The modest motivator: Nike’s first hijab ambassador on breaking barriers for women in fitness

Katie Strick
Neil Gaivin

Shazia Hossen remembers the first time she wore a hijab to the gym — mostly because no one noticed. “I was constantly adjusting my scarf and wondering if anyone was looking at me weirdly,” says the Tottenham-based personal trainer and Nike ambassador, who started wearing the Islamic headscarf during Ramadan in 2015.

“The truth was no one cared. In person, people mind their own business. They may do a double-take at first, or glance at me out of curiosity, but the bottom line is that it doesn’t matter.”

What did matter was the effect Hossen’s new image had across the world. Her Instagram following skyrocketed almost overnight and less than two years later, in summer 2017, she was approached by Nike about being the first to wear the Nike Pro Hijab in the UK. “I squealed when I found out,” laughs Hossen, 23, who modelled the trailblazing headscarf at Nike’s first runway show in Paris earlier this year. As a “covered” woman in the industry, it was the first time she felt “seen”.

Today she considers herself one of the lucky ones. Her parents were always supportive of her decision to train as a PT, but she realises that’s not the case for all Muslims growing up. “There’s a stigma around young Muslim girls in fitness, especially as a career choice,” says Hossen, telling me how her followers regularly ask how she marries her faith with going to the gym. “Until relatively recently, I never saw examples of ‘successful’ BAME Muslim women in media, let alone in sport.”

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So-called “gym-timidation” is a key barrier — particularly in the weights section, which can be “male-dominated” and “aggressive”, says Hossen, who began training at 15, partly to show her brother she could do press-ups. “For hijabi women it can be uncomfortable training in front of men — there aren’t many safe spaces.”

Her mission is to change that. This month she launched a ladies-only functional training class, Sistarr Circuit, at newly opened Brixton Street Gym, designed specifically to help Muslim and non-Muslim women to “thrive”. Founder and friend Terroll Lewis helps her set up beforehand, then “we lock-off the space”. Women of all ages, religions, races and sizes can come along for 45 minutes and train undisturbed with battle ropes, tyres and kettlebells.

It’s all part of Hossen’s wider aim of breaking down barriers for women in sport. Her women-only lifting and self-defence workshops aim to boost female empowerment, and over the summer she teamed up with Wimbledon-based Muslim women’s running collective Asra Club to host a special Ramadan class.

She wants the impact to go beyond the capital. In July, Hossen ran fitness sessions for orphans in Gambia with children’s charity Spot Project and next month, she’ll be among guests at Red Bull’s global Amaphiko Academy in Bradford, working with young entrepreneurs to drive social change in their corner of the world.

Hossen is a fitting mentor. At 19, she founded her own clothing brand, SH (Strong Habibti) Athletics, to address a gap in the market for “modest activewear” to pair with a hijab. “I still remember my first sale,” she says, recalling how a customer in the US made a purchase just minutes after the site went live. Last year she modelled the collection on the catwalk at London Modest Fashion Week and since then, her longline training tops, Strong Is Beautiful tees and hoodie dresses have been shipped across the world.

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The brand is currently in a “research phase” ahead of next year’s relaunch, but Hossen wants the new collection to showcase “more colours, more shapes, more sizes” — she knows how central clothing can be to confidence when working out. Back when she started wearing the hijab, “I didn’t even know how to dress myself in general — let alone in the gym,” she says, seriously.

Part of the problem was a lack of role models. The few she could find — US Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad and German boxing champ Zeina Nassar — were through Instagram. Hossen met both at Nike’s show in Paris this March. “It’s the first time I’ve ever been star-struck,” she revealed under a photo of herself with the pair.

Hossen is keen to continue using Instagram as a tool for good — crucially, to inspire other young women to feel a “right to train”. The most common fear among clients is being stared at or intimidated into coming off a machine, so Hossen’s first step in PT sessions is teaching confidence — asserting their right on a piece of equipment “unapologetically”. She starts clients in a traditional “bodybuilding gym” such as Legends in Haringey for this reason. “The view is often that these places are scary, but my work is to flip this around,” smiles Hossen, saying she regrets “wasting” that first ever gym session in a hijab by worrying. “People don’t care as much as you think they will.”

Shazia Hossen hosts workshops at the Red Bull Amaphiko Academy, Bradford — the first Academy to take place in the UK — in October.

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