The first time I went jogging in Tehran, I nearly hyperventilated after four blocks, despite wearing the gauziest of headscarves and a decidedly immodest pair of Nike Capri pants. The fabric covering my ears and neck stoked my body temperature unbearably, and the pleasurable strain of running gave way to acute discomfort. "How am I going to stay fit here?" I wailed to my Iranian girlfriends, experts in the dilemma of balancing exercise with Islamic modesty codes. They offered me a rich store of advice, from headscarves with ear slits to calibrating outdoor exercise with the seasons to where to find women-only gyms.
For the pious Muslim woman, one of the greatest challenges of modern life is how to get a good workout. In Iran, of course, the state mandates Islamic dress, so secular and faithful women alike must contend with religious codes that interfere with exercise. But the problem persists for Muslim women throughout the Islamic world and the West. It grabbed headlines this past week when a Paris swimming pool refused entry to a young Muslim woman wearing a "burqini," a swim garment resembling a diving suit. In France the incident falls into a wider political debate over how to reconcile the country's Muslim immigrants to French secular values. And while the number of Muslim women in France indeed, throughout the world who insist on a severe covering like the burqa is small, the challenge of staying slim and Islamically proper is not.
So what is the faithful but health-conscious Muslim woman to do? There are many schools of thought addressing this practical problem, and often the answer boils down to comfort vs. one's attachment to a particular sport. I am a runner by nature, keenly attached to the mind-slowing demand of setting a pace and the sensation of my feet first thudding and then gliding over pavement. But my discomfort threshold is ridiculously low, and while living in Iran I gave up running in favor of hiking (in mountainous seclusion, no one frets if you tie a bandanna over your hair instead of a proper veil). During snowy Tehran winters, I pushed myself to go skiing, since modesty ceases to be an issue when you're bundled in a ski suit and hat. I did more yoga than I was accustomed to, since the Iranian middle class is obsessed with yoga and classes are more ubiquitous than mosques in many neighborhoods. Perhaps my cardiovascular endurance plunged with all the varied exercise, but hey, I was cross-training out of the clutches of the morality police, and pretty comfortable.
Many Muslim women are more devoted to their favorite form of exercise. If they are runners, they must run; if they are swimmers, they must swim. For these women, there are only two answers: a clever outfit that breathes or sequestration in a same-sex exercise facility. The athletic veil, known as the hijood, is made from high-tech fabric that's meant to wick sweat off the skin. It debuted when the Bahraini sprinter Rogaya Al Ghasara wore it while competing at the 2008 Olympics. While it takes a certain steely piety to wear the hijood its slick ninja-esque style might be too assertively Muslim for some the relative ease of sweating or swimming in something other than heavy cotton is pretty unbeatable. In certain situations, even the burqini might prove indispensable. A decade ago, when I regularly frequented Wild Wadi, Dubai's vast water park, mothers in sopping-wet clothes gamely accompanied their children down spiraling slides and endless rivers. They must have been miserable to no end, but they put up with it rather than refuse their kids the thrill of water rides. For pious moms on beach holidays with their families when women-only beaches or hours at water parks are useless, since older boys and dads would be left behind the burqini is useful, not the joke it sometimes seems in the West.
For some Muslim women, though, gender-segregated exercise is the preferred option. When you've grown up in a culture where men and women relate prudishly, not even a Coolmax barrier of high-tech Lycra is going to put you at ease panting alongside men in a coed exercise class. Women-only gyms or gyms with women-only hours or rooms dot the whole of the Islamic world. Even in the U.S., the idea that women are more relaxed exercising without men's eyes on them has led to a preponderance of secular women-only chains like Curves and Linda Evans Fitness. This non-religious attitude toward gender-segregated exercise neatly sets immigration politics aside, and has created a way for Americans from Muslims countries to retain their piety without seeming to embrace separation. I have fond memories of following my mother around her local Linda Evans center in California, watching Pakistani matrons and white soccer moms chat while stride energetically on long rows of treadmills.
For the fitness-minded faithful, the terrain varies dramatically from one country and region to another. But with some determination, it remains entirely possible for Muslim women from the gently shy to the severely pious to stay in shape while respecting their faith's modesty etiquette.