. How did you first get interested in weightlifting?
Yes, I have always been an athlete since I was a young child. I come from a family who always did active things together. We used to go swimming, play badminton or tennis together on a weekly basis. I was first introduced to weightlifting in high school, when I started competing in track and cross country. I also played volleyball and tennis. Sports and athletics have always been my method to de-stress and feed my competitive spirit.
As I became more competitive in high school, especially at state and regional levels, I realized that strength and conditioning was a huge part of reaching my full athletic potential that so I started weightlifting in my freshman year in high school.
It’s something that I liked from the start. It gave me a feeling of being physical strong. More importantly, it tested and increased my mental strength. This was the most powerful part for me that got me hooked from the start. This feeling of confidence and fortitude was so important to me as a girl in sports; I always loved being able to lift similar weights to what the boys in my school were able to lift.
How has the experience of weight training at the gym in a hijab been for you?
I work-out at a CrossFit affiliate and honestly, this has been an amazing experience. I have no issue or insecurities around training and competing with both males and females. I know this confidence comes from my choice to wear hijab. I feel that as long as I am dressed in a way that I feel is modest for myself, then I can completely focus on my workout.
Another plus has been in informing people about my faith and way of life, because everyone has questions about Islam and Muslims. It’s a blessing when I can help spread a positive message about Islam, especially given the current political climate.
I feel that working out in Hijab in a mixed gym also helps to break some of the negative stereotypes about Muslim women in society. Knowing that I’m able to be a part of this positive narrative is definitely empowering and uplifting for me.
What is Crossfit?
CrossFit is not a typical gym. A coach runs each class and each workout is beautifully designed and unique. The workouts at CrossFit are so diverse and challenging so you could be doing rope climbing and pull ups one day, and running and Olympic lifts another day. It’s like being an adventurous kid again. CrossFit allows me to equally integrate both cardiovascular fitness and weightlifting in a singular sport, which is awesome!
The movements i’ve learned have helped me in my daily life. For example, doing a deadlift is the same movement as lifting heavy groceries so of course I consider my workouts as part of functional fitness. When you set a fitness goal, think about how it will improve your daily life? How will completing a 200 meter job help you? It gives you increased endurance overall and who doesn’t want that!
Don’t look at scales! Instead, measure your progress by asking yourself, “Do I feel stronger? Do I feel better? Has my confidence increased?”
Talk about your love for competition.
I’m definitely competitive with myself in all aspects of my life. Even if you’re not naturally inclined to compete, you will still enjoy this workout. I can really identify with everyone at my gym. We all try our best and push ourselves to the limit.
One of the more formal competitions I’ve attended had levels: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. So you pick your level and there are three workouts in each level. The gym brings up upcoming competitions so I decide which ones to participate in. I will maybe compete twice a year. For example, if I’m currently working on powerlifting, I’ll work on my bench presses, deadlifts, back squats, as this is how we would be judged in a powerlifting competition.
Do you encourage everyone to lift and workout?
Yeah! When when my husband and I came back from our honeymoon, I told my husband we should go running because of everything we ate during our travels. After a mile, my husband wanted to catch a cab back which was fine. But he understood quickly how much I was into running and working out. My husband enjoys bike riding so that’s what he does. When I joined CrossFit, he tried it and enjoyed the workouts so now we do that together.
Working out is a personal choice. You can set an example for those around you but you cannot force anyone. I never force my opinions on anyone but I do encourage everyone to stay healthy and fit. Their definition of fitness may not be my definition. To me, being active is a lifestyle choice. And it’s not only about losing weight only. You don’t want to have a negative incentive associated with working out like needing to lose weight because you think you’re overweight.
The goal of a workout should be to become a stronger individual, mentally and physically. Not to lose weight and look skinny. You don’t want to feel stressed from the workouts. Don’t only look at scales as a measurement of your progress. Instead, measure your progress by asking yourself, “Do I feel stronger? Do I feel better?” “Has my confidence increased?”
Can you talk a little about your training sessions. Do you have a personal coach?
I don’t have a personal coach, but Crossfit has multiple coaches, who all bring something different to the table! The training session is always one hour long, and consists of a warm-up, strength component and “WOD,” which stands for Workout of the Day. It is a very structured and efficient workout.
Classes are small and feel personalized as the coach works with you on the movements that you are doing. The strength component can consist of any type of Olympic lift, and may focus just on technique, load or both for that day. The Workout of the Day usually is anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes long and integrates strength, cardiovascular and gymnastics movements. Depending on my work and personal schedule, I train two to three times a week.
If i’m doing something that makes me happy, and it’s not hurting myself or anyone else, my husband is happy for me. He supports me 100%. It’s as simple as that. I never take his support for granted.
How do you measure your progress? Do you set weekly or monthly goals?
The most difficult aspect of Crossfit for me has been mastering the gymnastics movements, such as double unders, kipping pull-ups, handstand push ups and muscle-ups. I set goals on achieving these movements one by one and I give myself as long as I need to achieve them. Some movements may take me three months to achieve and others as much as a year.
I also monitor my PRs (Personal Records) on lifts, so I can measure my strength gains. At the present, since I’ve been very busy with a new career, my goal has been to attend Crossfit sessions at least twice per week to maintain strength and fitness.
Do you have a role model you look to for motivation or advice?
I first and foremost turn to God for motivation. It’s through Him that we achieve any degree of strength or motivation at all. Secondly, my husband is the best sounding board for advice. He always supports me and pushes me towards anything I want to pursue, even if it’s something that isn’t his area of interest, like sports! I also turn to my Crossfit coaches for advice in fitness and in life. There are a lot of strong women in Crossfit who I admire and look to as well for motivation and inspiration.
What was your husband’s response to your decision to start lifting weights? More importantly, what was your mother-in-law’s reaction?
I can’t really say that my husband had any sort of “reaction.” If i’m doing something that makes me happy, and it’s not hurting myself or anyone else, my husband is happy for me. He supports me 100%. It’s as simple as that. I never take his support for granted however. I’m very thankful to God for his support as I realize that not everyone has this sort of support from their spouse and that’s unfortunate. I feel that each and every person deserves to be happy doing what they want to do and should be encouraged and supported by their family and friends.
Honestly, both my mother and mother-in-law are supportive but sometimes it does take some convincing to get them on board because I can get quite intense with working out at times. Maybe some things are difficult to understand because they belong to a different generation where many women weren’t weight-lifting or involved in sports.
I think that challenges occur when you choose to see them. If you simply focus on yourself and your goals while keeping your intentions are pure in everything you pursue, there are really no challenges or obstacles in the way. It’s a matter of perspective.
Did your workout routine or motivation change after having your son?
Not, not all. I continued to work out at least three times a week, for about an hour at a time. Actually, I was more motivated to work out because I felt that it gave me the much needed mental and emotional break I needed to be a better mother to my son.
Did you alter your diet when you started lifting more?
My coach recommended to add more protein to my diet to get stronger. So I would just incorporate more protein into my regular meals like eggs for breakfast with veggies and have a protein shake with a banana after my workout. The reasoning behind this is that muscle is broken down during our workout and we need to feed it protein to rebuild it. Studies show the more time you wait after a workout to consume protein, the less effective the gains from the workout will be.
On a side-note, many women, especially Muslim women, think that weight-lifting will make you look too “big” and “bulky” but I want you to know that this is a myth! Weight lifting actually helps resists weight gain honestly.
I know you’ve participated in some competitions? Is that one of your fitness goals?
I have taken part in a couple of low-level competitions in my local area. I do definitely want to take part in more competitions in the future once I get adjusted with my work schedule and finish with my credentialing program. I would particularly like to take part in Powerlifting competitions, which focus on three lifts: bench press, the back squat and the deadlift.
My goals for weight lifting is to continuously improve my PRs and be successful in Powerlifting competitions. Since I haven’t strictly trained for a specific competition yet, I don’t know how I compare to others in my area and weight class yet. Once I know where I stand, I know my competitive spirit will only lead me to work hard and reach my full potential, whatever that may be. I also hope to motivate more Muslim women to enter the world of Crossfit and weightlifting and hopefully shed any stereotypes about Muslim women and weightlifting.
My biggest advice would be to not care what people think of you, particularly other Muslims in your community or family! Do not get bogged down by stereotypes or “expectations” of what a Muslim girl is supposed to be doing. Remember, you only have to answer to yourself and God. Surround yourself by people that love you and support you in your goals.
What, in your opinion, is the most challenging part of being a muslim hijabi athlete?
I don’t see too many challenges, if any. I think that challenges occur when you choose to see them. If you simply focus on yourself and your goals while keeping your intentions are pure in everything you pursue, there are really no challenges or obstacles in the way. It’s a matter of perspective.
There are days I face difficulties or disappointments which honestly can happen with anyone. On these days, I always turn to God for guidance, strength and inspiration.
Please give some advice to young Muslim women who are interested in pursuing weight lifting or another competitive sport?
My biggest advice would be to not care what people think of you, particularly other Muslims in your community or family. Do not get bogged down by stereotypes or “expectations” of what a Muslim woman is supposed to be doing. Remember, you only have to answer to yourself and God. Surround yourself by people who love you and support you in your goals. God gave us this body and it is our responsibility to respect it and take care of it. Moreover, engaging in a sport is so empowering and invigorating. It will boost your confidence in all aspects of your life. Take time to figure out your passions and goals, and don’t let ANYONE or anything stop you from pursuing them or achieving them. Finally, always place your trust in God, and thank Him for any abilities that you have.