The first time I went jogging in Tehran, I nearly hyperventilated after four blocks, despite wearing the gauziest of head scarves and a decidedly immodest Nike capris. The fabric covering my ears and neck stoked my body temperature unbearably, and the pleasurable strain of running gave way to acute discomfort. “How am I going to stay fit here?” I wailed to my Iranian girlfriends, experts in the dilemma of balancing exercise with Islamic modesty codes. They offered me a rich store of advice, from head scarves with ear slits to calibrating outdoor exercise with the seasons to where to find women’s only gyms.
For the pious Muslim woman, one of the greatest challenges of modern life is how to get a health-conscious work-out. In Iran, of course, the state mandates Islamic dress, so secular and faithful women alike must contend with religious codes that interfere with exercise. But the problem persists for individual Muslim women throughout the Islamic world and the West. It grabbed headlines this week when a Paris swimming pool refused entry to a young Muslim woman wearing a “burqini,” a swim garment resembling a diving suit. In France the incident falls into a wider political debate over how to reconcile the country’s Muslim immigrants to French secular values. And while the number of Muslim women in France indeed throughout the world who insist on such a severe covering as the burqa is small, the challenge of staying slim and Islamically proper is not.
So what is the faithful but health-conscious Muslim woman to do There are many schools of thought addressing this practical problem, and often the answer boils down to comfort versus one’s attachment to a particular sport. I am a runner by nature, keenly attached to the mind-slowing demands of setting pace and the sensation of my feet first thudding and then gliding over pavement. But my discomfort threshold is ridiculously low, and while living in Iran I gave up running in favor of hiking . During snowy Tehran winters, I pushed myself to go skiing, since modesty ceases to be an issue when you’re bundled in a ski-suit and hat. I did more yoga than I was accustomed to, since the Iranian middle-class is obsessed with yoga and classes are more ubiquitous than mosques in many neighborhoods. Perhaps my cardiovascular endurance plunged with all this varied exercise, but hey, I was cross training, out of the clutches of the morality police, and pretty comfortable.
Many Muslim women are more devoted to their favorite form of exercise. If they are runners they must run, if they are swimmers they must swim. For these women, there are only two answers: a clever outfit that breathes, or sequestration in a same-sex exercise facility. The athletic veil, know as the “hijood,” is made from high-tech fabric that’s meant to wick sweat off the skin, and debuted when the Bahraini sprinter Rogaya Al Ghasara wore it while competing at the 2008 Olympics. While it takes a certain steely piety to wear the hijood its slick ninja-esque style might be too assertively Muslim for some the relative ease of sweating or swimming in something other than heavy cotton is pretty unbeatable. In certain situations, even the burqini might prove indispensable. A decade ago, when I regularly frequented Wild Wadi, Dubai’s vast waterpark, mothers in sopping wet clothes gamely accompanied their children down spiralling slides and endless rivers. They must have been miserable to no end, but put up with it rather than refuse their kids the thrill of water rides. For pious moms on beach holidays with families when women-only beaches or hours at waterparks are useless, since older boy children and dads must be left behind the burqini is useful, not the joke it seems sometimes in the West.
For some Muslim women, though, gender- segregated exercise is the preferred and discrete option. When you’ve grown up in a culture where men and women relate prudishly, not even a Coolmax barrier of high-tech lycra is going to put you at ease panting alongside men in a co-ed exercise class. Women’s-only gyms, or gyms with women’s-only hours or rooms, dot the whole of the Islamic world. Even in the United States, the idea that women are more relaxed exercising without men’s eyes on them has led to a preponderance of secular, women-only chains like Curves and Linda Evans Fitness. This non-religious attitude toward gender-segregated exercise neatly sets immigration politics aside, and has created a way for Americans from Muslims countries to retain their piety without seeming to embrace separation. I have fond memories of following my mother around her local Linda Evans center in California, watching Pakistani matrons and white soccer moms chat and stride energetically on long rows of treadmills.
For the fitness-minded faithful, the terrain varies dramatically from one country and region to another. But with some determination, it remains entirely possible for Muslim women from the gently shy to the severely pious to stay in shape while respecting their faith’s modesty etiquette.