When Mubarakah Ibrahim took her homegrown boundary-breaking fitness movement to the Saudi kingdom, she suddenly wondered if she would end up in jail.
“I was about to teach a Zumba dance class,” Ibrahim (pictured), aka New Haven’s “Muslim Trainer,” said this week upon returning from an invitation trip to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST). Then university officials told her that dancing is illegal in the country.
“I was like, ‘Are you trying to get me arrested?’”
Luckily, Ibrahim had an officially sanctioned two-day gig at KAUST. And KAUST represents a social experiment, the brainchild of a king who, Ibrahim said, seeks progressive change.
In New Haven, meanwhile, Ibrahim has earned national attention for melding traditional Muslim practice with fitness programs for women of all backgrounds.
King Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, as his full name reads, has lifted many of the restrictions normally applicable to the larger Saudi society on the campus of his new high-tech university. While dancing and music are illegal off campus, they’re welcome at KAUST. And it’s the first co-educational campus in Saudi Arabia’s history.
Ibrahim was invited by KAUST to run a two-day women’s fitness summit, workshops focusing on physical fitness, emotional health and nutrition.
Change comes slowly: She didn’t reach as many Muslim women as she’d hoped. But she returned invigorated by the experience.
“It was great,” she said. “Because I’m working on connecting physical and spiritual fitness in Islam.”
The best part of the trip? She and her husband were able to make the pilgrimage to Mecca during their visit.
Get Muslim Women Moving
Ibrahim, a mother of four in her mid-30s, runs Balance Fitness on Davenport Avenue in the Hill. She works with women of all races and religions, though her “primary goal is to get Muslim women moving.”
Health concerns are widespread in the Muslim community, she said. She suggested that one reason for greater obesity is the fact that most Muslim women cover their bodies in accordance to religious standards.
“So there’s really no outside pressure to slim down,” she said. “There’s no need to fit into that little black dress. And it hasn’t really been part of the conversation in Islam.”
She’s working to change those attitudes within Sunni Islam (the largest sect of Orthodox Muslims, to which she belongs), particularly in the stereotypes and assumptions surrounding Muslim women and health and fitness.
“I’m talking about it, trying to raise awareness of it, and it’s really catching on.”
So how did Ibrahim end up in Jeddah?
“Before I started doing these summits, I used to rent the LEAP Center and give fun-fitness days for women,” she said. “And after about three or four of them we were just filled to capacity.”
The recreational director at KAUST spotted an article about Ibrahim in The New York Times, and invited her to campus.
“So something that started with 50 women in the LEAP building in New Haven has turned into this international summit,” she said.
A Physical Utopia
Ibrahim traveled with her sister, Yasmin, and husband, Shafiq Abdussabur, all expenses paid. And she was astounded.
“They built the campus two years ago,” said Ibrahim. “And it’s literally a physical utopia.”
Created from sand dug from the Red Sea, KAUST is a marvel of modern technology and design. Its residents are promised the most advanced physical security and every possible amenity: from elementary schools to grocery stores.
“There’s a 20-lane bowling alley in the gym!” she said. “And everything from upscale restaurants to Burger King and Quiznos.”
She’d hoped to attract 40 women to the summit. Thirty signed up. “Only three or so Saudi women came,” she said. The rest were expatriates, from the United Kingdom or elsewhere.
“I was hoping to have an opportunity to speak to more Arab women,” she said. The same health concerns facing American women, if not more, apply to Saudi women, she said—high rates of obesity and diabetes. “They love American things,” she said. “And because they have the money, they just say, ‘we can do it bigger and better.’”
So they consume fast food. Burger King delivers. Arab parents will send their kids to school with a candy bar and soda for breakfast, she said.
“They have all this access to fast food and no nutrition.”
She cited the cost of the summit ($133 for two days) and the relatively new concept of women’s physical fitness in Islam as possible disincentives for more local women to participate. But Ibrahim remains undeterred. She’s taking her summit this year to Chicago, Atlanta, New Jersey, Bermuda and Toronto. She hopes to return to Jeddah—the University suggested a possible yearly event—and predicts it will gain momentum.
“It’s just so important to keep trying to reach these women,” she said. “As Muslim women we don’t always attach being spiritually healthy to being physically healthy.”
Islam, like other religions, holds that our bodies are loans from God. “And when a Muslim borrows something,” Ibrahim noted, “they’re expected to return it in the same state, or better.
“So I ask women, ‘How are you planning to return this loan?’”