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Egyptian hijabi athlete Manal Rostom strives to "Just Do It"
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Egyptian hijabi athlete Manal Rostom strives to "Just Do It"

Egyptian hijabi athlete Manal Rostom strives to
Health & Fitness

On her official Instagram page, the first word Manal Rostom lists in her profile description is “Allah”. And it’s not difficult to see why; it’s immediately apparent that the Egyptian athlete’s faith and commitment to her hijab have been constant throughout a very successful career. 

What is hard to believe is that Manal’s journey began in her small bedroom in the city of Alexandria, with posters of Nike’s female brand ambassadors pasted on her wall, featuring motivational messages like “Just Do It” or “There’s No Finish Line”. 

She admits that being a teenager with a love of running in Egypt was hard.

“To see a girl running in the street back in the 1990s in Egypt was extremely odd [for others],” she recalled. “I remember I would turn the music up on my Walkman—no iPods back then!—to drown out all the nasty comments, and run anyway.”

SMASHING STEREOTYPES

Manal Rostom

The negative comments didn’t deter her. Manal soon became a role model for sportswomen around the world wanting to compete in hijab, showing that it was possible to achieve results while staying covered.

“I have run around twenty-six 10K races, eight half marathons, three full marathons [and] one ultra-marathon, and recently became the first Egyptian woman to complete [in China’s] Great Wall Marathon last May, all in hijab,” she said. “I have also climbed four mountains in the past five years, and I’m planning on checking the Everest Base Camp off the list this September, Inshallah.”

It’s this commitment to staying positive despite the challenges women in hijab can face during their career that has kept her going.

“I never thought of the hijab as being my main obstacle, and the day I decided to wear the veil I promised myself that I was not going to let anything hold me back. Instead, [I was going to] smash stereotypes regarding hijab, and that’s exactly what I did.”

KEEP ON MOVING

Manal Rostom

A decade—and numerous running events—later, after moving to Dubai in 2011, Manal was able to take her sports career to the next level. It was in the emirate that she trained to become a certified Les Mills RPM instructor while still continuing to wear her hijab.

Demonstrating that hard work pays off, by some strange twist of fate, Nike Middle East took notice: in 2015, Manal was invited to become one the brand’s first hijabi female ambassador and Nike running coach. In this role, Manal has even been flown to Beaverton, Oregon, to attend the Nike+ Training Club Summit at Nike’s HQ, making her the only veiled trainer from the Middle East to do so.

“I didn't think it was going to happen, because I couldn't believe I was actually going to step foot in the ‘holy land’ of sports!” she says. “This is where athletes are made, and I couldn't believe I was going to meet all the celebrity NTC Master Trainers—the glamorous ones you follow on Instagram—one day.”

And Manal continues to pinch herself to this day, as she joins the ranks of the brand ambassadors who inspired her. “I stand in front of my photo [in the window display of a Nike store], looking at that hijabi girl running, representing Nike Middle East, and I can't believe it’s me. For me to be that woman, inspiring young, Arab women in hijab, is beyond a dream come true.”

When she’s not training or competing, Manal is a full-time pharmacist. “As hectic as it might sometimes get,” she added, “balancing a 9-to-5 job and a passion for fitness is a blessing. You are working hard, doing the things you love, staying fit, and at the end of the day representing a brand. You need to live up to that. I try my best to inspire myself and others to hopefully change our lives together to healthier, more active ones.”

A MESSAGE TO HIJABIS

Understanding that the hijab can pose a challenge for many, Manal founded a Facebook group called “Surviving Hijab”, a support group for women struggling with staying veiled.

Her advice to every girl who wants to wear the hijab but is struggling with the decision? “Just do it. It will be hard, but it’s totally worth it. There’s a reason why it’s so tough: it's a test. Don’t wait for the ‘right’ moment, because it won’t come. This is how it is with the hijab. You will never be ‘ready’ for it, and that’s perfectly fine.”

(This article is written by May Rostom. Images courtesy: Juliet Dunne @ Retrospect Photography for sandandsmoke.com and Naim Chidiac @ Nike.)