Source: Photo Stella By Hayam Amin

Picture this: A room full of Muslim women, of all ages and sizes – lifting weights, laughing and comfortable in their surroundings.

Recently, I spoke to a personal trainer from London who personified her passion and is hoping to inspire others. When Kaoutar Hannach studied at Queen Mary University, she loved going to the gym. She felt in her element when being fit and healthy, and had the freedom to work out in the women’s gym space at her University. However, it was in these spaces that Kaoutar noticed a few gaps; the areas assigned to women seemed to have less weights, less strength building equipment and were generally lacking compared to shared gym spaces. With the growth of her passion, Kaoutar began attending fitness events aimed at people like her, except she was unable to see herself as a person represented at these events. Expeditions became a monolith – skinny white women in Lycra, because women’s fitness is oftentimes conflated with eurocentric beauty standards, so that the projected idealistic image of fitness and health is depicted as being slim, white, and clad with overpriced fitness gear.

In 2017, Kaoutar launched Evolve With K – campaigning for diversity and representation in the fitness industry. While encouraging health and fitness through her brand, Evolve With K offers bespoke classes and fitness retreats abroad. Currently, Kaoutar runs regular women’s fitness classes in London.

Source, Evolve With K

However, the campaign doesn’t end there. Its also about facilitating well equipped spaces, which was one of the most noticeably lacking elements of women’s spaces that fueled Kaoutar’s desire for change.
Kaoutar’s spaces are all about facilitating classes for Muslim women who are perhaps disengaged with exercise because of cultural norms across subcultures that have large Muslim communities. When Kaoutar told me this, I felt a pang of guilt – knowing that I’m one of those women, who perhaps doesn’t exercise or train often because its just not that common among my community of women. It’s not to say that every woman who comes from a culturally grounded Muslim community has the same experience, of course thats not the case. However it’s naive to think there aren’t any generational trends because of certain customs, barriers and perhaps from having no facilities for so long that we have become accustomed to not actively building strength and doing enough to look after our bodies.

When taking part in these opportunities, Muslim women are also putting into practice the etiquette of health and fitness in Islam. We hear numerous hadith about the importance of physical activity and how it is integral to practice the maintenance of our emotional, physical and spiritual health as Muslims. After speaking to Kaoutar, I can see that this principle is very much a part of her campaign and brand – so much so that she has expanded to offer retreats for women.

Source, YouTube

Through her brand and ambition, Kaoutar signposts positive change, by ensuring women from all backgrounds are being afforded the support and opportunity to get to grips with health and fitness and lead a healthier lifestyle. Along with her passion for fitness, Kaoutar loves to travel and has incorporated this into her services by offering women’s fitness retreats abroad, where participants embark on a transformative journey for the mind, body and soul.

Kaoutar Hannach, Source: Evolve with K

Bridging the gap in fitness and leading the way towards change in making the health and fitness industry welcoming and inclusive for women from all backgrounds and ethnicities. Through fitness retreats, workout classes and one to one personal training.

Kaoutar Hannach

The space that Kaoutar currently hosts is a place where women can attend regularly and familiarise, to see how this space could become a gym in the future. To help include women outside of London, Kaoutar will be hosting remote sessions where participants can train with live video support in the same sense as personal training sessions.

As I’m not any type of fitness expert, I felt it was essential to gain a perspective from somebody who benefits from training facilities in order to understand how and why it is important. I spoke to a young Muslim woman from the midlands who has embarked on an awe-inspiring health and fitness journey and now partakes in junior powerlifting competitions while continuing to train.

Haleema, tell us about your experience of women’s gym spaces.

At the beginning of my gym experience, the equipment and machines at the women’s only gym were great. I used the treadmill, a few of the machines and some weights. However as I dropped the weight, I became interested in powerlifting, but the plates were not enough and the gym had only one Olympic bar which was far too thick and not comfortable to use.

Haleema Almahdawi, Source: Photo Lab

So, what do you think it would be like to have a women’s space for training?

If I had access to a women’s only gym with powerlifting and weightlifting equipment, I would be so happy and way more comfortable when I squat or deadlift. It goes without saying that sometimes men can make women very uncomfortable when training.

Kaoutar hopes to turn her space into a women’s gym one day, what would be your top tips?

If I had any advice to give people that were thinking of creating a space for muslim women I would say don’t half arse it. If you really want this place to be a success then go the whole way, power racks, olympic bars with adequate thickness, deadlift/squat bars, bumper plates and good bench press racks!

Haleema Almahdawi

While Kaoutar and Haleema are not the only female Muslim fitness fanatics, and certainly not the only people to be health conscious – they are making a difference. By helping themselves and encouraging others, they are paving the path for a more inclusive, diverse and accessible industry. That, along with the deadlifts – is pretty powerful.

Written and Edited by Shazmeen Khalid,

With thanks to Kaoutar Hannach and Haleema Almahdawi for their contributions.

To see more of Kaoutar’s work, folllow her Instagram account and campaigns, or check out her website EvolveWithK.com

To follow Haleema’s journey, check out her Instagram.

Photography by Hayam Amin and Labibur Rahman