Manal Rostom is many things; an international marathon runner, the founder of a global women’s organisation, and perhaps most prolifically, the first Nike ambassador to wear the hijab.
There is no one who better embodies strength in the face of struggle than she does, which is what makes Rostom perfect for this special Liberation theme edition. Rostom has previously declared that oppression for many Muslim women comes from those outside of the religion, saying: “why can a woman run in shorts but not cover-up?” It’s about the freedom to choose and the right to every opportunity a non-Muslim woman has as she tells me over the phone, and breaking a few glass ceilings.
What first got you interested in running and outdoor sports?
I joined the track and field team back in 1993, in High School, and I used to participate in Kuwait foreign schools’ athletic competitions across the country, and that’s what made me fall in love with running.
Were your family always supportive of your interests?
My family were always promoting athletic interest because they felt like it put me in a better mood. We do have a history of obesity in the family, not that there’s anything wrong with it, but it is a high-risk condition. It’s good to be in a healthy body.
Did you ever face adversity within your sport for choosing to cover-up?
It’s not about adversity. Me covering up is mainly to do with the fact that I had an accident that was borderline going to take my life. I switched seats with my cousin minutes before the accident, I lived and he passed away. That’s just what made me go back and think about my existence. What am I doing right, what am I not going right, and I wanted to give back, so my then- twenty-one-year-old self chose hijab, as a Muslim girl and a reflection of my identity.
Tell us a bit about Surviving Hijab.
[Laughs]. It’s my baby. No, but it did change my life. It’s a women-only platform that I created to give myself space about how I felt about wearing the hijab, and my insecurities and hardships, and it just blew up. We took it to Instagram just over a year ago and now we’re about to hit 50,000 women from all over the world, open for anyone and everyone to follow.
Anything in the calendar at the moment?
We won the Facebook Community leadership award last year, and we won 50,000 dollars to grow and invest. I led a team to a Mount Everest base camp. It was fourteen women from eleven different nationalities to promote tolerance and inclusivity. We’re running a hike, run and swim in the Red Sea and at Mount Sinai at Christmas time, and you’re all more than welcome to join!
A fact that I love is that you emailed Nike about their lack of spokespeople who represented you, and in return, you became a Nike ambassador. What spurred you to write this email?
So, my email to Nike was after I founded Surviving Hijab, which was August 2014, and it gave me a voice and the confidence to reach out and tell bigger brands: “Hey look, we exist, there is not enough Muslim woman representation currently on the sports front, and the question is ‘Why’?”. There are so many beautiful women out there changing the sport of their relative countries, and I was lucky enough that my email hit the right person at the right time, and the rest is history.
For other women, particularly those who may not have grown up with the level of self- confidence you had in writing that letter, what advice would you give?
I want to highlight that I was not born reaching out to insanely giant companies, asking them for representation. I feel like what really gave me a voice was Surviving Hijab and how we as women tried to build a community. My advice to other people is: Find your tribe, surround yourself with the right kind of people who live, breathe and support your story. You need to have a cause, even if it’s being a vegan or vegetarian or something.
Has there ever been a moment where you felt like giving up?
I want to give up all the time. [Sighs]. The journey is long, and tiring, and you feel lonely. It’s a constant battle between yourself, society, what you believe in, what you should be doing, and I’ve thought of giving up and taking off my hijab- you can only fight for so long.
How does God push you forward in these moments?
Thank you for asking this question. [Pause]. I definitely turn to God and seek guidance and the righteous path. I remember the Prophet Muhammad, peace be upon him, and all the hardships he went through to bring us our religion at the moment that we’re fighting for and being misunderstood for. I pray, I meditate, I remember why I started running. I feel like I gain clarity again.
What has being a Nike ambassador, the first female Egyptian marathon runner to compete on the world stage, and the founder of Surviving Hijab made you realise about life?
Honestly, when I read all these titles I have to pinch myself because I didn’t know when I was starting out and my mission and journey then became serious. I was the first, and you’re always making history when your number one.
You have to live up to the image you create, as hard as it is, and you have to be your own motivation.
What do you hope women everywhere will take from your journey?
I hope that every woman who gets inspired by me uses that energy to not let anyone stop her from achieving her dreams, goals, anything you’ve thought about that’s really crazy and people have thought that ‘she’s crazy’, whatever. Just go after it with all your heart and soul. There will be loads of roadblocks, but if I can do it, you can.
Image: @manalrostom via Instagram