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‘It makes me feel like possibilities are endless’: Meet the Muslim women parkour athletes taking up space

In the anthology “It’s Not About The Burqa,” editor Mariam Khan highlights the importance of centering Muslim women in this discussion, writing that they are “more than burqas, more than hijabs, and more than society has allowed us to be until now.”

“We are not asking for permission any more. We are taking up space.”

As Muslim women find themselves marginalized by society, Khan speaks to the way that they must forge their own narratives and create visibility in spaces that weren’t built for them.

That’s exactly what parkour athlete Sara Mudallal is doing.

By practicing the sport, Mudallal hopes she can encourage more women to enter what she describes as a “male dominated” field.

“It’s kind of intimidating for women to sometimes come in and hang out and things like that. But now, recently, more women have been showing up, so it’s been more comfortable for women to come in and practice,” 26-year-old Mudallal tells CNN Sport.

“It starts with one and you have to stand up for that, and then you bring more people in.”

In most of the parkour jams she attends — where parkour practitioners congregate and train together — she says she’s often the only hijabi athlete.

“I still am like the only person who wears the hijab, of course […] we still have a long way to go with that for women to feel confident in themselves,” she says.

Standing out from the crowd

Having grown up playing sports, Los Angeles native Sara Mudallal began practicing parkour when she was 20.

But Mudallal is used to standing out.

She grew up in Los Angeles, where she was athlete of the year in high school — and garnered the same title in middle school three years in a row.

“I’m very well-rounded. Like I can play soccer, I can play basketball, I can play football. I can play tennis. Except golf — I don’t know how to play golf,” she muses.

When she was 12, her mother enrolled her in karate classes, where she went on to earn a first and second degree black belt.

At the beginning of 2015, Mudallal decided to start wearing a headscarf. That same year, a friend introduced her to parkour.

Having gained significant lower body strength and core balance from karate, she says she was built for the sport.

“My legs were already pretty strong,” Mudallal says. “In terms of taking a bad landing … I was safe.”

“I’ve always loved climbing and jumping on things and didn’t really know that was a sport, didn’t really know it was a technique.”

As a beginner, Mudallal says she was welcomed into the parkour and freerunning community with open arms.

“I do not feel that people did not want me in the group,” she says. “I didn’t give them that chance to make me feel that way. It’s about personality, it’s about how strong you are. If you are shy doing anything because of what you’re wearing, you have to check yourself with that, then why are you wearing it, you know?

“I didn’t really care, if I was wearing or not wearing [a headscarf], my interests are still the same. And I really wanted to do parkour, so I went in regardless of what I look like on the outside.”

‘It’s even harder for the girls’

While sport has always given Mudallal the space to express herself, Iranian parkour coach and former national gymnast Fatemeh Akrami has memories of feeling hampered as a young athlete.

Growing up as a shy child, Akrami’s mother signed her up for local gymnastics classes when she was six, in the hopes of bringing her out of her shell.

“I was a super shy girl, I didn’t even say hi to strangers. I was hiding behind my mother’s back because I was so shy,” the 27-year-old Tehran native tells CNN Sport.

Despite her initial apprehension, Akrami quickly excelled. She says she won her first medal at a national competition when she was 12 and joined the national team a year later. Akrami went on to clinch two gold medals and one silver at the Islamic Solidarity Games in Iran in 2007.

But while Akrami was enjoying success in the spotlight, she was struggling behind the scenes.

She says that due to international gymnastics dress code rules at the time, she wasn’t able to compete on a global stage in accordance with Iran’s mandatory hijab law, which was enacted by the Islamic Republic in 1983.

Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, the country hasn’t dispatched a single female athlete to participate in the Olympics in swimming, wrestling or gymnastics — including at this year’s Tokyo Games.

Fatemeh Akrami says that due to international gymnastics dress code rules at the time, she wasn't able to compete on a global stage in accordance with Iran's mandatory hijab law, which was enacted by the Islamic Republic in 1983.

“It’s even harder for the girls in Iran,” Akrami says. “You train like an Olympian, but you never get there, so it’s hard to keep yourself motivated.”

“I think like in ten years I didn’t attend a funeral, a wedding, a birthday party, none of them,” she adds.

Dealing with the pressure of competing in any high intensity sport is challenging, but Akrami says that juggling the demands of training while attending school was doubly exhausting.

“Gymnastics is a very hard sport. You have to put a lot of effort because you have to be mentally and physically prepared to be in a competitive level,” she says. “We were experiencing a lot of pressure.”

“In the weekdays, I used to go to school from 7:00 a.m. until 1p.m. And then from the school, my mother used to pick me up and then [go] straight to the gym until 10:00 p.m,” she adds. “So in the Friday, which was the weekend […] there was no rest. So we had to train from 9:00 in the morning until 9:00 in the evening.

“Training hard gives you mental pressure because you get tired, you have school, you have homework, you have training. Like sometimes, the training don’t go well, you don’t get the skill right. It takes too long, sometimes you get injured.

“I don’t remember sleeping at night without having pain.”

A philosophy of freedom

After Akrami left her career as a professional gymnast at the age of 18, she was looking for a fresh start.

She had just begun university, when one of her peers encouraged her to try out parkour.

“It was like, ‘OK, what’s next?,'” Akrami says. “I always needed something more because gymnastics is a very exciting sport and […] every day you need the adrenaline rush.

“He stopped in a park and told me, ‘Do you want to try some of the parkour skills?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah, let’s give it a try. I think in the first thirty minutes, I got five or six […] skills of parkour, and I myself was super, super surprised.”

While Akrami used to feel restricted by gymnastics, she says parkour gives her “self-confidence.”

“In gymnastics, everything is so disciplined, you have to do everything just as they say. No more, no less. But in parkour, you can do any move with your body,” she says. “The philosophy of parkour is all about the freedom.”

“You can do parkour wherever you want, whenever you want and with any dress you want. Like there’s no dress code. I can compete in a competition with my Islamic dress and that’s fine.

“And you can do all the skills with your own body, with your own style, so it gives you a lot of choices. That’s the feeling of freedom that parkour gives.”

Mudallal adds, “What’s cool about parkour is that every single person moves differently.”

“It makes me feel free. It makes me feel like possibilities are endless, and I can do anything,” Mudallal says. “I fell in love with it as soon as I started.”

Akrami says that practicing parkour gives her a "feeling of freedom."

Shattering stereotypes of stereotypes

Since Mudallal started practicing parkour, she has gone from strength to strength.

Since posting videos of her freerunning adventures on social media, she has amassed over 35,000 followers.

In July 2021, she attended the Red Bull Art of Motion competition in Greece — widely considered one of the highest-profile freerunning events in the sport.

“It’s like for the first time, I felt like, ‘Oh, my God, like this is fate.’ Like this is being handed to me on a platter and I’m not going to say no to moving forward,” Mudallal says.

“I just decided to, like, move forward with it and practice more and take it seriously more, but take it seriously in a way where I would still love it and not be dragged to go do parkour because it’s like my job. No, I want to do it because I love doing it,” she adds.

In 2018, Mudallal also became the first hijabi athlete to appear on the assault course TV show American Ninja Warrior.

“It was definitely something,” she says. “First time experiencing a game show […] understanding how TV and Hollywood […] how all that works.”

“In terms of the hijab aspect, yes, that’s like my title. I am the first hijabi to go on American Ninja Warrior, but it’s like I was literally walking like any other person,” she adds. “They mentioned it on TV, but it wasn’t very focused on that.”

Even though Mudallal is best known for being a hijabi parkour athlete, she says that being known by a singular label can feel reductive.

“It’s a title I’ve had for a very long time. And moving forward, I don’t want to be only known as that because anybody could be a hijabi parkour athlete, but are they good at what they’re doing?” she says. “I want to show I’m definitely more than that.

“It’s not up to people that wear hijab who play those sports to break them [stereotypes]. But it’s good to build that awareness that, ‘Hey, sit down, you know, like, stop creating that stereotype.’

“I hope one day […] people will see me past the hijab.”

Even though Mudallal is best known for being a hijabi parkour athlete, she hopes people will see "past the hijab."

‘Don’t let anything stop you’

Mudallal says that for some Muslim girls, making the decision to step outside one’s comfort zone can be met with hostility from people both inside and outside their community.

Six years into her parkour journey, she says she still receives critical comments from people on social media.

“In terms of what people say, I’m very past that, very past that. Because imagine if, like, I did stop parkour, I did listen [to] what people say — I’m the one who’s going to be miserable, like they’re just going to keep moving on with their life,” Mudallal says.

“My word of advice to everyone who wants to move forward with this is stop asking, ‘Should I move forward?’ Do it. It’s a simple thing to say, but it’s a hard thing to do.

“Everyone else is going to move forward, but someone’s always going to be stopping you for some reason. So you have to move past that. You have to get over that wall.”

Akrami’s message to young Muslim girls? “Don’t let anything stop you.”

“Go for it. Try and you’re going to accomplish it. I accept the fact that it might be harder a little bit, but it’s not impossible.”

Luckily, both athletes can fall back on the support of their families.

Mudallal says, “What I’ve noticed is […] sometimes in terms of culture, it’s like Arab fathers are very restrictive of what they want their daughters doing. And what’s different about my father is that because I’m the oldest child, he was always, ‘Sara, you’re going to grow up and you’re going to be independent, you’re going to grow your own business, you know, you’re going to make your own money.’

“My mom is the same thing, you know, ‘You got to be strong, got to put your foot down, be confident.’ From where I am today, they’re just always, always, always supporting me.”

Reminiscing about her gymnastics career, Akrami says she “gave up so many times.”

“We never were a very rich family, but they gave me all I needed, all I wanted […] financially, mentally, […] so that was why I could stand all the pressure,” she adds. “They are super proud of where I am today.”

Endless possibilities

Mudallal says that by sharing her story, she wants to encourage more girls to pursue parkour.

Mudallal hopes that by sharing her story, she can encourage people to appreciate the depth and nuance of her journey and create space for more young Muslim women to step into the parkour industry.

“I hope to see more girls like me pursue it,” she says. “The importance of me doing parkour. It’s just an expression of […] what I preach, of my movement. What I’ve grown, what I’ve taken in, what I’m showing out.

“Parkour is still fairly a male dominated sport. And for women in general, they are increasing for sure, year by year and […] actually making a statement.”

Akrami also hopes to see more girls freerunning, which is why she became a parkour coach when she was about 20.

“I was like, ‘OK, there are so many girls and they are so passionate about parkour. You have to teach them what you know,'” Akrami says.

So far, she says she’s taught 100 girls how to parkour and given certified training to about 50 more to become parkour coaches themselves.

“When they get this skill, it gives me a better feeling than when I do the skill,” Akrami says. “Because when they feel things, when they feel the joy, when they get excited, like, ‘OK, I got the skills,’ they’re screaming and running.”

By sharing her knowledge, she hopes she can teach her students life skills, such as resilience and determination.

“I’m really happy to let them [students] know, at least, that they can do this. So many of them are like, ‘No, we cannot train. It is impossible to train in Iran, to train parkour in Iran.’ At least they realize that it’s possible, you just haven’t got there. But it’s possible,” Akrami says.

“It’s amazing how when you start doing parkour, it gives you the vision that nothing is as hard as it looks, even in life,” she adds. “When you try it, when you succeed and you are like, ‘Wow, did I really do that? Did I really jump that far?’ Yes, you did it. It was looking super hard […] but you never know unless you try it.”

Ultimately, parkour is rooted in a counterculture that gives people who can be sidelined by society a way to center their stories and make themselves as visible as possible.

Like Mudallal, Akrami shares her videos of her parkour tricks online to “let other people in the other countries and other continents of the Earth, to let them know that we exist.”

“It’s like very common, and it’s a very interesting sport that so many girls are so passionate to start and to do. And yeah, we exist, we train parkour, and parkour has no limits and has no borders.”

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