Meet Manal Rostom. A Dubai-based, everyday athlete, hailing from Alexandria, Egypt, who has an unwavering commitment to pursue non-conventional sports like mountaineering and running in the region. She is also a Hijabi woman. Her Hijab has never stopped her from dressing for the sport. She steps out in leggings, performance material work out tops and her trusty Nike Pro Hijab. She ran three international marathons including the Dubai Marathon, the China Wall Marathon and the New York City Marathon, as well as plenty of local ones in her hometown in Egypt.
She has aspirations of leading a generation of unstoppable female athletes to step into their own crazy dreams. Especially young muslim women, who may believe that dressing modestly and exercise cannot go hand in hand.
The trailblazer is the first Hijab wearing Nike running coach and was the first woman to complete an international marathon in her hijab. “The hijab never limited me, it is the fear that limits us,” Manal affirms.
Rostom continues to carve the way for athletes from the desert throughout the globe, evident in the unstoppable growth of her Facebook community “Surviving Hijab” with 600k+ members. Propelling forward the inclusion of Muslim female athletes in sports around the world, Rostom is already on her way to accomplishing her crazy dream to become the first Egyptian to complete all six major marathons and climb all seven major mountain summits (of which she has already completed two) by 2020.
Manal on Finding her athletic spirit
“When I was younger, I experimented with other sports, but I was either too short or didn’t have the right coach - until I found running. It was as if the sport chose me, I could train myself and work as hard as I needed to on my own. It became part of my identity and the track was no longer just a place for me to have an outlet for my energy, it was my independence. It became where I found peace, growth, and stability in difficult times,” she said to Gulf News.
“It's important for me to run because I’m not just running for myself, I’m running for all of the young, aspiring, hijabi, female athletes that need a role model. I want young Arab girls to see that there are women who look like them, and dress like them that are chasing their crazy athletic dreams too. Representation is so important, and throughout my athletic journey I never saw images of runners that looked like me and I thought to myself, I need to be that hijabi runner in the pictures that little girls can look at and feel empowered and good about themselves.”
Manal on the rush of running
“I love the way running makes me feel, it’s the most freeing feeling in the world and it just makes me feel invincible. Running has made me the confident woman that I am today, to know that no matter what barriers are in my way, not just in sport, but in my life - I can always push past them with hard work and dedication. For me, running has become my healthy addiction. It is an outlet for me-- whenever I’m upset or stressed out, I go for a run and leave my problems in the dust. Sometimes it subconsciously releases my fears and doubts about myself, because I am constantly surprising myself with new heights I can reach, both physically and mentally.”
Manal grew up in a family that wasn’t particularly conservative. “I did face resistance with my parents when I decided to wear the hijab,” she told Gulf News. They were concerned that she did not understand the responsibilities that come with being a hijabi. “But I had actually been contemplating it for over a year while learning about the Quran during my time away at university. I did encounter challenges with my family accepting my identity as a hijabi, especially as an athlete - it was a lot changes for them to take in at one time. Looking back, even though it was difficult, I now realize it would have been even harder for me not to wear the hijab as it would mean I was not being true to my personal beliefs. It was just a lot of changes for them.”
On some muslim parents restricting their daughters
Some Muslim parents out there, discourage their daughters from participating in sports, due to the need to wear aerodynamic clothing or moving in un-modest ways. “I think a lot of Muslim parents fear that when you are participating in sports you have to compromise your modesty, because most athletic wear for women is usually form fitting or cropped to allow for more movement. I think this is one of the main reasons why some Muslim parents might not encourage their daughters to take up a sport-- and again, that is why it is so important for me to continue doing what I am doing because Muslim, veiled, athletes need more representation so that we can get rid of misconceptions like this,” Rostom explains to Gulf News.
Manal started playing sports at a young age, but believes it is never too late to start. “When I was in high school, I would always see the older girls participating in after school sports like volleyball and basketball and I would just think to myself, “wow I would really love to do that too” and I really loved Sports Day at my school because I got to compete athletically in different sports and I would excel in almost all of them so I knew I had a passion for it.” It was important for her to experiment with all the different types of sports, but running ultimately chose her. “It was the sport that made the most sense to me. I was too short for basketball and not agile enough for volleyball, but when it came to running, there was no height requirement or anything.” Manal believes that the sport that is meant for you will always find you somehow, “ and do not be discouraged until it does,” she exclaims.
I am just so happy that the sports performance hijab was created. I was one of the athletes lucky enough to be a part of the creative process, pre and post launch. When they designed the Nike Pro Hijab they designed it with the help of my and other hijabi’s feedback. So we really felt like it was made just for us and that was incredibly empowering.