‘The hijab is not what defines me’

Saturday September 11 2021
Hijab pic

Nike running ambassador and women’s rights activist Manal Rostom.

By Nahida Esmail

Nike running ambassador and women’s rights activist Manal Rostom recently led a team of four women to the legendary Roof of Africa, Mount Kilimanjaro (5,895 metres above sea level). This was her second time to ascend to the peak of the world’s highest stand-alone mountain via the Machame route. The Dubai-based Egyptian athlete said she would use another route the next time round.

Sharing her experience, Manal says “Mountain climbing can be brutal; but it’s a life-changing experience.”

A pharmacist by profession, Manal grew up in Kuwait. She first learned about mountain climbing when she watched an interview of the first Egyptian man to climb Mount Everest. Despite being asthmatic, he climbed to the top of the world’s highest mountain range: 8,848 metres above sea level.

This inspired Manal to mountain-climbing. However, it was not without obstacles. Her father believed mountain climbing was a males sport and she shouldn’t do it. She nonetheless insisted that she was going to climb Mount Kilimanjaro.

Her father had no choice but to give her his blessings. She visited Tanzania in 2012 to climb the mountain. Thereafter, Manal has climbed seven mountains across the world, including Mt Elbrus (Russia), Mt Kenya, Mt Toubkal (Morocco), Mont Blanc (W-Europe), Everest Base Camp in the Himalayas (twice) - and an attempt on Mt Aconcagua in Argentina.

Her highest climb so far has been 6,600 metres on Mt Aconcagua, 300 metres from its summit. Her next goal is to conquer Mount Aconcagua - and, later, the Everest, to become the first Egyptian to conquer the Everest.

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Her mentor encouraged her to lead a group of women to Mount Kilimanjaro in preparation for conquering higher mountains. She posted on her Instagram page inviting women to join her for the Kilimanjaro climb.

This was the second time she led a group of women under the ‘surviving hijab’ banner - the first being the Everest Base Camp Trek. Indeed, four Egyptian women signed up for the climb and spent several months training individually for it.

One of the first questions she was asked was if they could fall off the mountain! She told them there were more important things to worry about, like the altitude. Four out of the five women made it to the Uhuru Peak, Kilimanjaro’s summit.

Selfie

Manal Rostom takes a selfie with primary school girls from the Steiner School, also in the Spice Isles. PHOTO | COURTESY.

Manal commented that, in their reviews, people do not tell you how difficult the last night of the climb can be. She found the cold temperatures on the mountain the most difficult part of the climb.

Asked why she climbs mountains, Manal responded that, “in life, there are so many hardships, and we say that it’s an uphill climb or it’s as hard as climbing a mountain, metaphorically. But when you physically climb a mountain, it gives you this mental strength to overcome any hardship that you may later face in life.”

After her climb of The Kilimanjaro, Manal spent a week in Zanzibar - and she says she loved every minute of it. On August 2, 2021, she arranged for a run with about 30 orphaned primary school girls from Zanzibar Steiner School near the Kidichi Spice Farm in Zanzibar, as well as the ‘Kimbia Bila Shaka’, a running community movement on the Spice Isles.

The Oregon, US-based Nike Inc. donated branded hijabs for the school girls.

Now, Manal believes that sports unites people from different races, ethnicities and backgrounds - and gives them power to achieve their full potential.

Saying she wants to come back to Tanzania soon, Manal notes that “the people are so warm.”

It is an interesting story how Manal became an ambassador for Nike for Muslim Sportswomen. This was after she sent an email to Nike to express disappointment that the sports brand did not have a representation for Muslim women - and was pleasantly surprised when Nike replied, requesting her to attend a meeting with some Nike officials. The outcome of the meeting was her being appointed the first hijab-wearing model for the Nike brand!

Manal is the founder of the world’s largest hijabi community on Facebook, called ‘Surviving Hijab’, which already has one million followers - and also on Instagram. The social platform help defy stereotypes of women wearing the hijab. It is also a support group for women who wear the hijab as a sign of faith.

For a long time, there was no hijabi role model who had climbed real mountains or ran marathons. Now she is this - representing Muslim women and girls as the ‘Face of Nike Hijab.’

Manal is also the first Egyptian and Arab woman to run in the Great Wall of China Marathon. She wants to be the first Egyptian woman to run the world’s six major marathons, five of which she has already run.

Being the first Nike Hijabi model - and the founder of ‘Surviving Hijab’ - are two of the major achievements which Manal is most proud of. She says she feels accountable when she has a big following.

“I don’t want to give up on my people. I want to represent and speak up for Muslim women in sports - and, if no one else will do it, then I want be the one to do it... Stepping up into leadership when the world does not give you a good role model for Muslim sportswomen and athletes. It’s an opportunity to break stereotypes, climb mountains and run marathons,” she says.

“Fight for your co-existence in society with the hijab, especially as many people wrongly believe that hijabis are oppressed,” our Manal boldly pontificates.