There are a lot of Muslims involved in competitive bodybuilding. One of the most prominent is Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay, an Egyptian who recently won the coveted Mr. Olympia. Big Ramy is now the first non-American to win the Mr. Olympia title since 1998 when England’s Dorian Yates lifted the trophy. He is also the first Egyptian man ever to win. The last Arab winner was Lebanon’s Samir Bannout, who raised the award in 1983.
In this aspect, it is quite noticeable that for men competing is more manageable than for women. Furthermore, Islam and female bodybuilding might sound like a contradiction. And to some extent, it is hard to imagine combining these two, but not impossible.
Women in Muslim communities practice bodybuilding too. However, it is not as much known in broader society. Female Muslim bodybuilders are rare, but they do exist. Let us remind the so-called Iron Lady, Kholoud Essam, who is an Egyptian female Muslim bodybuilder. Bahraini Haifa al-Musawi, who is determined to get her pro card, a status any bodybuilder covets, as it allows entry to professional competitions and international prizes. It also will enable competitors to join the IFBB. However, to participate in contests that could qualify her for the golden pro card, she needs to represent her country. Bahrain currently does not allow its female nationals to participate in such sports, which leaves her with one option – representing another country, in her case Portugal.
Another relatively successful female bodybuilder is Majiziya Bhanu from Kerala, who breaks stereotypes in bodybuilding competitions while wearing a hijab. Bhanu has already won several laurels for powerlifting.
With that being said, as one might think, some restrictions come with choosing such a path within a Muslim community. It is not considered standard for a woman to practice bodybuilding, and if she does, she faces a lot of judgments, limitations and must be careful.
When did you begin with bodybuilding?
I started fitness 7 years ago, but I started bodybuilding 5-4 years ago.
A woman’s body is often controlled by religion and traditions. What struggles did you face when you chose to practice bodybuilding?
In my country, there are cities which are open minded and there are cities that are very conservative, and I live in the conservative one. People are very closed-minded and they see bodybuilding as a very strange and unfamiliar thing that a woman would do, and that’s not a surprising thing because they often tend to control how women should act, dress, or how she should live in general.
What made you choose this path knowing the difficulties that come with it?
At first it was the results I saw but then as I continued to develop my knowledge and physique, I became very passionate and obsessed.
How did the community around you react?
I’ve got some women, who are interested in sports, being very supportive. They were asking me how did I manage to achieve this and what do I eat, if I had a personal trainer or if I did it by myself. But this nice attitude would change if I posted any pictures with my gym clothes, or didn’t dress the way that everybody around me wanted.
In a bodybuilding community, people usually share their progress pictures. Can female bodybuilders in the Middle East region share their progress, for instance, on social media?
Posting progress pictures is not something possible in all of the Middle East countries. In some countries it’s completely forbidden, you could be killed because of their traditions or put into jail like what’s happening in Egypt. In my community it’s different from a city to another like I said previously, in my city it’s absolutely not allowed to post such pictures.
Do women in your community have limited access to fitness? Can they go to mixed fitness centers, if so what is required by them?
Women face a lot of struggles when it comes to fitness, the gyms in my city are not mixed and it’s not allowed to have mixed gyms. Basically, if we had mixed gyms, they are separated into a hall for women and a hall for men. If women had accessibility to men’s hall (ed. note: hall for men have machines), it’s only for 2-3 hours without the men being present. Women’s halls do not contain machines. It’s mainly just for cardio. Same thing for the gyms that are only for women. In some other cities there are mixed gyms.
What do women wear to workout? Do you agree with head to toe covering while having to practice heavy exercises, such as lifting?
Because the gyms are for women only, in some gyms women can wear whatever sportswear they want. In some other gyms that are women only, they don’t even allow tank tops, crop tops or shorts. You have to wear a T-shirt that covers your hips and glutes, you have to wear leggings or a sweatpants.
If you decided to go further in bodybuilding career, could you attend female bodybuilding competitions?
Yes, I would love to attend a bodybuilding competition but it’s not possible because exposing my body is in my community forbidden.
Is it possible to change the negative perception of a female bodybuilder in the Middle East? Do you think that one day women will be free to pursue such a journey?
I am not very sure about that…Sometimes I feel that there is hope because I see the world around us is changing very fast.
Besides the difficulties you’ve mentioned above, what other inequalities do you face as a woman in Palestine?
A “normal” woman who choses to follow the community’s rules will struggle from this community as well, because women are treated differently regardless of how much they try to stay out of sight. Patriarchal communities try to control what women should wear, how she should act, what jobs can she apply for or what to study, how to walk and go to work. And even if it’s allowed for her to go out to work, it’s crazy here in my community, there is a lot of restrictions around woman’s life, body and existence.
What is your message to all the women who are in the position that you were/are in, what would you recommend them to do if they want to pursue bodybuilding?
Do whatever you want, but remember to stay safe. People who try to stop you are humans just like you, so there’s nothing to be afraid of. They are only afraid of your ambition.