Saman Munir is changing the conversation around Muslim women in sports

Athletic trainer and Under Armour-sponsored athlete Saman Munir. (Photo by Aaron Cobb)

Saman Munir isn’t the stereotypical combination influencer-and-athletic-trainer you’ve grown accustomed to scrolling past on Instagram. Yes, she has a massive following, but she uses her platform to promote and normalize Muslim women’s participation in sports.

Munir was a quality control specialist at an automotive and aerospace company until she quit in 2008 after the birth of her first child. Now a mother of three, she stumbled on her second career a year-and-a-half ago, when her husband convinced her to start capturing and posting her workouts.

She was no stranger to life in front of the camera, having spent years posting make-up tutorials and videos on hijab fashion. But her transition to the athletic space has allowed her to change the perception of the hijab in sports and fitness from the inside. Now a sponsored athlete with Under Armour, the Canadian worked with the apparel brand to design the company’s first athletic hijab, the UA Sport Hijab.

One of the first hijabis to be sponsored by a major sports apparel brand, Munir wants to make sure she improves the lives of women like her. I caught up with her to talk about the importance of the athletic hijab, representation of Muslim women in sports and so much more.

SPORTSNET: What does the hijab signify for you?

SAMAN MUNIR: It’s a reminder for me what my character should be like as a Muslim, what I stand for as a Muslim woman. Just as a woman has the right to show her body, she should also have the right to cover it. And, honestly, the hijab really, really makes me feel empowered and strong. I feel confident in it.

SN: Why is it important to have an athletic hijab?

SM: It is important because I can perform 100 per cent. When I wear my traditional hijab, it gets untucked and soaked in sweat. It is game changing for all the Muslim women. Plus, the traditional hijab the way I wear it, it’s literally wrapped around my neck and makes me feel really hot.

SN: Do you consider yourself a sporting role model now?

SM: I would say yes. When I was growing up, I was looked down upon. Being told I was fat and not pretty really put me in a dark place as I lost all of my self-confidence. I want people to see the struggles I went through and realize that no matter how people look at you or what they tell you, you can do it, and I think I am the perfect example of that.

SN: Why is it important for Muslim women to be able to compete in sports and be athletic and active?

SM: First of all, Islam has never placed any restriction against woman for doing sports. On the contrary, Islam places a strong emphasis towards the importance of healthy body and mind. Woman have been physically active throughout the history of Islam, especially during the time of Prophet Muhammad, may peace be upon him. There were many such instances, for example, where Prophet Muhammed would have races with his wife while they travelled, and she won some races against her husband. Then there was another example where Safiyya [bint Abd al-Muttalib], Prophet Muhammad’s aunt, would actively participate in the battlefield with other soldiers. So, to say that Muslim women are not allowed to participate in sports is wrong.

SN: Where do you think that perception comes from?

SM: I’m not sure where they are getting it from. But from an Islamic point of view, Islam does emphasize a healthy mind and body in life. So, it’s definitely not the religion, it’s the culture.

SN: Some people see the hijab as a symbol of oppression.

SM: It’s a symbol of faith, not oppression. It’s 100 per cent my choice. I mean, I was never forced by my father, brothers, or my husband. I will also never force my daughter to wear it, to be honest with you. It baffles me when people think I’m oppressed because I chose to wear my hijab. Aren’t they oppressed for telling me not to wear it? All women should have the garments they need to reach their goals and sports should unify people from all backgrounds — it’s one of the most beautiful things about sports and competition.

SN: Have you had any negative experiences, with people treating you badly because of your faith or the fact that you wear the hijab?

SM: Yes. Sometimes people, kind of, underestimate your abilities. For example, if I have to work out in a gym, I get tons of looks. The looks are like, “What the hell are you doing here?” It’s very uncomfortable … When I’m focused, I really don’t care what people are saying, [but] I see people even nudging at each other and saying things like, “Look at her. What is she doing?” When I start working out, it is a totally different story. Then they see, “Okay, you know what? She’s capable. She is strong and she knows what she’s doing.” Now I have people coming to the gym saying, “Who’s your trainer? How do you train like this? Who taught you this?” When they see it, then they believe it.

SN: Prior to this collaboration with Under Armour, was it difficult to find an athletic hijab?

SM: Prior to working with Under Armour, I never tried any athletic hijab. When I partnered with Under Armour three years ago, we started discussing the development of the UA Hijab, and I’ve been trying the prototypes since.

SN: How and why did you get involved in physical fitness.

SM: I have always been into fitness, like just starting from high school. I think when I was overweight, I wanted to lose weight. I wanted to lose 20 pounds, and I dropped 20 pounds. And since then I’ve always been challenging myself.

SN: Do you get feedback on social media?

SM: Now, all the time. The funny thing is that I always used to think that guys from my Islamic community would say, “What the hell are you doing?” You know, those typical men who have nothing better to say, they’re like, “Oh, you know what? You should be in the kitchen.” I do get that once in a while — “You shouldn’t be doing this? This is not for you. Blah, blah, blah.” — but most of the time I would say that I have been praised. I’ve been getting positive comments from men and women from my community, so that’s awesome. Even not from my community. Stuff like, “We like to work out with you. We are inspired by your videos.” So, a lot of positives. Just a few negative.

SN: When you do get something negative, how does it make you feel?

SM: It bothers me so much, but then I just take a deep breath and let it go. It’s not worth it because they don’t know me. They don’t want to see me doing good and they’re giving their opinion and obviously their opinion doesn’t matter because I don’t know them and they don’t know me.

SN: When you saw yourself for the first time in campaigns with UA, what was that experience like?

SM: I’m so humbled. I am so honored. You know, I never ever take the opportunity for granted. I am so blessed. People ask me all the time, how did you become an ambassador? And I tell them my story, I have nothing to hide. I cannot ask for anything more.

SN: What can people learn from your story?

SM: At the age of 40 and raising three kids, if I can do it, they can do it. I think we can inspire the girls around the world together. If we work together, we are obviously stronger. I just want people to know that, especially the Muslim girls, that they shouldn’t let their hijab prevent them from doing anything if they’re passionate about something. Just go for it. We should be empowering other people as well. We should work together. I mean, together we can inspire people around the world.

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