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‘It makes me feel like possibilities are endless’: Meet the Muslim women using parkour to feel free

From introducing a “burqa ban” to prohibiting employees from wearing a headscarf, Muslim women are often subject to unsolicited public opinion, where their bodies are institutionally scrutinized and policed — many times without their consent.In the anthology “It’s Not About The Burqa,” editor Mariam Khan highlights the importance of centering Muslim women in this discussion, writing that they are “more than burqas, more than hijabs, and more than society has allowed us to be until now.””We are not asking for permission any more. We are taking up space.”

As Muslim women find themselves marginalized by society, Khan speaks to the way that they must forge their own narratives and create visibility in spaces that weren’t built for them.

hat’s exactly what parkour athlete Sara Mudallal is doing.By practicing the sport, Mudallal hopes she can encourage more women to enter what she describes as a “male dominated” field.”It’s kind of intimidating for women to sometimes come in and hang out and things like that. But now, recently, more women have been showing up, so it’s been more comfortable for women to come in and practice,” 26-year-old Mudallal tells CNN Sport.”It starts with one and you have to stand up for that, and then you bring more people in.”In most of the parkour jams she attends — where parkour practitioners congregate and train together — she says she’s often the only hijabi athlete.”I still am like the only person who wears the hijab, of course […] we still have a long way to go with that for women to feel confident in themselves,” she says.

Standing out from the crowd

But Mudallal is used to standing out.She grew up in Los Angeles, where she was athlete of the year in high school — and garnered the same title in middle school three years in a row.”I’m very well-rounded. Like I can play soccer, I can play basketball, I can play football. I can play tennis. Except golf — I don’t know how to play golf,” she muses.When she was 12, her mother enrolled her in karate classes, where she went on to earn a first and second degree black belt.At the beginning of 2015, Mudallal decided to start wearing a headscarf. That same year, a friend introduced her to parkour.

Having gained significant lower body strength and core balance from karate, she says she was built for the sport.”My legs were already pretty strong,” Mudallal says. “In terms of taking a bad landing … I was safe.””I’ve always loved climbing and jumping on things and didn’t really know that was a sport, didn’t really know it was a technique.”As a beginner, Mudallal says she was welcomed into the parkour and freerunning community with open arms.”I do not feel that people did not want me in the group,” she says. “I didn’t give them that chance to make me feel that way. It’s about personality, it’s about how strong you are. If you are shy doing anything because of what you’re wearing, you have to check yourself with that, then why are you wearing it, you know?

“I didn’t really care, if I was wearing or not wearing [a headscarf], my interests are still the same. And I really wanted to do parkour, so I went in regardless of what I look like on the outside.”

‘It’s even harder for the girls’

While sport has always given Mudallal the space to express herself, Iranian parkour coach and former national gymnast Fatemeh Akrami has memories of feeling hampered as a young athlete.Growing up as a shy child, Akrami’s mother signed her up for local gymnastics classes when she was six, in the hopes of bringing her out of her shell.”I was a super shy girl, I didn’t even say hi to strangers. I was hiding behind my mother’s back because I was so shy,” the 27-year-old Tehran native tells CNN Sport.Despite her initial apprehension, Akrami quickly excelled. She says she won her first medal at a national competition when she was 12 and joined the national team a year later. Akrami went on to clinch two gold medals and one silver at the Islamic Solidarity Games in Iran in 2007.

But while Akrami was enjoying success in the spotlight, she was struggling behind the scenes.She says that due to international gymnastics dress code rules at the time, she wasn’t able to compete on a global stage in accordance with Iran’s mandatory hijab law, which was enacted by the Islamic Republic in 1983.Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the country hasn’t dispatched a single female athlete to participate in the Olympics in swimming, wrestling or gymnastics — including at this year’s Tokyo Games.

“It’s even harder for the girls in Iran,” Akrami says. “You train like an Olympian, but you never get there, so it’s hard to keep yourself motivated.””I think like in ten years I didn’t attend a funeral, a wedding, a birthday party, none of them,” she adds.Dealing with the pressure of competing in any high intensity sport is challenging, but Akrami says that juggling the demands of training while attending school was doubly exhausting.”Gymnastics is a very hard sport. You have to put a lot of effort because you have to be mentally and physically prepared to be in a competitive level,” she says. “We were experiencing a lot of pressure.””In the weekdays, I used to go to school from 7:00 a.m. until 1p.m. And then from the school, my mother used to pick me up and then [go] straight to the gym until 10:00 p.m,” she adds. “So in the Friday, which was the weekend […] there was no rest. So we had to train from 9:00 in the morning until 9:00 in the evening.

“Training hard gives you mental pressure because you get tired, you have school, you have homework, you have training. Like sometimes, the training don’t go well, you don’t get the skill right. It takes too long, sometimes you get injured.”I don’t remember sleeping at night without having pain.”

A philosophy of freedom

After Akrami left her career as a professional gymnast at the age of 18, she was looking for a fresh start.She had just begun university, when one of her peers encouraged her to try out parkour.”It was like, ‘OK, what’s next?,'” Akrami says. “I always needed something more because gymnastics is a very exciting sport and […] every day you need the adrenaline rush.

“He stopped in a park and told me, ‘Do you want to try some of the parkour skills?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s give it a try. I think in the first thirty minutes, I got five or six […] skills of parkour, and I myself was super, super surprised.”While Akrami used to feel restricted by gymnastics, she says parkour gives her “self-confidence.””In gymnastics, everything is so disciplined, you have to do everything just as they say. No more, no less. But in parkour, you can do any move with your body,” she says. “The philosophy of parkour is all about the freedom.””You can do parkour wherever you want, whenever you want and with any dress you want. Like there’s no dress code. I can compete in a competition with my Islamic dress and that’s fine.”And you can do all the skills with your own body, with your own style, so it gives you a lot of choices. That’s the feeling of freedom that parkour gives.”Mudallal adds, “What’s cool about parkour is that every single person moves differently.”

Source: CNN