Seema Yasmin is a Cambridge-educated doctor, a champion in the field of diseases and epidemics, a poet, an Emmy-award-winning journalist and an author.
In her new book, Muslim Women Are Everything, she recounts the achievements of Muslim women across the world and their battles against racial and gender prejudice to become elite leaders in their chosen specialties.
“The women in my book show what can be achieved. It was really hard to choose the selection: I wanted Muslim women from across the world, from Africa to Brazil, to tell their stories,” she says.
Yasmin chose Muslim artist Fahmida Azim to illustrate the book. It was important to her, she said, after showcasing all the amazing achievements of these women, that it should be a Muslim woman who illustrated them.
One of the Muslim women depicted in the book is the weightlifter Amna Al Haddad from the UAE, who you can read about below.
[ Read our interview with Seema Yasmin about how she was 'fed up' with Muslim stereotypes here. ]
PAVING A PATH
Amna Al Haddad, United Arab Emirates
AMNA AL HADDAD had a career as a journalist writing about empowered women doing amazing things when she began a journey that turned her into the kind of role model she wrote about. Amna had suffered crippling depression as a teenager, an illness that manifested in many ways, including extreme exhaustion and overeating. At nineteen, she decided she didn’t have to settle for feeling unhealthy and unfit, and headed to Dubai’s Safa Park, where she started to walk. Walking turned to running, which turned into a love affair with the gym, where she discovered a new facet of her personality: a competitive streak. Not content with machines and regular weight-lifting exercises, Amna learned the moves and techniques of Olympic weightlifting and began competing in bodybuilding contests. “I never in my life thought that a walk - a simple walk - could actually change my life. But that’s exactly what happened. Because I took action, I took charge.”
But in 2009, the International Weightlifting Federation forbade women from competing in headscarves and unitards, effectively sidelining Muslim women. Two years later, it loosened those rules and lauded itself for its "progressive strength". A year later, Amna took part in the Reebok Crossfit Asia Regionals as the first Arab woman ever to compete. In 2013, she made history as the first female weightlifter from the Gulf to compete wearing hijab. She wasn't just competing against other athletes, Amna was fighting a culture that tells women lifting weights makes them unattractive, that competitiveness should be saved for navigating marital pursuits, not perfecting deadlifts.
Amna is inspired by Najwan El Zawawi, the Egyptian athlete who represented her country in the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Najwan moved to the UAE in 2009 to set up a weightlifting program for women and began to train Amna, who by 2016 had racked up six gold and three silver medals at International Weightlifting Federation events.
But along the path, Amna struggled with depression, injuries, and the fight to balance her need to push herself while also taking care of her body. She was encouraged by a coach to move to train in the American Midwest. When she arrived, a searing pain in her back worsened, and coaches told her to push through the ache. She overtrained and broke down. A doctor's visit revealed the back pain she had been pushing through was a serious disc injury.
Right when Amna was about to give up, she got a life-changing call: The UAE national team was preparing for the 2016 Olympics and wanted Amna to join them. She crowdfunded her way back to the UAE, worked through treatment, and scored enough points in the Asian Olympics qualifier in Uzbekistan to compete. Right when success seemed in reach, her back injury worsened, and Amna had to bow out. It could have crushed her. Instead, Amna looks at her road to the Olympics through the lens of gratitude and community. "Even though I didn't participate, I still consider my journey a success due to the shift it has brought to the pool of talent of Emirati female athletes," she told Vogue Arabia.
Her persistence and determination inspired global sporting brand Nike to recruit her as an ambassador. "I was not given the tools or the circumstances. I just created it and I made it happen," she said while lifting weights in a Nike training video. But as Nike technicians studied Amna's movements in the hopes of designing trainers and gloves she could wear to optimize her training, what Amna really wanted was a hijab that was easy to clean and dry and wouldn't leave her sweaty. Her request led to Nike developing the first sports hijab, a pull-on garment made of power-mesh breathable fabric that rocked the industry when it was launched. It also generated a backlash from those who said the company was cashing in on the oppression of women. Amna shared her perspective on social media. "When we pursue unconventional sports - or any sport for that matter - others say: 'What will they say about you?' It's time to change the question and redefine the answer: 'How many will you inspire?' MANY!"
For using her platform to raise awareness about mental health and challenging the misconception that it can be prayed away or trained away, Amna received the Rosalynn Carter Journalism Fellowship for Mental Illness in 2016, making her the first Emirati to win the award. She considers the struggle against depression a lifelong journey but believes that weightlifting is part of her healing, despite the naysayers who say women should stay in the house, not in the gym. "There's a lot of resistance, a lot of rejection. But when that is happening you know you are tapping on something that is untouched, and that's where you start to pave a path for others."
* This is an edited extract of Muslim Women Are Everything: Stereotype-Shattering Stories of Courage, Inspiration, and Adventure (Harper Design, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers), written by Seema Yasmin and illustrated by Fahmida Azim, which is out now.