The Muslim women of England find joy in the woodlands

Apr 16, 2024 | News

Nordic walking in the forest has brought together a group of Muslim women living in east London. They have found friendship, fitness, spirituality, and a lot of fun.

On a Thursday morning, in February, the rain lashes down heavily over Thames Chase Forest Centre. The Muslimah Sports Association‘s (MSA) women are sheltered by ash, willow, and pine trees during their weekly Nordic Walk. On any given morning, anywhere from two to twelve women may show up. Today, there are six women and the heavy rain is not dampening their spirits.

“I am enjoying the fresh air and the forest. Shafia Begum says, “It’s just… wow.” The forest is only 18 miles away from her home in Stratford, east London, and it could not look, feel, sound or smell more different. Begum, a mother of 3, has suffered from anxiety for many years. “These nature walks were very beneficial to me. She says that they have strengthened her connection with nature and her creator, as well as her gratitude.

The Nordic walking sessions became popular following messages exchanged between Forestry England, MSA and social media. Forestry England is the public-owned organisation responsible for 620,000 acres of woodland in the UK. MSA, a national charity, was founded 10 years ago with the goal of encouraging Muslim women to take part in sports. It addresses mental health issues, a need to exercise, and loneliness.

Image: Helena Dolby in February foliage. Image: Helena Dolby

In its first ten years, the association has helped more than 2,500 women in the country fence, box, swim and race boats. They have also been able to hit cricket balls, bounce a basketball, kick footballs, and hit cricket balls.

This group is made up of women from East London, including Ilford, Romford Forest Gate, Stratford and Stratford, which are areas with large Pakistani or Bangladeshi communities. Nordic walking has been the most popular activity.

Anne Mills, a Nordic walking leader, has led women through the Thames Chase Forest Centre in the past few weeks as part of Forestry England’s Feel good in the Forest program. Other walks are held at Pages Wood, in the borough Havering.

Nordic walking uses poles in order to engage muscles of the upper body. Helena Dolby

Some people travel for over an hour just to attend. Begum says, “I travel from Stratford to take part in the walks. I don’t miss them.” The journey time shows how important these sessions are to Begum and others. It also shows the difficulty many people have in cities in getting to large, open green spaces.

Salma Quaium manages the MSA group in East London. She is a vocal advocate for Nordic Walking – an exercise with Finnish roots which uses poles to open the chest and engage the muscles in both the upper body and legs. Skiers developed it to stay in shape during their off-season. Mills says it’s great for people with lung conditions such as asthma or chronic obstructive respiratory disease, but also for “people who have been sitting in front of a desk all day”.

“The physical element has the biggest impact.” Quaium says that many women were exhausted when they first tried it. Completing one was a huge accomplishment.

Salma Quaium manages the Muslimah Sports Association East London group. Helena Dolby is the image of the Muslimah Sports Association’s east London group.

South Asians suffer from heart disease and diabetes at a higher rate than other people. Studies have also shown that south Asian women are less active. Quaium says that many people, particularly in our community, suffer from mental and physical health problems. “They come out because they need to escape, or for clarity. They’ve become friends and bonded. We have tea at the end. It’s really nice.”

Quaium says that for almost all women, their forays in the forest are their very first encounters with nature outside a city park. “We try to focus on what’s around: face the sun and stop to look at trees and plants. Anne, our guide is very knowledgeable and makes us listen to the bird song.”

Quaium identifies something that has been lost from her parents’ generation. South Asians who came to the UK were often from villages where nature was a given. They were worried about their children losing identity and values in a new country, just like any other immigrant parent. Quaium suggests her parents’ generation prioritized their religious identity over the value of being outdoors.

Anne Mills, a Nordic walker, leads the group through the woods. Helena Dolby

“Our parents worried that we would lose our Muslim identity [when they left their country] so have placed a lot of emphasis on our Muslim identities. They broke the bridge that they had built with nature.

Some UK Muslim women have difficulty accessing nature. This can make a forest stroll seem daunting or even impossible. In studies, the fear of racism and Islamophobia has been identified. Many ethnic minorities, whether real or perceived by them, have traditionally imagined rural areas as places where they were not welcome.

Participants gain confidence instantly when they realize that there are already people waiting to help them. Quaium encourages women who are nervous to attend. “I suggest that you just get there, give me a ring and we will all walk in together,” Quaium says.

Many ethnic minorities consider rural areas as places where they’re not welcome. Helena Dolby

The women have felt comfortable in the forest because of the connections they have developed within the group, but also outside it. Quaium says that passersby stopped to say hello on each walk. She says that Muslim women “sometimes” stay within their community and don’t talk to people of other ethnicities. “Those little discussions made [the women] feel that we’re not strange. We’re not odd. We’re here for the same reasons.

Dogs are a different matter. While it is nice to meet other walkers, they are not welcome. Dogs can make nature walks more difficult for Muslims, who are not used to interacting them. Quaium says: “The guides we had were fantastic.” They were very good at being aware if there were a large number of dogs or dog-walkers.”

Initially, MSA’s Nordic Walking sessions took place during winter, when Muslim prayer time is close together. It could have been difficult or impossible to attend. The Thames Chase Trust, Forestry England’s partner on site, provided a quiet prayer area for the group when the walks fell during prayer times. The MSA women were able to enjoy the sessions, take their time and even stay afterward for a cup tea and a chat.

These nature walks have strengthened both my connection to nature and my gratitude towards my creator

The benefits of having your religion respected, and accommodated, go beyond the practical. The women have been able to access their faith by walking in nature. They feel like they belong outdoors. Quaium says, “There was a tree that we stopped to stare at and there was a spiritual feeling that we felt.”

She remembers a woman with obsessive compulsive disorder, who came to be amongst the trees. “We talked about its benefits and she tried the exercise – she felt an intense connection .”

Main Image: Helena Dolby

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