When Aysha Sharif, who wears a head covering, began regularly hiking in England’s Lake District, she says she attracted unwanted attention.
“I was a hijabi and a brown woman and I was up in these mountains where there [were] a lot of white people,” the British Pakistani dentist and mother of three recalls. Comments from passersby made it clear that people felt she didn’t belong on the mountain. Exploring the surrounding towns was even worse.
“That’s when you feel it,” Sharif says. “You’re the only one and it’s strange because you speak the language, you know the culture…but still there’s a barrier.”
Hiking is one of the easiest activities for travelers to join in. With just a pair of sneakers, you can pick your destination and set out to explore. But for hikers who are Muslim the feeling of belonging can be harder to find.
A grassroots initiative by British marathoner Haroon Mota has set out to create a more inclusive hiking community and ensure a better experience for everyone venturing into wild outdoor spaces.
Supporting Muslim hikers
Sharif’s experience hiking solo stands in stark contrast to the joy she felt last summer on a trek out to Mount Snowdon, the highest peak in England and Wales. She was joined by dozens of hikers who shared her skin color, her preference for wearing the traditional Muslim head scarf (hijab), and her determination to complete the hike.
“It was just sort of like a family,” she recalls with a sigh during a Zoom from her home near Manchester.
The outing was organized by Muslim Hikers, the online group founded by Mota on Instagram in 2020. That summer, the murder of George Floyd sparked global outrage, and Mota saw an opportunity to empower his community.
He knew that many in his community, especially Muslim women who “cover,” found the predominantly white culture of the outdoors exclusionary and intimidating. He decided to create a space in which Muslims—with niqabs (face coverings), head scarves, or long beards—could see themselves being safe and active outdoors. Since the lockdown ended, the group has been able to offer hikes throughout the country and has plans to grow.
The problem of underrepresentation isn’t unique to Britain. A 2021 report from the Outdoor Industry Association found that although white people make up close to 60 percent of the U.S. population, they comprise almost 75 percent of people who participate in outdoor activities such as hiking, biking, fishing, and camping.
Among people who participate in outdoor activities more than once a week, 6 percent are Asian and 11 percent are Hispanic. Participation rates for Blacks in the same category remained stagnant at 9 percent—a number which hasn’t changed for the last three years. This despite efforts over the past few years to increase minority participation in the outdoor space by organizations such as Latinx Hikers, Black People Who Hike, Unlikely Hikers, and Outdoor Asian.
But Mota remains optimistic that participation rates can change. He employs professional mountain guides for his hikes, most of whom are also Muslim or from ethnic minority communities, so people feel physically and emotionally safe.
“We want to build confidence and give people the opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals…especially when it comes to Muslim women traveling independently,” he says. “I’m seeing circles of friends growing and people planning to do their own adventures together.”
Sharif says it is those personal connections that have proven particularly powerful. “It wasn’t just a hike, it was sort of like personal prayer,” says Sharif. “It was like a therapy session, and everybody was just bringing in their own experiences of life and just encouraging each other. It was such a beautiful feeling.”
Building community ties
What started out as a goal to empower Muslim hikers in the U.K. has spread to the communities they touch.
A recent outing Mota organized in the Peak district involved an afternoon hike followed by tea at the only halal tea shop in the area. (The Muslim faith requires that food be halal, referring to the religious laws governing how an animal is raised, slaughtered, and consumed.) The event sold out in three hours.
What hikers likely didn’t know when they signed up was that the Hayfield tearoom’s owner, 36-year-old Rukiya Dadhiwala, has been battling racist attacks on her business, which is also a B&B and a chocolatier, since she opened in 2019. Friends have told her they’re concerned for her safety.
“It’s been a bit of a roller coaster ride,” she says. “We don’t have a lot of support within our little village.”
So, the afternoon 35 Muslim hikers dined in her shop or sat nibbling and sipping outside is one of the highlights of her life. “It was wonderful to see the tearoom so full,” says Dadhiwala, who currently only operates two days a week for lack of local support. “For me to look out my window and just see a lot of people that looked like me was such an amazing feeling. This is what all the tears have been about. This is what I’ve been working for.”
Recently Mota was asked to speak about how the outdoors industry can better support everyday athletes during required periods of religious fasting like Ramadan. (During this holy month, Muslims fast from dawn to dusk.)
Some outdoor athletic clothing companies have started indicating their support. Arcteryx has sponsored Muslim Hikers events; Jack Wolfskin and Adidas manufacture athletic wear lines that include hijabs and facial coverings.
“We’re in an exciting place at the moment,” says Mota. “At the same time, we’re thinking about strategic steps that will create even more sustainable change.”
The group’s efforts have also attracted negative attention. “Our most recent walk was on Christmas Day,” says Mota. “Over 130 walkers signed up from around the U.K. to hike up Mam Tor in the Peak District. After the hike, some of our photos of the trip were shared to the Derbyshire and Peak District Walks Facebook group. It wasn’t long until some members of the group left vile, racist comments.”
While reading the comments was painful for group members, the result has likely been the opposite of what the posters expected. The Muslim Hikers group gained more than 25,000 followers across its social media pages in one week alone, with messages of inclusion and solidarity.
“I’m not the sort of person to become upset or disheartened at [racist] comments, it only motivates me more to do what I feel passionate about,” says Mota. “We will carry on getting outdoors, there is no stopping us.”