The only time Fatma Ramadan, 24, would run would be to catch the bus when she was late. When she started to get interested in running as a sport, she could only manage a power walk at first. Not because she wasn’t athletic — she’d participated in other sports like horseback riding and volleyball — but because of shame.
“As a Muslim hijabi woman, to think that I’m going to be running on the streets of Toronto ... I kind of felt shameful. It’s the fact that you don’t see it,” Ramadan said, adding because seeing a hijabi woman running in the street for sport isn’t common, she was very conscious of being watched and “looking funny.”
Her sister who also wears hijab has told her she had that same feeling going out for a run, saying it was difficult “to take that first step, in front of everyone.”
Ramadan said she thought maybe she could run with her scarf on a treadmill, but on the streets she felt out of place and conscious of people watching.
It is this type of experience that led Ramadan to creating A Women’s Run, a welcoming running space for women of colour in 2019.
Long-distance running in North America has a reputation for being a mostly white sport. Running USA conducts a survey annually that in the past has showed that 90 per cent of “core runners” who compete in races are white.
When 25-year-old Ahmaud Arbery was killed in Georgia this February, it happened while he was out for a jog in the neighbourhood. His killers say they thought Arbery, a Black man, was burglarizing homes in the area. His death stirred conversation about the dangers that can come running as a Black person and the precautions some take as a result: avoiding affluent, white neighbourhoods and not running at night.
In some team sports, women have also faced difficulty being allowed to play while wearing hijab, because of rules and regulations and a lack of exceptions.
Hijabi athlete Shireen Ahmed told the Star in a past interview that the lack of accommodation has been a big obstacle for her. “I was turned away from the soccer field because of my decision to cover,” she said.
What prompted Ramadan to create a group tailored for women of colour, was the great experience she had at Nike Run Club, which used to be a workout space in the city.
She started going with a friend when they were training for a marathon and not only was working at the sport cathartic — it helped her during a hard time in university and grieving her father’s death — but the community had a big impact on her. When Ramadan ran her first marathon she crossed the 40-kilometre mark to see friends from Nike Run Club cheering her on.
“Traditional sources of support are my friends, family ... but then you are able to put yourself in spaces, where you can find untraditional sources of support and love and someone to cheer you on,” she said.
The space was uplifting for Ramadan, but she noticed that not many of the women she’d see there were racialized, and although she would invite her friends to join her, she started thinking about starting something that would specifically cater to and empower women of colour to take part in fitness and running, regardless of their level.
In May 2019, Ramadan decided on planning weekly runs or workouts in downtown Toronto, with the ultimate goal to train for October’s Toronto Waterfront Marathon, which offers shorter races, a half-marathon and a full marathon.
Hijabi Ballers, a local organization that supports Muslim women in sport, stepped in to help with funding and promotion.
Ramadan remembered a trainer she crossed paths with, Britt Hern and reached out to see if she could write up a training plan for the group. Hern took the ask further and volunteered to train the women in person.
By June 2019, Ramadan started spreading the word, and A Women’s Run was born. Since then, it’s been able to partner with brands like Lululemon and Nike and gain more support for the initiative.
The club has operated in volumes with breaks in between. The first volume had training for a race as the end goal. The second volume was during the winter, and Fit Squad offered them space to do more strength training and runs, but it was interrupted as COVID-19 spread and limited group interactions. The third volume, which took place in July of this year, as pandemic restrictions loosened, focused on highlighting Black fitness leaders.
“Running for me is (about) people, running (is about) the community,” Ramadan said. “Honestly, it has been the most transformational thing in my life.”
One member Dalia Hashim, 26, never called herself an athlete before joining A Women’s Run, despite playing basketball and swimming in high school. She says, at six feet tall, she excelled in sports as a byproduct of her height, but on the title of athlete: “it sounds like that came with a very particular image that I didn’t fit.”
But with A Women’s Run, there were a number of women who were also new to running, so it felt much less intimidating to Hashim. And on top of that, having women who looked like her, whether that be people of colour or women who also wore hijab, made the environment more welcoming.
“Just having that around you made it so much easier, because it just meant that everyone understood where you were coming from,” she said.
While she trained for the Toronto Waterfront run with the group’s first volume of meet ups, Hashim initially signed up for the five-kilometre run, but after doing a 15-kilometre run over the summer, Ramadan urged her to take on the half-marathon — just over 21 kilometres — instead.
Hashim has now stepped up to be a pacer, the person who helps the group maintain the same speed.
Reem Al-Wakeal, 22, who works on producing online content for A Women’s Run, as well as joins workouts, says she had always wanted to get into fitness, but felt uncomfortable going to gyms alone because she didn’t know where to start. “I kind of needed a push — a community to kind of motivate me.”
She found it in A Women’s Run.
“No one really cared about how you looked or where you were from, or how fast you were running. As long as you set a personal goal, they were just there to motivate you,” Al-Wakeal said.
That is exactly what has been rewarding for Ramadan: seeing the women surprise themselves and exceed their own expectations. “You set boundaries of what you think your body and you are able to achieve. But then you are also the same person who kind of broke [the boundary] down.”
Ramadan hopes that A Women’s Run is able to act as an entry point for women to gain confidence to join other groups and fitness spaces in the city that they may have found intimidating in the past.
“[We want to] provide our girls that confidence, a safe space for them to come in, get that boost, see all these other spaces and have the courage to step into them.”
Angelyn Francis is a Toronto-based reporter for the Star covering inequity and inequality. Her reporting is funded by the Canadian government through its Local Journalism Initiative. Reach her via email: email@example.com
Angelyn Francis, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Toronto Star