An avid runner and marathoner, Rahaf Khatib recently made headlines for being on the cover of Women’s Running magazine in October 2016. As a voice for promoting health and fitness in the community, she is an inspirational figure for both Muslims and those of other faiths. In this interview with Selma Chaudhry and Salam Aref, she discusses the story behind the magazine cover, her love of running, and the challenges she has faced.
ImanWire: Do you train everyday? How long do you usually run?
Rahaf Khatib: I train 6-7 days a week, running 5-6 days a week, supplementing that with either yoga or weightlifting about 2-3 times a week. I run usually 50 minutes to an hour and a half. When training for a marathon, I can run 2-3 hours.
How did you get into running and fitness in general?
It started when I had my kids; I had three kids by the age of 25. I have a college degree but with kids, a house, a husband with a full work schedule it was hard for me to work, so I chose ultimately to be a stay-at-home mom. Slowly, you can get burnt out being at home, you can feel like you’re not doing much or contributing to society as a whole. I felt like I needed to find a purpose, I needed to find something.
So my husband suggested going to the gym — the gym had day care available. So that’s how it started, I got really into it. Then, one day, my kid’s gym teacher told me that the kids were signing up for a one-mile race, and said that I should sign up for the 5K race. I looked at her and a light bulb clicked. I had never thought about doing that before but I wanted to give it a shot and signed up for the 10K, and trained for that.
When I crossed the finish-line, I felt, “Wow, I’ve found my calling”. Ever since then I’ve been running more and more races.
It’s hard for most people, especially those with families, to get up early and train. How do you find the motivation to do this?
Just by signing up for a race, a half-marathon, a 10K, anything, and training for that, that’s your motivation. Pay for it, and be like, “On this date, I have a 10K, I need to train for it.” You really have to enjoy training. It’s all mental in the end.
You get up and your kids look at you. They look at you for inspiration. When you come home with a medal around your neck, they say, “Wow, Mommy did that, Mommy got a medal." They see that and they love it. My daughter sees me on the treadmill and says, “Momma get off, it’s my turn.” So they look up to you for inspiration. My kids are my motivation, as well as staying healthy and challenging myself.
You’ve said you converted your husband into a runner. How has that influenced your home?
Subhanallah, I’ve been running for four years, but full marathons for only two years. A year after I starting running, my husband joined in. He had gained a little bit of weight, started his practice, was stressed out and wasn’t feeling in top shape. He couldn’t run and play with the kids, he would come home, tired, lay on the couch and sleep. But he saw me, getting out there, every day, running, training, coming home from a race. He said he would see my face glowing and my eyes shining bright, and he said that’s what he would like and wanted to try that.
He joined in with me, we started training together, we did our full marathon at the Detroit Free Press Marathon in October 2013, and he’s completed more marathons since.
It’s been an awesome journey, having him by my side and being able to talk to him about running and training, all that kind of stuff, it’s good for the relationship. Having something to talk about other than kids!
How did you land on the cover of Women’s Running magazine?
The year prior, there was a contest for Runner’s World magazine to be on the cover, and I thought, “Wow, let me give it a shot.” Initially I entered it as just a mommy runner, but then slowly people started noticing there was a hijabi in this contest. It gained momentum, and I made the top ten, but didn’t make the cover. That hit me hard, because I thought this needed to happen, seeing an American Muslim on the cover of a fitness magazine. We’re here, we exist too, I’m not the first hijabi runner, and yes there’s no need to tokenize just one person, but I wanted to do this to represent all the sisters who are being overlooked, or have been made fun of, or have had doubts about hijab, or running in hijab. So I said to myself, this needs to happen.
Then one day I saw an Instagram post for Women’s Running magazine highlighting a trans-gender runner on their cover. I thought, that’s amazing, they’ve covered every community on their cover, but you’re missing one community of runners that you have not put on your cover. I wrote an Instagram comment to them about this, saying exactly this and wrote, “Why is that?” They answered back right away. I honestly never expected that to happen. Initially they said they wanted me to be in the magazine as a “top 10 game-changer” but then a day later they wanted me to be on the cover.
What challenges do people in our Muslim community face in regards to fitness? What is your take on nutrition and exercise through the lens of Islam?
I feel health and fitness is not focused on much. There are numerous accounts in the Qur’an about health and fitness and that’s overlooked.
Running brings out the best in you. I feel if we can focus on that, then maybe our attitude in our community can change.
There’s so many Qur’anic reference about this. One that comes to mind is: “Eat of the good things that we have provided for you” and “Eat of which is lawful and wholesome.” The third I really like is about not eating and drinking excessively. These I try to incorporate into my household and teach my kids. “Have you had enough? Are you really hungry? Do you really need that?” These are things I ask my kids.
The Prophet ﷺ told us to teach your kids to hunt, swim and ride horses. In that time, that referred to staying active. He used to run and sprint with Aisha. All these references in the Qur’an and hadith about being active, and still we neglect that. Why is that? We need to incorporate that into our masaajid. All the science that points to being active as so beneficial for kids, and it’s still not being looked at.
Four out of five of our pillars are being active. Prayer is physical, fasting is physical, hajj is physical. These things I think we prepare our body for. When you’re fit, you can be more spiritual.
Do you find there are unique challenges that hijabi women face in fitness and sports?
I don’t feel like anything holds us back. It’s the opposite, we should hold our head up high. I’m representing Islam, I’m an American Muslim woman, I can do anything you can do. Alhamdulilllah, I’ve never had anything negative centered on me when out running. But again, that shouldn’t hold us back. Go out and try out for the volleyball team or whatever interests you.
How would you suggest to mentally get over that idea that hijab is a barrier for those who want to try something where, for example, they won’t find anyone (i.e in a class) who is wearing a hjiab?
See it from a perspective that you’re making daw’ah. That’s exactly how I feel. I’m the only hijabi at a race or a class. People look at me and they’re not looking at me with hatred. They’re looking at me because they’re curious. Inquisitive looks are mostly what I get, or side-eye looks. Just smile at them back, hold your head up high. You are the torch of Islam, you’re the flag-bearer.
The scarf on your head represents something huge. Yes that piece of cloth should not define you, but at the same time you are representing Islam whether you like it or not.
Was there any backlash to your appearance on the cover?
I’ve gotten so many amazing things said to me, especially from the non-Muslim running community in Michigan. They are all so loving and supportive. It’s been amazing. Each message I receive warms my heart more.
There was some backlash from the cover which was mostly online trolling, and remember it was right around the election, as the cover was in October 2016. But I mostly ignore it, and I don’t really give them any thought at all. The positive messages were much more overwhelming than the negative ones.
How has that affected you spiritually?
Profoundly. You know, we all have our weak thoughts when it comes to hijab. I’m just going to be real here. I did have thoughts about taking it off, especially right before my Runner’s World contest. Subhanallah how that happened. I was just having a weak moment in my life with imaan (faith), and then all of a sudden this contest comes to me, and I join it, and then people are saying, “Hey there is an American Muslim hijabi”. It hit me, how could I ever take this off?
We all have our weak moments with hijab, but I feel that in turn it has increased me spiritually. When I’m training or in long runs, I always say dhikr (remembrance of God) in my head. Running for three hours, connecting, connecting with nature, and it’s beautiful.
Alhamdulillah, everything that Allah has given me. The cover, everything that’s happening, makes me even more thankful. Without running, I don’t know where I would be spiritually. For me it’s been rewarding in so many ways, not just a cover in a magazine.
What advice would you give for those in the community who are inspired by your story?
Seek something that you love and pursue it! Head on. Don’t listen to the negative people out there who try to put you down, who say “You’re not doing this right” or “You’re not wearing this right”. Do your thing and focus on it. Whether that may be running or anything else in life, do what makes you happy. I feel that if you do what makes you happy you will get rewarded inshallah (God willing).
Keep in mind that the believer who is strong in faith, body and action is better than a weak believer in body and action. Being strong, physically or spiritually is something to keep in mind.
One of the things women struggle with are the clothing choices, especially hijabis, to keep covered. Do you have any advice on that?
I’m trying to do my best, we’re not perfect but in terms of what to wear, you got to layer. I hate layering, I avoid it, I don’t even wear an underscarf. But sometimes you really have to [layer] because unfortunately all these things that fitness brands make are not made for hijabis. I try to do my best, I layer, wearing running tights with a tennis skirt on top and any long-sleeve top that I want. During the summertime I’ll do thin-thin long sleeve; it’s actually advisable to wear long-sleeve in the summer because you keep cooler and to keep harmful sun rays away. Whether its 70 or 90 degrees you’re going to be hot regardless.
I’m always on the lookout of things which are hijabi-friendly and that’s why I’ll post,“Hey! I just found this amazing long shirt from so and so!” That’s the whole point of my Instagram posts for what I wear, to share tips. Inshallah my dream is a main workout brand that is catered to us.
I’m trying to reach out to a few brands because they have to realize we’re here and exist too and we love to workout. We’re doing sports, kickboxing, horseback riding, we’re doing all these things. Why not cater to us and make something for our community? Why are we being ignored? It’s 2017, we need to get over it now. The market here would be amazing if they were to make something for us. Can you imagine how amazing that would be if they came out with an athletic hijab? Ultimately that would be my goal to do that, inshallah.
Any final recommendations we can do to promote health and fitness?
You know, don’t look for it in the Muslim community because you’re not going to find it, unfortunately. Some are trying yes, but it’s not going to be the same as what we find outside the masjid. My advice is to join running clubs around you, Muslim or non-Muslim. You’re creating more dawah by representing the community that way. Don’t wait for something, just do it yourself.
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