By forming Hijabi Runners, one Leeds alumna has helped other South Asian and Muslim women realise that running could be for them, too.
When Namrah Shahid (Chemistry 2016, MSc 2017, PhD 2021) was persuaded to run at Woodhouse Moor parkrun in 2016, she noticed something.
“It is a fantastic, friendly and welcoming community,” she says. “But nobody else looked like me.”
All around the world, participants walk, jog, or run the free 5km events every Saturday morning. Despite her observation, Namrah was determined to return the next week to beat her time.
Little did she know, but her perseverance was the first step towards forming Hijabi Runners, and helping other South Asian and Muslim women realise that running could be for them, too.
“Growing up, I used to cycle a lot, but as I got older, people in my community would say it wasn’t a mature thing to do. I should stop. I remember wondering why. It didn’t make sense to me. And when I started running, again, people thought it was an odd thing for a hijabi to do – it just wasn’t normal. But the more you do something, the more you normalise it.”
And so Namrah kept running.
Motivated by the sense of achievement at parkrun, she signed up to the Abbey Dash, a 10km race from Leeds city centre to Kirkstall Abbey. She soon had the running bug: “A year after I did my first parkrun, I built up to do the Leeds Half Marathon in 2017.”
“I loved it. Running has so many health benefits, and during my PhD, it was an outlet. It was something to have for myself, and collecting medals gave me a sense of achievement.”
As she found at parkrun, Namrah was one of the few visibly Muslim women in attendance at races. Nevertheless, she shared her running experiences on social media, and received encouragement from hijabi friends. “They wrote about how they wished they could do it too, and I realised there were so many out there who wanted to run, but didn’t know where to start.”
Parkrun wasn’t the answer, given Namrah’s own experience – it was only her determination that saw her return the next week. “It feels too much like a race, and it is intimidating.”
“There was a gap, and something needed to be done about it.”
If one person turned up, then I’d have been happy. I’d have helped one person get into running.
Namrah pitched the idea of Hijabi Runners at the Leeds Muslim Youth Forum in 2019. “It was simple: meet up and run together. They loved it.”
“They would create a community of Muslim and ethnic minority runners who could run in a comfortable all-female environment. The forum covered the cost of Namrah’s certification to start a run club, a Facebook group and logo were created, and a date and time were set. “If one person turned up, then I’d have been happy. I’d have helped one person get into running.”
In fact, in the first week, four women took part. The following week, all four returned, plus some additions. “We have 20-25 regulars now, with six or seven turning up each week. We have a wide range of ages, and nearly all haven’t run before.”
“We still get the odd funny look, but we’re helping to dispel the perception that South Asian and Muslim women can’t run.”
The running club are active on social media, posting pictures most weeks. Encouraging followers and offering tips – such as the most comfortable sports hijabs – is part of the process. “The first hijab I wore at parkrun was terrible. It was cotton and the pin kept slipping. The sports ones I wear now are better.” It is just one of the obstacles Namrah has proven can be overcome.
The next challenge Namrah has set herself is to reach communities further afield: “It’d be great to expand the running club beyond the Leeds group, to see Hijabi Runners in other cities. On the other hand, if this is as far as it goes, I’m so proud of what we’ve done and how far the girls have come.”
It is not the first time Namrah recognised a need for change, and decided to act. She spent eight years as a student at Leeds, and – alongside a PhD into molecular electronics and an aside project developing an anti-cancer drug – used her spare time to improve student life.
Success on various campaigns, such as an award winning initiative to improve lab safety, and the opening of a prayer space in the Laidlaw Library, gave her confidence that change was possible.
“I campaigned for women-only gym sessions at the Edge. I took it to the Better Union LUU forum, debated it with students. There was pushback there, and it took six months, but we got a slot eventually.”
This principle, that women of all backgrounds and faiths should have the opportunity to exercise, is one that Namrah took forward with the running club.
Namrah recently moved away from Leeds, but she is keeping an eye on things from afar. Although she can’t attend Hijabi Runners sessions as much as she’d like, she still returns every three weeks to support the club.
And of course, she continues to run in her new city. “It’s why I like running,” she says. “You just get out there and go.”