The first time Julia Shearson rode
her bike after converting to Islam seven years ago, her headscarf became stuck
in the wheel.

          She lost her balance, and by the time she got
going again she was met with stares as she whizzed along, arms and legs draped
in loose clothing, her scarf billowing in the breeze.

          “You have to overcome the looks,”
said Shearson, 43, the executive director of the Cleveland, Ohio, chapter of
the Council on American-Islam Relations. “It’s already hard enough to
exercise, and if you look different … it’s even harder.”

          As a Muslim woman in the United States,
Shearson has found it difficult to stay fit while adhering to her religious
principles about modesty. Islam does not restrict women from exercising — in
fact all Muslims are urged to take care of their bodies through healthy eating
and exercise — but women face a special set of challenges in a culture of
two-sex gyms and skimpy workout wear.

          Many pious Muslim women in the United States,
like Shearson, wear hijab in public, loose garments that cover their hair and
body, which can hinder movement and add to discomfort during exercise. Women
may show their hair, arms and legs up to the knees in front of other women.

          Muslim women are often limited in their
choice of activity, as well. Some believe that certain yoga chants, for
example, are forbidden, as well as certain poses like sun salutations (Muslims
are supposed to worship only Allah). For the sake of modesty, working out
around men is discouraged.

          That modesty can be a benefit and a liability.
On the one hand, Muslim women are spared some of the body-image issues that
other women face; on the other, that freedom can be a detriment to their
physical well-being.

          “We don’t have the external motivation
that non-Muslim women have,” said Mubarakha Ibrahim, 33, a certified
personal trainer and owner of Balance fitness in New Haven, Connecticut, a personal
training studio catering to women. “There is no little black dress to fit
into, no bathing suit. When you pass through a mirror or glass, you’re not
looking to see ‘Is my tummy tucked in? Do I look good in these jeans?’ You’re
looking to see if you’re covered.”

          After gaining 23 kilograms while pregnant
with her first child, Ibrahim studied exercise and nutrition, and became certified
through the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America. In 2006 she opened her
studio, which offers a safe environment for women to exercise (she says she has
more orthodox Jewish clients, who also adhere to rules of modesty).

          Ibrahim said she would like to see exercise
become as natural a part of a Muslim woman’s life as praying.

          In July, about 120 women from around the
country attended Ibrahim’s third annual Fit Muslimah Health and Fitness Summit
in New Haven. She offered yoga, kickboxing, water aerobics and core
conditioning classes alongside workshops on weight loss, nutrition, cancer
prevention and diabetes at the two-day, women-only event. She plans to hold
another one in Atlanta, Georgia, in February.

          “An important part of your spirituality
is your health,” said Tayyibah Taylor, publisher of Azizah, a magazine for
Muslim women, and co-sponsor of the summit meeting. “You can’t really
consider yourself in good health if all parts of your being are not healthy —
your body, your mind and your soul. It’s a complete package.”

          “The Muslim prayer is the most physical
prayer — the sitting, bowing, bending,” said Daisy Khan, executive
director of the American Society for Muslim Advancement. “The physicality
of our prayer forces us to create flexibility in our body.”

          But how to mix one’s physical and spiritual
needs with practicality? Some Muslim-Americans go to women-only gyms like
Curves, which has thousands of branches across the country. And some gyms offer
gender-segregated areas, hours or days.

          Other women, like Umm Sahir Ameer, a
27-year-old student in Shaker Heights, Ohio, take matters into their own hands.
Last year, Ameer started the Muslimah Strive Running-Walking Group so she and
12 of her friends could exercise together.

          “I wanted to establish this group as a
way to further unite Muslim women in my community while gaining physical endurance,”
she said.

          Those who do work out in two-sex gyms have
learned to make accommodations in their clothing. Loretta Riggs, 40, an
educational coach in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, started exercising two years ago
after divorcing her husband. She wears a scarf made of spandex, long-sleeved
Under Armour shirts and Adidas or Puma pants.

          “Some women don’t think you should be
working out in a co-ed gym,” she said, “but I’m around men all the
time in my workplace, when I take my kids to the park, when I walk

          She added: “Why would I deprive myself
of being healthy because I am a Muslim and I choose to cover? It’s very
important to take care of myself.”

          Mariam Abdelgawad, 21, a math teacher in San
Jose, California, said that in high school she played hockey, soccer and ran
track and field, all while wearing hijab.

          But today she works out at home, since there
are no female-only gyms in her neighbourhood. Her parents, with whom she lives,
have a treadmill, elliptical machine and Pilates equipment, as well as weights.
She exercises about three times a week, but said she missed the camaraderie of
the gym.

          Though working out at home is convenient, she
said, it is also very easy to procrastinate and not do it. “I don’t have
all the options that a gym would have,” she said.

          Swimming also poses problems. Although some
Muslim women have been known to hop in the water in their street clothes, this
can be cumbersome for a workout. The burqini — a one-piece outfit that
resembles a scuba wet suit — has received a lot of attention in recent months
(most notably in France, where a young woman was banned from wearing one at a
pool), but it tends to be too form-fitting for some women.

          “I tried it once, and it sticks to your
body,” said Marwa Abdelhaleem, a 26-year-old teacher in Toronto who
started a female-only swimming group to avoid the burqini question. “It’s
really fitted. I wouldn’t wear it in public.”

          Ibrahim, however, is more focused on the

          “One of the ideas I promote is that when
you are married and you take off your clothing, your husband should not be
like, ‘You should put this back on,’ ” Ibrahim said. “Even if you
wear a burqa, you should be bikini-ready. You should feel comfortable and sexy
in your own skin.”