Half way between the landmark cities of London and Oxford lies the town of High Wycombe in the county of Buckinghamshire. Known for its places of ‘outstanding natural beauty’, Chiltern Hills and panoramic views, nobody would guess what the Muslim women of the town are up to. From girls’ Tae Kwon Do classes to ladies netball matches, High Wycombe’s Muslim women are on the move. I managed to catch up with some of them, just about!
Nadia is a gym-going mother of two boys aged 5 and 7, working part-time as an LSA (Learning Support Assistant) at a local primary school.
Keeping active through school and university life set the backdrop for her current endeavours. However, keeping fit as a student wasn’t too challenging. It was after her first son’s birth that losing weight and keeping fit became more of an issue. Now, she participates in two or three of the following each week: long walks with the Ramblers, yoga classes, toning and circuit training, a Boxercise session, boot camp, or spinning classes at her local gym.
But if the classes give Nadia enough variety, why embark on the mountain climbs?“It’s about having a goal and achieving it. I never felt I did that in the past.”
As with any goal, Nadia found she had to overcome several setbacks along the way. Her first attempt at the Yorkshire Three Peaks was not successful. Nadia remembers: “I was gutted but I continued to do other climbs: Mount Snowdon in Wales and Ben Nevis in Scotland in July 2010. After more training, I had a second go at the Yorkshire Three Peaks in August 2010 Alhamdulillah, I did it – all gruelling twenty five miles – taking eleven hours and 29 minutes!”
Conquering mountain peaks has changed her perspective on life, as she now feels achieving anything else is a matter of determination. With mountain peaks behind her, her sights are set a bit closer to the ground – the London Marathon 2012.
For many sisters, getting to an all-women gym is the first hurdle. Saheeda Talib, Managing Director of Contours – the only ladies gym in the town centre – has been the catalyst for many of Wycombe’s Muslim women getting fit. How did it all start for her? “With heart disease and diabetes in my extended family, I knew I had to do something to keep myself fit if I wanted to avoid these conditions. When I wanted to join a female-only gym in High Wycombe and couldn’t find one, I decided to start one up myself.”
It took another two years of hard work before Saheeda could open the doors of Contours Gym. There were many challenges along the way, not least having a one-and-a-half year old daughter when she started researching. There were also the issues of finding a premises, council permission and funding. Finally, Saheeda and her husband had to go to the US for training to learn the ropes of running a franchise business.
The response to the gym has been phenomenal, and Saheeda has seen women who attend regularly have gained confidence and changed their lifestyles generally.
The gym certainly has a mixed clientele that prefers the all-female set up and, in a town with a sizeable Pakistani population, Contours has filled another gap – the generation gap. On any day, there are teenagers on the treadmills and ladies over sixty following the circuit training. For many of the elderly Asian women, going to the gym provides much-needed social contact with other ladies in a positive atmosphere.
Beyond the looks and feel-good factor, serious health issues are at the core of keeping fit. As Dr Sarah Abbas, a local GP points out, “Muslim women, particularly from the Asian subcontinent, are more likely to have issues with obesity, which is a contributory factor for diabetes and ischemic heart disease.” She advises, “Changes in diet and every bit of exercise counts! Keep on the move. Set realistic achievable goals and reward yourself for achieving them.”
In the September 2009 issue of SISTERS, Sarwat Baig, mother of four, discussed her achievements in mountain trekking for charity – and she’s still just as motivated. So what keeps her going?
“Life’s too short to be unfit. When I look around at extended family I can see what happens if you don’t keep fit and it’s scary. Even at the time of death, I don’t want my weight to be a burden on anyone. Now when I work out I feel great! When I go hiking up mountains in my hijab and abaya – fellow trekkers who are energetic grandparents, really encourage me – that’s inspiring.”
Sarwat has this advice for those wishing to start on the fitness trail:
1. Make ‘me time’ for yourself. Just get half an hour or forty-five minutes’ help from someone to watch the children.
2. Choose an activity, stick to it and don’t give up after two weeks.
3. Get an exercise buddy for commitment.
4. Remember variety like toning, cardio exercises and walking, and aim for three times a week.
5. Keep check on a realistic goal.
6. Eat a balanced diet keeping harmful fats low…but don’t deny yourself chocolate!
Inspired? I certainly was. Each of these women showed that personal determination is the key to a healthier lifestyle that goes way beyond just looking good. Remember that the intention to care for the amanah or ‘trust’ of our bodies can turn being active into an ‘act’ of worship.
Suma Din is author of children’s educational titles . A journey through life in Islam (A&C Black 2009) is her latest book, with more on the way!