City’s “Muslim Trainer” Brings Zumba To Mecca

Uma Ramiah PhotoWhen 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.

Courtesy PhotoIbrahim 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.”

Her popularity rose from there: She opened her own fitness studio, wrote books, even appeared on Oprah.

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.”

Only Three

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?’”



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posted by: anon on February 14, 2011  1:33pm

This article is a little rosy about one of the most repressive societies on the planet, don’t you think? How can you talk about these pampered elite minority of residents living in “paradise”, without mentioning the extreme gender discrimination, the apartheid society, and the majority of oppressed, often-tortured residents who are “invisible”? (and, should journalists attempt to write about any of that…. they are killed too)

You write: “Its residents are promised the most advanced physical security and every possible amenity: from elementary schools to grocery stores.”

I really don’t think there’s “advanced physical security” for everyone there, particularly women. 

According to the UN, “in Saudi Arabia female non-citizen domestic workers suffer from discrimination by being excluded from the protections afforded to other workers by the labour code, overworked and rarely given time off, often being locked in the homes of their employers, and being vulnerable to assault.”

“Each year, thousands of female workers seek protection at foreign embassies from abuse and rape. International human rights groups and others have documented the rampant abuse, lack of fair trial standards, denial of freedom of movement, forced labour approaching conditions of slavery and beating of foreign workers.”

Also, many people have been executed, lashed, tortured and deported simply for practicing religions other than Orthodox Islam.

posted by: embee on February 14, 2011  1:53pm

@ anon - actually the article was about Mubarakah and her journey to help women of all nationalities become more physically fit. 

As a former boot camper, I know first hand that this is Mubarakah’s goal…she pushes you harder than you thought you could push yourself.

Congrats Mubarakah!

posted by: anon on February 14, 2011  3:45pm

Embee - there’s no question about that. It’s great to see the word getting out about Mubarakah’s achievements.

I just think it is worth clarifying a few things when a complex that is actually built and staffed by slaves is called a “paradise for residents.” This is a community newspaper, not an advertisement for the King of Saudi Arabia.

posted by: ignoranceisbliss on February 14, 2011  3:55pm

I’m with Anon. A politically correct feel good story for which Anon has provided some context. I’m sick of the implication that except for a few harmless cultural differences these folks are just like you am me.  Saudi Arabia is a brutal xenophobic society that tolerates absolutely no dissension or diversity and feels it necessary to isolate any thinking rooted after the 13th century in an isolated campus for fear of offending the bulk of the population.

posted by: M on February 14, 2011  4:45pm

There are good and bad things that happen everywhere in the world including America. I believe you have to be a brave person to do the research for yourself to see what is actually happening in the world and stop relying on the hearsay. The last I heard the American countries have a high rate of abuse, rape and discrimination against women also, but does that make the whole of America a bad place. I don’t think so, same goes for every other country in the world. From what I have seen of this article it does not seem as the other posting said “a little rosy. I think it was her experience and her opinions are her own and no one can change that. I appreciate hearing a true experience rather than information that is given just to turn people away or from a culture, person place or thing. Stop listening to what you may have read somewhere or heard from someone and get off your rear like she did and experience it and see for yourself. If all this quote on quote torture/discrimination exist and if it does and I’m sure it does somewhere on earth then do something about it but make sure you start in your own country and state first then work your way towards helping women all over the world. Action speaks louder than words I applaud you Mrs. Ibrahim for making that first step towards bringing women together. Keep doing what you are doing and shining at it don’t let anyone stop progress.

posted by: MELITA QUICK on February 14, 2011  4:49pm


posted by: Ameenah Muhammad on February 14, 2011  5:50pm

MashAllah, this is a good and encouraging idea
I really like the saying
How will you return your loan.
I have put this on my wall to be remindful of my health as well as my religion,Alhamduillah

posted by: ignoranceisbliss on February 14, 2011  6:27pm


I’m also sick of the equation of rape and abuse in Western countries,which is rejected by those countries as aberrant, with the oppression of women in strict Muslim societies, which in those societies is accepted as a norm. And by the way,I’m not aware that women locked behind veils are any safer than “exposed” Western women; just look at the issues of honor killings and genital mutilation.

And lest you think I’m bigoted against Muslims, I have no tolerance for conservative evangelicals, Mormons or orthodox Jews who keep their women one step behind in head coverings and skirts to the ground.

posted by: THREEFIFTHS on February 14, 2011  6:29pm

posted by: anon on February 14, 2011 12:33pm

Also, many people have been executed, lashed, tortured and deported simply for practicing religions other than Orthodox Islam

How about the attacked by evangelical
Christians on Haitian Vodou worshippers.

Hating the Root: Attacks on Vodou in Haiti
Tue, 01/18/2011 - by Akinyele Umoja

posted by: A wee bit shallow on February 14, 2011  6:32pm

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.”

—-so instead of improving physical fitness and health for lower incidence of obesity, diabetes, heart disease etc…Let’s all lose weight to conform to Western pressures of fitting into a little black dress!

posted by: Cedarhillresident on February 14, 2011  11:46pm

I love this women and her goals.
Remember only a few may have came, but it is about the seed that you planted. The ones that signed up are still talking about it to other women. The seeds that you planted will grow!! Great job!

posted by: Rebekah on February 15, 2011  10:26am

Go Ibrahima! May Allah reward you!

To all the MUSLIM HATERS: You say you want to help Arab women, but yet you support killing them up with weapons ....

We are responsible for voting for the politicians that keep Arab countries and other countries all over the world under dictators. These dictators ensure that Islam cannot be practiced and that is why you hear about abuse towards women and injustice.Of course, you would know this if you had taken a basic class on religion and politics.

Don’t mind the ignorant people on this blog, Ibrahima, you keep on doing what you do best!!! We are behind you!

posted by: Hajar Machado on February 15, 2011  12:39pm

Salaam Alaykum
Mashallah! I am truly impressed by your initiative and would like to support/partner when you come to Toronto.  I am a revert, founder and Director of a non-profit organization for women , girls and their families. We provide social services and also promote physical activities (special focus on Muslim women’s needs).  I also know what it is starting something new and love to support our community. I am sure the many members on our list and networks will support yo too. see more about us on this link.

posted by: Practical on February 17, 2011  11:31am

I always felt that the one benefit of Islamic body covering is that adherents don’t need to exercise or watch what they eat. *Sigh* Thanks for ruining that Mubarakah.

posted by: M78 on February 21, 2011  3:58pm

See everyone, Saudi women are just like women here in the United States.

Is that the point to this article?  Because they’re not.  They’re second class citizens and that’s all because of the general population’s beliefs (*cough* religion *cough*).  They’re not allowed to drive and they’re not allowed to go anywhere without permission of their husbands.