- Tell us a little bit about yourself.
My name is Zenab Awan I live in Calgary Canada, I was born and raised in Winnipeg Manitoba. My parents immigrated to Canada from Pakistan. I live in Calgary with my husband and we own a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy here we’re one of the fastest-growing Jiu-Jitsu academies in Calgary. In Sha Allah, we are opening a second location in the New Year in 2023 so that’s coming soon and yeah that’s me in a nutshell.
- What makes you jump out of your bed every morning and motivates you to keep going?
So when I look back at my life I look back at the teenage version of me. That’s what motivates me now, to get out of bed every morning get a workout in, and go to jiu-jitsu. Because the teenage version of me was not allowed to do any of these things. So I do that for that version of Zenab and it just makes me really happy and also there are so many girls in the world that will never have the opportunities that I have, there are so many girls that live in tribal areas that will never see a gym in their life, they’re never going to get to do the things that they want to do. And when I look at my heritage, and I look at a lot of the women that came before me in my family, right I know their stories and I know they had dreams too, but they weren’t allowed to live their dreams and who knows what their experience was but you know I look back at that and I’m just like I’m doing this for all the women that came before me and my family including myself, and that’s what motivates me every morning to get out of bed and make the most of every opportunity that you have. I don’t want it to go to waste. I don’t want to look back at my life when I’m 90 and realize that you know I had opportunities at my fingertips in my adult life and I didn’t take advantage of them.
- Why did you decide to start Brazilian Jiujitsu (BJJ)?
Funny story I actually never decided to start Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu it was something that my husband got me into so my husband has been doing martial arts since he was very very young. He grew up in Trinidad and Tobago and martial arts was just a really big part of his life, and you know when we met he was always talking about martial arts and how we like you know he loved it and Jiu-Jitsu and all this stuff. So I knew that that was something that he was very passionate about and then when we got married uh there was this one day he wanted me to do Jiu-Jitsu with him and he sat on top of me and he pinned my arms down and he was like okay now try to get out and I was like what the hell is this like get off of me this is stupid what kind of a sport is this that you’re sitting on top of someone else like how demoralizing is that I want no part of this. He’s like no no you know you got to try it it’s so good you’re gonna love it and I was like uh-uh not for me like I’m never ever gonna do this.
Fast forward a few years later he was actually asked to teach at our local community centre and you know they wanted to have programs for kids so he was asked to teach there and our daughter was three years old at the time and you know we just added her into the class because you know there are other kids there and we were like sure why not you can try this as well and that was something that he really wanted for her as well. And I was pregnant at the time with our son and I used to just watch from the side and I was like okay you know this doesn’t look so bad maybe I can give it a try one day you know after the baby’s born, and unfortunately when my son was born he you know I had a very traumatic birthing experience with him. And at the time I didn’t realize my doctor told me afterwards that I was going through PTSD and that along with baby blues and hormones and all of that I just wasn’t in a really good place in my life. And my husband recognized that and he was like you know maybe you should give Jiu-Jitsu a try and he was actually teaching people at work um he was you know he was an engineer he was working downtown and at his lunch hour uh he was teaching people at his office and there were some ladies in the class as well and they wanted to work with other women and he’s like well we have mats in our basement why don’t you guys come over my wife can train with you guys and that we can do like a little class in our basement and it’s going to be great. So they came over and I remember it was February 13 2013. Sorry February 14th 2013 and that was the first time that I stepped on the Jiu-Jitsu mats and I did not like it at the time I was like I hate this is just one more challenge in my life that I have to go through and I did not enjoy myself at all. But my husband was like no no like you got to keep it going like you can do this I believe in you all that jazz and I just continued because these ladies were coming to my house and I continued with it I didn’t love it at the time but eventually, I started to see that I was making progress I was learning things I could focus on myself and not really focus on my kids it was like my little escape. And I never really looked back and we ended up making a business out of it, now we have our own Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Academy here in Calgary I train other women our kids are involved in it and now In Sha Allah we plan on opening a second location in 2023. In a nutshell that is my Jiu-Jitsu story and how it all began for me so credit actually goes to my husband.
- What’s your favourite BJJ submission technique? How is it done?
I don’t really have a favourite submission I would say that my Jiu-Jitsu has really evolved over the years. When I was a white belt I really loved playing around with the triangle choke, when I was a blue belt I was more about X chokes, and now at a purple belt, I’m more experimenting with a whole bunch of different techniques because I’m not focusing on just one thing, whereas before I was like this is working for me I’m just gonna do this to everyone I’m just going to X choke everyone I’m just going to Triangle, everyone. But then I really missed out on a whole bunch of other techniques so now that purple belt and this is just the evolution of you know as you move through the belt systems this is supposed to happen. Now I’m experimenting with different positions and different techniques um so right now I would say I really love the Deep half-guard it’s something I’ve been working on for a while and I’m just having a lot of fun with it.
- What struggles did you face playing sports and wearing the hijab?
So I actually didn’t play that many sports when I was growing up. I was on the basketball team when I was in grade five. Now I would say as an adult I don’t really have any limitations because I’m an adult I’m very confident when I go out, and I just do what I need to do like I don’t see the hijab as a limitation I think people put limitations on us. Clothing does not and definitely, the hijab is not a limitation for me at all I don’t see it as a struggle. In fact, when you’re training Jiu-Jitsu the hijab actually protects your hair from breakage because if you look at Jujitsu girls they have really broken up strands of hair, because of all the tugging and the pulling and rolling, so the hijab is actually a blessing in disguise because it’s actually protecting my hair when I’m training.
- What are some taboos revolving around Muslim women doing grappling sports in particular?
This is a very interesting question and I really had to think hard about this answer. I feel that, I think the taboos surround I don’t think there are taboos surrounding a grappling sport, in particular, I just think in general sports are taboo. And unless you know this is what really drives me to continue training and you know I, I put it out there on social media is because I want people to see that it’s not something that’s Taboo it’s not a terrible thing it’s not bad for a mom to put herself first and play a sport as an adult.
- Where do you think the gap lies when it comes to the right attire for Muslim women in sports?
This is another really interesting question. Muslim women across the board are, all of us are very unique and some of us we’re hijab we don’t wear hijab some of us are more modest than others uh and so we all have our own sense of like our style and how we express ourselves whether that’s through clothing or what have you. And I feel that we just need more variety in the market I don’t feel like there’s enough variety out there. There are a lot of Muslim owned businesses that are coming out with sports for Muslim women. So I just feel that women, in general, are so unique we all have our own needs we all have our own tyles. I think the where the gap comes in is that there’s just not enough variety. And because you know there’s so many of us in the world there are billions of Muslim women in the world, because we all have our own styles there’s just not enough variety in the market to cater to everyone and it’s never going to cater to everyone but um that’s that would be my answer.
- In regards to the sports hijab what have mainstream brands, for example, NIKE missed out?
Oh Nike was very disappointing when they came out with their sports hijab. I purchased it I was super excited because I was like yes finally we have a sports hijab for Muslim women and it literally felt like they took the fabric, folded it over and cut a hole for the face, and slapped on the Nike swoosh and they called it a sports hijab. it was not comfortable at all, it did not work for jiu-jitsu for me personally anyways because I don’t know, I just have like sensory issues and I need my hair to be pulled back and I’m very particular about the way my hijab needs to be on my head when I’m training and the Nike hijab just was not doing it for me. I don’t think. I don’t know I’m just speculating I don’t know if Nike reached out to Muslim women who play sports. Nike is a huge corporation that had the opportunity to reach out to so many women, they have the capability and the resources to find Muslim women in every corner of the earth and they could have asked any one of us, I don’t know if they did but I don’t feel like they consulted any Muslim women on how the hijab should be.
I also feel and I have to say this, that a lot of Muslim women are were too quick to criticize mainstream companies that came out with a sports hijab because to me it felt like damned if they do and damned if they don’t. A lot of us want to see hijab in the mainstream we want to normalize it right we’re starting to see brands opening up to it. We’re starting to see you know hijabi models that Sephora which is awesome because it is making it a little bit more normal. But a lot of these companies I don’t know what their intention was we’re criticized for it because they were seen as appropriating it, and just profiting off of it from like a business standpoint and a lot of people criticize these companies for it. But in my mind, I’m just like you know we want this to be more mainstream, we want to see hijab you know shown and we want these companies to cater to Muslim women and then when they do that they’re criticized for it so I’m not criticizing a company like Nike for trying to profit off a sports hijab, I own a business I know how business works I’m that that’s not what I’m criticizing them for I’m just criticizing them for the design of it the design was very disappointing I know that some companies did like, Under Armour, they actually consulted someone, Munir who is a huge influencer in Toronto and rightfully so because she is killing it in the gym all the time and she is one of their brand ambassadors and I think they did actually consult her which I think was brilliant and who better than someone like I think they did the right thing there. I don’t know if other companies did that but that is what they should be doing.
- How do you think mainstream brands can learn about Muslim consumers’ needs and make products catering to them?
They just need to reach out. A lot of these companies just need to put in the time and reach out. They need to budget for that, they need to reach out to people that play different sports Muslim women that play different sports. Not all of us run and go to the gym and you know just do like the basic things, some of us play Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu some of us are wrestlers, some of us are you know we there’s girls that are into heavy weightlifting and Olympic weightlifting. You know there’s we’re all so different and our needs are so diverse and they have the capability to make it more diverse, um they just are not putting in the effort to reach out a little bit more.
- What advice do you give Muslim women who want to play sports but are scared because of such limitations?
This is a really good question I’m actually really excited to answer this one. For those that have children, they need to stop thinking that they have to live to serve their kids otherwise, you know your kids are going to be fine for an hour every week, if you go to a jiu-jitsu class or if you go to the gym or if you go play basketball. They’re going to be fine you know not everybody has the privilege to do that. Everyone’s situation is unique
um but I also would like to say and this is you know more importantly I feel that you know on social media there are a lot of influencers that use Beauty and Fashion as a way to influence others rather than using Sports and Fitness there are a lot of people in the Sports and Fitness industry that have huge followings and they’re doing amazing things and they’re influencing others and it’s awesome. But when we’re solely focused on that as a way to make ourselves feel good, I think that’s where it’s really problematic because sports are not just for kids. I don’t know why people think that Sports is something that we put children in and then when we become an adult you know it just kind of goes out the window we don’t prioritize it, we don’t budget for it because it’s not a priority. Sports teach people, and I say people because it’s good for kids and
it’s good for adults. We make it like my husband and I make it a priority for us and out and our kids. There’s just no excuse for you know not going to Ju-jitsu it’s kind of like a religion in our house like you you go to Jiu-Jitsu no matter what you know unless you’re sick and you’re injured of course or you know if you need a mental break, but you know there are so many benefits to it and I think that, the limitations that Muslim women put on
themselves it’s because they’re being influenced or they’re being told by someone else they’re not seeing it for themselves that Sports and Fitness can be so good for their mental health and I’ve already listed the reasons why.
- Could you highlight the key points for people who wear hijabs to look out for when finding a sports hijab?
Now, this really depends on what your needs are for your sport. For me I’m a grappling sport, you know Jiu-Jitsu you have people sitting on top of you, and you’re put into positions where you know you have to get out of really tight spots. So for me, if you know, if you’re someone who also does a grappling sport maybe you’re into wrestling or judo or what have you, uh you need something that’s moisture-wicking, uh you need something that is tight fitting to the head you don’t want Flappy material because it’s just going to get in the way and it’s very dangerous for your partner because you can get your fingers caught into the fabric and in a scramble, if your fingers get caught you can cut off circulation and then you can lose a finger it’s just it’s not good to have Flappy Fabric and unfortunately, I’ve seen a lot of sports hijabs out there that are like full coverage and they have a lot of flappy fabric on them. I find that very problematic and just downright dangerous when you’re playing a grappling type of sport it might work for other Industries but for grappling I just think you need to stay away from that. Uh you also need something that is going to stay on your head, right you don’t want something that’s loose so you need something that’s a little bit tighter and you also need to make sure that it is secure to your body and that it’s not moving around because the most annoying thing about wearing a hijab is that you have to like tuck it in everywhere and make sure that it’s not like flying off of your head. So those are the things that I would say to look out for specifically for grappling. But for any kind of sport in general, I think that moisture wicking is important because when sweat gets into it it can weigh it down and it’s just very uncomfortable, very unsafe and it’s just not hygienic for you to be wearing something like that. So and also I would say try to support Muslim businesses that come out with sports hijabs there are so many out there that have done a good job with uh you know designing hijabs for Muslim women by Muslim women and so I strongly recommend that we are supporting those companies um because that’s what we want to be more mainstream. But again at the end of the day, it really depends on what type of sport you do and what your needs are.
- We found that you have also designed your own sports hijab, what are its unique selling points?
Yes it is true I have designed my own sports hijab for Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and I’m super excited to release it in 2023 in Sha Allah it is in the works. I’ve been working on it for a really long time and I want to make sure that it’s perfect before I get it out to the public so stay tuned for that. I don’t want to give too much information away but I will say this that the sports job that I’m coming out with is specifically for people that grapple, and my hope is that because they’ll see that there’s a hijab out there specifically for grappling sports, I really hope that Muslim women will start taking up Jiu-Jitsu and seeing that this is something that they can do and it’s not something that you know has a limitation on them I don’t want hijab to be that limitation for women. I think that hijab is just at the end of the day it’s a piece of fabric I know that it carries a lot of spiritual significance but at the end of the day it’s a piece of fabric and we shouldn’t feel that you know people are looking at us or you know we can’t do this sport, people are going to look at us regardless and you can’t please everyone at the end of the day. And you know your body is amazing you can do amazing things with it, and you know this particular Sports hijab is going to make you feel comfortable, it’s going to allow you to train without it moving around, its gonna be specifically for grapplers and I can’t wait to share that with everyone.