“I want to encourage more girls” Wales’s first hijab-wearing powerlifter

Tahirah Ali is becoming a sports role model among Muslim women. What barriers did she encounter on her powerlifting journey?

Tahirah Ail, a Bengali woman living in Swansea is challenging people’s perceptions. Photo credit: Francesca Jones

After taking a deep breath, Tahirah wraps her fingers around the bar to ensure the positioning is correct. Attached to each end of the 20kg bar is a 60kg weight.

Gazes purposefully ahead, she seems to have zoned out from outside world, while others in the gym are curious whether this woman in a hijab is really able to lift twice her bodyweight in a classic ‘deadlifting’.

Barbell leaving the ground, she made it. Tahirah Ali, 23, has gradually been used to the stares on her path to becoming the first professional powerlifting Muslim woman in Wales.

“I did get a lot of comments at first even recently: ‘I didn’t think you could be so strong.’ These conversations around me are based either because I’m a female so that I can’t be strong, or the fact that I wear the headscarf, or both, ” said Tahirah.

Tahirah was very shy when she first walked into the gym. Photo credit: Chwarae Teg

Weight sections are mainly dominated by male, and few women show up in a gym doing heavy powerlifting training, let alone a girl wearing a hijab.

“When I turn up in gym and prepare for the national competition, people do come up to me: ‘I’m really happy that you are here, because it shows other women that they can do anything as possible’,” said Tahirah.

Tahirah plans to relaunch her Instagram account and grow it into a fitness hub.

Tahirah stumbled into a gym to get fit at her 17. Starting with boxing exercises specifically for girls, she discovered that she loved working out, eager to explore more.

“I started lifting just dumbbells and small weights to see what I could do. After familiarising myself, I was trying different things every week to see what I was good at, ” said Tahirah. 

Each lifter is required to put through a sequence of prescribed lifts at a certain weight— squat that bar is the back of shoulders, bench off the chest and deadlift from the floor. 

Within a year, Tahirah was able to accomplish her deadlift 100kg and got so committed that considered competing. But the etiquette and customary attire stopped Tahirah to move on, in which she had to wear a swimming costume-like outfit, with legs and arms naked. 

Faith is vital for Tahirah so she chooses to lift weights while wearing a hijab. Photo credit: Francesca Jones

“My headscarf is a part of me and it spans in all aspects of my life, no matter in school or gym. Without a hijab, the gym would leave a really big part of me outside myself,” said Tahirah.

With the help of her friend and British Powerlifting, she was confirmed to be allowed to dress in a manner that corresponds with her beliefs at last.

She took part in the Welsh Powerlifting Association’s Summer Slam and came third. Now Tahirah is preparing to join in the organisation’s next contest this year.

“It showed me that even though I am an anomaly in the weight lifting scene, it really had no physical impact other than the fact that I am a little bit more covered.”said Tahirah.

Exclusive sessions and organizations are helpful to get girls started. Photo credit: Muslimah Sports Association

Not every Muslim girl has the opportunities as Tahirah, to start exercising comfortably and explore their interests and potentials.

“Muslim women are statistically the least active in sports and have more barriers than the average female. There are a lot of women that do want to take part, but they don’t because of the lack of provisions, ” said Reha Ullah, the trustee of  Muslimah Sports Association.

Without facilities and sections for females, limited Musilm choices of modest clothing, the lack of training and courses for freshers, are invisible blocks for them to make an attempt.

 “Representation cannot be underestimated. The success of Tahirah is absolutely inspirational and gives us hope for the future, ” said Raha. 

Lack of secure environments and adequate provisions, Muslim women are statistically the least active in sports.

Established in 2014, Muslimah Sports Association are creating safe and secure areas for females, especially Muslim females to practise sports, where they don’t  compromise on the grounds of religion and take account of cultural differences.

“Governments and Local administrative bodies need to take into consideration the communities they serve when creating leisure centres and facilities, which must be in tune with privacy requirements for Muslims,” Reha said.

In Swansea, some gyms have women only sections and there are activities in sports halls and in the youth clubs, which have sessions designed for girls. That’s actually how Tahirah started her journey.

“Muslim girls are an untapped part of society with so much to add and contribute. Every community makes up society, and every successful society includes those needing a helping hand,” said Reha.

Some communities starts to help more young girls begin thier sport journey.

Gaining confidence and inner peace from weightlifting, Tahirah is devoted to getting more Muslim girls taking up sports and creating a space where they feel comfortable to participate in exercise.

She has been a volunteer in the community since she was 14. Tahirah became involved with Young, Migrant and Welsh (YMW), where she contributed to change the perceptions of young females in sports, specifically representation and weightlifting.

“Gyms are a shared environment, even for weight sections that are mainly dominated by male. It just needs time to get more people used to seeing Muslim girls work out as everyone else, just choose to dress differently,” said Tahirah.

Now she is on the judging panel for the Diana Awards, by communicating and working with individuals and comminities with different backgrounds, she hopes to get more amazing women be recognized.

“If you see something that needs improving or you personally have experienced dissatisfaction at any point and see others go through the same thing, find a way to make changes,” said Tahirah. “Women understand other women so joining forces will make our journey more enjoyable.”