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Surmounting Stereotypes with Zahrah Mahmood, the Hillwalking Hijabi Interview

© Zahrah Mahmood

Having got into hillwalking around five years ago, Glasgow-based Chartered Accountant Zahrah Mahmood, 29, has become something of an outdoors role model. As the Hillwalking Hijabi, she features on Instagram, climbing Scottish hills in traditional Muslim head covering. A Muslim woman of South Asian heritage, Zahrah is in a conspicuous minority on most hillwalking days, and hopes by setting an example to encourage other Muslim women to experience the rewards of the outdoors.

If you're not seeing people like yourself being represented in the outdoors, outdoor media and brands, then you're going to feel it's not for you

"If I can get to the top of this hill then I can overcome whatever's worrying me in life at the moment..."  © Zahrah Mahmood
"If I can get to the top of this hill then I can overcome whatever's worrying me in life at the moment..."
© Zahrah Mahmood

What were you doing for fun at the weekend before you discovered walking?

Before hillwalking I was spending my weekends and free time going to the cinema or other non-physical activities like bowling etc and mainly meeting friends for dinner or coffee catch ups and volunteering for various charities. I still do all of this but also make time for hillwalking now.

How did you get into it, and what was your first big hill?

I got into it while studying for my professional CA exams. I was struggling with the exams and the pressure and two of my friends, Pamela and Fiona, told me I'd benefit from getting outdoors. So they took me up Ben Lomond. So that was my first experience of hillwalking and first "big hill" and also my first experience of intentional physical exercise!

What was that first experience like, and were you bitten by the bug straight away?

Not at all, I struggled the whole way up. I was very aware of people staring at me and I didn't know if this was for my hijab/race (as I was and sometimes continue to be, the only person who looks like me out there) or for my lack of fitness - it was probably both. But the struggle and the stares put me off and I didn't go back out again until about six months - one year later. I was struggling again in life and the same friends said they'd take me out but this time a smaller hill. It was brilliant, it helped me forget about my worries and just put one step in front of the other and get up that hill.

*My excited with a hint of fear face* Excited because of the #cloudinversion 😍🤩 and the hint of fear because of the steep drop down, on a recovering sprained ankle!! 😳 Notice how one finger is pointing at the clouds and the other at the drop... totally subconscious !! You'll be glad to know I'm not still up there and I made it down 🤗.. . . . . . #hike #hiking #hiker #hill #hillclimbing #hillwalking #mountains #adventure #selflove #selfcare #hijab #hijabi #muslim #instascotland #scotland_greatshots #dimples #eyebrows #Scotland #scotland_insta #fife #lomond #nature #outdoors #fitnessfreaks #motivation💯 #loved #womenpower #womenwithstyle #womenempowerment

A post shared by The Hillwalking Hijabi🌎🥾 (@the_hillwalking_hijabi) on

Are you ticking off Munros and/or Corbetts, and how many have you done now?

I have done 15 Munros and a handful of Corbetts - I am ticking them off but not in any timeframe and I think it's important for me to not just go up Munros and Corbetts. If I have less time I will go up a smaller hill. For me it's mainly just getting outside and regrouping so I can reset for the next week ahead.

What do you personally get out of hillwalking, both physically and mentally?

Definitely both for me. I got into it because I had a lot going on in my life and it was great for my mental health to have a distraction that allowed to me feel like if I can get to the summit of this hill/mountain then I can overcome whatever it is in my life worrying me at the time. The physical aspect is a nice added benefit!

Do you have any favourite hills, or particular experiences you most treasure?

Well I've done Ben Nevis and if you had told me I would've a year before I did I would've laughed in your face! But my favourite so far is Buchaille Etive Beag, I had such a great day out and it was at the end of 2019 where the daylight hours were less and somehow I easily managed to do both Munros in one day (the most I've done in one day is three - the Cairnwell Munros).

Loving it on Buachaille Etive Beag  © Zahrah Mahmood
Loving it on Buachaille Etive Beag
© Zahrah Mahmood

Who do you tend to go out with for a day on the hills? Friends

Among your friends, are there many other Muslim women who are also keen walkers, or are you unusual in that peer group?

I would say there are definitely some keen walkers but not hillwalkers. Some are becoming more interested and will tag along when they can. But they aren't ones to go every weekend (or even every other weekend or month). I'm definitely unusual in that respect.

What do your family think about your passion for walking? Is it something that any of the older members of your family have experience of themselves?

At first they thought I was mad for getting up at 6am on my day off to drive somewhere and go up a hill for fun! And I think a lot of people who don't get that joy will not understand, including families of my white friends who regularly go hillwalking. But they do now, I've managed to take them all out at least once and though it may not be a regular thing for them, they see the difference it makes to me (i.e. less stressed/anxious and happier) and so fully support it.

When it's cold a head covering is a positive advantage  © Zahrah Mahmood
When it's cold a head covering is a positive advantage
© Zahrah Mahmood

Is it fair to say that there isn't a widespread culture of hill-walking in the Muslim community in Scotland, and if I'm right in believing that, then can you think of any particular reasons why this might be?

I would say yes and no. There are a at least a couple of charity organisations now set up in Scotland to take Asian people (predominantly who happen to be Muslims) outside and up very small hills to give them a taste but also explain the phsyical benefits. Statistics show that South Asians suffer from higher risk of heart disease/attacks, diabetes etc, and so they've been set up to get people moving, which is great.

But there definitely isn't a widespread culture. I'm starting to see a shift in the last couple of years as more Muslims see other Muslims go outdoors in Scotland and benefit from the vast amazing and dramatic views and then go out for the odd day here and there themselves.

I think a lot of people within my community are selfless but to their own detriment. So they may be looking after extended families, their children, or volunteering, and therefore maybe forget to make time for themselves.

However, having said that there are definite barriers too. If you're not seeing yourself being represented in the outdoors, outdoor magazines, brands and companies etc, then you're definitely going to feel it's not for you. Of course a lack of representation has an impact on you, whether consciously or subconsciously, to think this isn't somewhere I fit in. Just like my first experience with hillwalking.

MY KIND OF #hairstyle I was in two minds whether I should enter this women empowerment campaign, given it's all about hair and the majority of you that follow me have never seen mine! . I cover my hair for religious reasons but I've never let it stop me from going after what I want and I hope I never will. It's a part of me, my identity, you can't separate the two. . Wearing a hijab in this day and age isn't easy and it's not easy out hiking either 🥵 but those of us who do, do it because it brings us joy 🖤 . Hijab to me is more than the cloth on my head, it's making sure my speech, my movements, my thoughts and most importantly what's in my heart is as pure as possible 💖 It may make me question whether I fit into the normal beauty standards sometimes and I know I won't be alone in that. So I just want to say ... to every woman reading this >>> YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL!! Don't worry about fitting into "beauty standards" we see so much beauty in other people, we need to learn to recognise it in ourselves too. You have more to offer this world than the way you look or dress 💚 . Thanks for encouraging me to share @she_colorsnature 🧡 and for anyone wondering about haircare tips ... I get mine from my girl at @the.hair.club 💜😜 . #salomonwmn #salomon #hillwalkingscotland #hijabi #hijabiblogger #hijab #womenwhohike #scottishhiker #mountains #adventuregirl #hiking #mountainselfie #mountainsforthemind #hillwalker #mountains🗻 #mountainlovers #forestphotography #happyme #blessed #representationmatters #salomonwmn #pakistanihijab #pakistani #walkingoutside #outdoors #WordHijabDay #hijabista #diversity #salomonwmn

A post shared by The Hillwalking Hijabi🌎🥾 (@the_hillwalking_hijabi) on

Is walking up windy and rainy Scottish hills easily compatible with some of the practise of your faith? Is it a challenge to wear a head covering, for instance, or can it sometimes be a bonus? (I'm thinking of the wind and snow!) How about praying outside during the day, or fasting during Ramadan?

Head covering is only an issue on those rare hot summer days, where you burn up fast with all those extra layers! At that point I have to make sure it's a breathable sports hijab I'm wearing or some kind of sun hat where I am still covered to my own acceptable standard. I've prayed outside before (there's a picture in my feed atop Ben Lawers - the 10th highest mountain), I've also prayed on top of other mountains. Most of the time I will try to make sure the time outdoors is in between prayer times, but this is more difficult in the winter with shorter days. So I try to pray outdoors as much as possible, it's something I'm still self-conscious about as I don't think a lot of people who pass me would understand what I was doing and most of the time I don't mind explaining but other times you just want to enjoy your day without having to educate people.

Some people say the hills are their church (or mosque) – and I think you alluded to this on Instagram. I'd like to explore the more philosophical question of faith, and how it interacts with and informs an appreciation of nature. How does the experience of nature and beauty in the outdoors speak to your Muslim faith, and do you get something spiritual out of it that is in some way unique to the experience of walking out in the untouched places?

I 100% do, I spoke about this on the Outdoors Fix podcast as well as when I was asked to come on Saturday Morning Live, on BBC Radio 4. It's actually akin to what the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) would do. He would retreat up mountains and in mountain caves, to get away from the hustle and bustle of the city and take time to reflect, regroup and continue to connect with God. And I think it took me a while to realise what I was getting out of hillwalking that made me feel so happy inside and out and I think it's exactly this. It's amazing what you get from the outdoors when you open your heart. When you see the unfiltered beauty of the outdoors, you appreciate its Creator even more.

On Ben Vorlich  © Zahrah Mahmood
On Ben Vorlich
© Zahrah Mahmood

The outdoors in the UK still seems to be a predominantly 'white' space much of the time. Do you ever feel in any way conspicuous or self-conscious about being there?

Yes - I think I've touched on this above re. representation and the stares I still get even now.

🧕🏽 WORLD HIJAB DAY 🧕🏽 . For those of you who don't know, today is world hijab day 💕🧕🏽 today is a day dedicated to "Better awareness, Greater understanding, Peaceful world" 🌍 . I can guarantee you that overt or covert discrimination faced by anyone usually stays with them forever. I still remember the time years ago on Halloween, I was asked by drunk men on the Glasgow underground if I was dressed as the Taliban because I looked the part. Side note- I was in jeans, a hoody and my hijab leaving the office after a late night of studying (not that it should matter what I was wearing.... sound familiar?). I also had to convince my friend not to confront them and I didn't report it either. . This is the reality, most cases will go unreported and so even the STARK statistics out there aren't totally representative. But I won't *bore* you with statistics 📈, . What I will say is, just be kind, it's not that hard! If a woman chooses to cover her head then respect her choice and move on, it's nothing to do with anyone but her. 💛 . Hijab to me is more than the cloth on my head, it's making sure my speech, my movements, my thoughts and most importantly what's in my heart is as pure as possible 💖 . . . #hillwalkingscotland #hikemoreworryless #hijabi #hijabiblogger #hijab #womenwhohike #scottishhiker #mountains #adventuregirl #hiking #mountainselfie #mountainsforthemind #adventurequeens #hillwalker #getoutside #mountains🗻 #mountainlovers #forestphotography #happyme #blessed #countyourblessings #dowhatmakesyouhappy #walkingoutside #outdoors #outdoorsy #WordHijabDay #hijabers #hijabista #hijaberscommunity #discrimination

A post shared by The Hillwalking Hijabi🌎🥾 (@the_hillwalking_hijabi) on

What are some of the barriers (actual or perceived) that discourage people from some communities from feeling that the countryside is a place for them? Is there an issue of self belief, or a skills gap, for instance?

Again, as above, I think representation is a big one. If you didn't see anyone who looked like you outdoors or celebrated by companies and continued to see people who didn't look like you, you'd start to believe it wasn't for you too. Because of this, there are also skills and knowledge gaps which will only be alleviated once you get outdoors and start to really know it.

Would you like to see that situation change, and for the outdoors to become a more diverse and inclusive sphere?

Of course yes, and you don't need to be a minority to answer yes to this, we all should want this!

Why is it important to you to encourage other Muslim women, or indeed people from any under-represented minority, to get out walking for themselves?

Well all you need to do is look at statistics and you see that in health, BAME people suffer from worse statistics than our counterparts - not just for diabetes, heart disease etc but also if you take mental health as an example, BAME people are so much worse off for not getting the same care as their white counterparts and not only that but they will face different pressures within their communities too. The outdoors and hillwalking is not a fix for this but it's a start.

Three Munros in a day in Glenshee  © Zahrah Mahmood
Three Munros in a day in Glenshee
© Zahrah Mahmood

Being a role model for the hills must be a really positive way of helping encourage, inform and empower other people. Is that what inspired you to become the Hillwalking Hijabi?

No, the name was suggested by my sister when I was speaking to her about being the only one who looked like me outdoors.. and then it stuck! But it's a shame in 2020, the word "the" in front of hillwalking hijabi can be added without question. Although initially I was just getting out for myself, I do hope I can inspire other women who look like me, whether they wear a hijab or don't, or are brown, to get outside and feel the benefits I did.

How has this been received, generally?

Generally positively (majority I would say), but you do get the odd offensive message in your inbox, usually someone with a far-right ideology or that calls you oppressive or supporting an oppresive regime, for choosing to cover my head. I've realised I can't respond now and try to explain why they're wrong for saying that to me, they're too far gone for me to try to change their mind and also my own mental health is important to me, I shouldn't have to!

The hills should be an amazing, life affirming resource for everyone no matter what background. But they still really aren't being seen as such by too many. How do you think the wider hill-going public, and the outdoor media and industry, might help to encourage a diversity of people and open things up to all of our society?

Definitely through representation. Companies go for (predominantly white) people with big follower numbers on Instagram, promote them and make them ambassadors etc then they get more followers - and so the cycle continues. I've even seen companies partner with (white) people with lower follower numbers but won't do the same for those from a BAME background. Also the word BAME (which I actually don't like but use for want of a better term) is so broad, a lot of the time you see/hear where if they've got one black person they won't partner with another or one (east) asian then they wouldn't partner with a (south) asian or vice versa, and that to me shows tick boxing as opposed to actually wanting to embed a culture of diversity and representation for all.

We've all found lockdown hard, so how have you been coping with a lack of hills?

I would say that I've been coping okay! I've challenged myself in other ways. During 18 days of Ramadan (where Muslims, if physically and mentally able to, abstain from all food and water between about 3am to 9.45pm) I took on a challenge to raise money for a charity planting olive trees in Palestine, by attempting to jog/walk and cycle 100k on no food and water. I managed to complete this - it's in my highlights on instagram and I have a few posts on it on my grid. And I also managed to raise £4k for the charity through my instagram followers and friends, which surpassed my expectations and £3k target.

I've also been exploring my local park, which happens to be a country park and means I get to see highland coos which is amazing. I've also found a local hill within the 5 mile recommended guidance - it is absolutely tiny but it had a cairn at the top which would do me!

So while I've been coping well, I'm itching for further guidance to come out allowing us to travel a bit further up some mountains.

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15 Jun

Thank you Zahrah, that was a great read! I agree that representation is so important, it's hard to believe something is for you if you don't see anyone who looks like you.

16 Jun

I agree, an excellent, and most refreshing read.

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