Manal Rostom is an activist and an athlete with a string of world firsts to her name, including being the first Egyptian to have completed five out of the six world marathon majors. She”s also scaled some of the highest peaks in the world from Mont Blanc to Mount Kilimanjaro.
But those feats aren’t the only things she’s had to endure. The Dubai-based athlete also had to deal with discrimination because of her decision to wear the hijab – and that led her to start a community called ‘Surviving Hijab’ – which now counts almost a million people amongst its members.
Euronews spoke to Manal Rostom for this week’s Interview.
WEARING A HIJAB
“It’s a compulsory form of worship. So by compulsory what I mean is that as soon as every girl reaches puberty, she needs to start embracing the hijab. Yet we also say let there be no compulsion in religion, so it should not be forced upon these little girls,” Manal Rostom explained to Euronews.
“Unlike popular belief, you know, whether it’s due to cultural or social reasons, sometimes parents and some, you know, areas in the world, countries, they force the hijab on women. So immediately that idea has become linked to the idea of hijabi women being oppressed because the hijab was forced upon them. Hijab was never forced upon me personally. It has not been forced upon a lot of women that I know.
“I’m Egyptian, born and raised in Kuwait. I grew up in a British school. So we are who you call third culture kids, because you’re always, you know, with this identity crisis all the time, you know, are you Egyptian? Are you part Western? Are you Kuwaiti? Where do you belong?
“I grew up with this idea and the stereotypes that were placed on Muslim women. You know, if she’s covered or if she wears the hijab, then she’s probably unapproachable, uneducated, boring or uncool. And I actually grew up hating it
“I decided to wear the hijab on April 7th, 2001. It shocked everybody. When I decided I just went to my dad and I said, I’ve decided that I was going to embrace that,” she explained.
“At the age of 21. I had no one that looked like me that was doing crazy stuff that I can associate with.
“And I reached a breaking point in 2014. When I wanted to remove my hijab,” she said.
“And, you know, due to these multiple incidents of oh, no, no burkinis in this pool or hijab is not allowed. If you’re going to watch football with a group of friends. I felt like I didn’t want to do it anymore.
“I felt like society was finally going to dictate my identity because society is banning me here and banning me there and banning other women. So I realised that, you know, I didn’t want to go with the flow. I had this random idea to set up a community, a platform on Facebook, a group that I called: Surviving Hijab,” she added.
“I added 80 girls by hand. I made it a closed group and I spoke my heart,” Manal said about starting the community account.
“You don’t have to be Muslim to be on it. You don’t have to be a covered hijabi woman to be on it. You just have to want to support any woman to embrace her faith, whatever way she is. Even if you’re on there just to educate yourself.
“Little girls contact me, you know, via Surviving Hijab and ask me the scariest question ever. So I’m 19 years old or 17 years old. I’m a basketball champion. I was elevated, you know, to the finals. But they won’t let me play because I’m in a hijab. So do I remove my hijab or do I give up the sport?
“All I would say is that you need to continue to fight for your right to play with your hijab. So I would not tell her to quit. I would not tell her to take it off because either solutions are not the solution. I’m just trying to change the world’s perception about who a hijabi woman is,” she added.
“So I drafted an email to the head coaches of the Nike trainers in the Middle East. His name is Tom Woolfe. And, you know, I attached a link to our group. And I’m like: there is no Muslim representation, you know, by such a giant brand. Isn’t it about time that we start to, you know, cater for us as women?
“The next morning, I received a response from Coach Tom and he said ‘great idea. When can we meet’. And look, for me, that was just like huge, like gates opening of hope,” Manal told Euronews.
“Within the next couple of weeks, you know, I became the first ever a hijab-wearing athlete to appear in a Nike Middle East campaign.
“And they had manufactured a hijab that was breathable, that was dry fit. And I was to become the face of it, you know, in the world, not just in the Middle East,” she said.
DEALING WITH CRITICS
Manal also spoke to Euronews about dealing with critics.
“I think there needs to be a lot more education. Hijab is not the oppression. Society is, you know, society’s putting oppression on us by banning us. They are not doing their homework to educate themselves about what it stands for, why we wear, how we wear it. Why we should be allowed to wear it,” she added.