I have frequented a myriad of gyms for over a decade, and never have I been so immediately struck by another patron as I was by Houdah Abotteen at Genesis Health Club in Kansas City. That’s not just because Houdah, a 26-year old female, was putting up dumbbells heavier than any of the males beside her. It’s because as she did it, she wore long clothing that concealed her body and a hijab that concealed all but her face.
Wait! cried my cognitive associations. This is a Muslim woman lifting weights, a Muslim woman who is seriously badass. What’s going on here? Even with her body covered, anyone could tell she was what the meatheads call “stacked”. She looked like she could drop any dude at will, should the intention fit the desire. My mind raced through it’s familiar categories. Aren’t Muslim women oppressed by men? Doesn’t Islam promote weak women? This doesn’t fit what I am used to! By her mere presence at the dumbbell rack, Houdah shattered these associations I unconsciously carried. I had to learn more. As she stretched between set, gaze focused like a tigress, I approached her. She took out her earbuds, and she greeted me with a smile.
I told her she was quite awesome. She felt flattered and thanked me for the compliment.
Once she communicated she was open to addressing my questions, no matter how tinged in unconsciously-assimilated stereotype they sounded, my questions came pouring out: What does your family think of this? Do you get weird responses from people on the streets? Are you trying to make a statement?
Houdah answered each of my questions with tact, calm, and grace. Each response expanded my intrigue at her unique perspective. Ten minutes in, fearing I was distracting from her workout, I asked if she would meet me for coffee, where I could interview her for this piece. She enthusiastically agreed. On top of agreeing, she challenged me to join her for a workout in the interview’s wake. I told her I’d be delighted.
I said farewell, completed a difficult set of incline press with 60 lb. dumbbells, and left the gym to the sound of Houdah grunting as she easily repped out 65s.
Early the next morning, we met at a Starbucks near the gym, and for over an hour we engaged in a sprawling and delightful conversation through which Houdah willingly shared her unique perspective, which I am delighted to share with you.
Houdah was born in Emporia, Kansas to parents who had moved to the States from Palestine. When she was a young girl, they moved to Kansas City due to its superior Muslim presence. She grew up with five brothers, and she attributes the genesis of her interest in health and fitness to their childhood influence. She learned to “hang with the guys,” which would aid her down the wellness road. Long desiring to help people—at one point she felt a strong pull to midwifery—Houdah eventually attended UMKC to pursue nursing, and she now works full-time at St. Luke’s Hospital in Kansas City.
It became clear that Houdah is the type of person who dreams big and works to actualize those dreams. Though some of her early dreams had to be released, such as her desires to go to Harvard and become the first hijabi woman to play in the WNBA, one need only glance at her physicality to see she has actualized her desire to live a bodybuilding lifestyle, a desire that she traces back to a high school weightlifting class.
“At first, I could barely lift the bar,” Houdah admitted. “By the end, I was one of the strongest girls.”
“In the whole school?” I asked.
She nodded with a smile.
Houdah loved how people responded to her growing strength. The compliments she received motivated her to continue. Though her dedication to weightlifting dwindled in her early college years as she focused wholeheartedly on her nursing pursuits, she reclaimed her fitness drive her junior year and has not slacked off since. She cleaned up her diet. She acquainted herself with bodybuilders at the gym, enamored with their chiseled abs and bulging deltoids. She wanted to look like them, and she gathered tips to learn how. She discovered Instagram accounts of muscular women and felt transfixed by the physiques.
“When I look at muscular woman, that’s very attractive to me. A lot of my friends say, ‘Oh I don’t want to look like that. That’s manly. That’s too bulky. She’s too muscular.’ But for me, that’s very attractive. I feel like it’s a sense of power, a sense of confidence. And that’s the look that I always wanted to go for.”
Houdah became stronger, more muscular, and despite her friends’ reservations, the compliments came pouring in. While the compliments and the aesthetics yielded great initial fuel, they quickly became secondary to her deeper motivations.
“After a while, it stopped being about looks, and more about how it made me feel.” She described the blissful, confidence-imbuing sensations that come from what Arnold once described as “the pump”. Her self-esteem increased dramatically. She sought article after article about nutrition, anatomy, and physiology and even started selling meal plans and workout plans so as to use her growing knowledge to help others. Once her motivation came from this internal source of wellness, there could be no stopping Houdah in her pursuits. The gym had become a gigantic playground through which she could dance around and connect more deeply to her inner self.
Women who pursue a path to physical strength and musculature with such fervor are impressive enough, but female bodybuilders wholeheartedly devoted to Islam? That’s what makes Houdah’s story exceptional. That’s what crumbled my stereotypes.
Despite what these associations of mind dictated, Houdah informed me her religion has never limited her. The reality is quite the contrary.
“My hijab never prevented me from getting into fitness. I feel like it empowers me, because I’m changing people’s perspectives. I’m breaking two stereotypes. I’m breaking the fact that, ‘Yes, women, you can lift heavy and not look like a man,’ and also, ‘Muslim women, don’t be afraid. You can workout. You can go to the gym. It doesn’t matter.’” Through her presence, she shows open-minded-yet-somewhat-ignorant Americans like me that Muslim women, like all women, are at liberty to love and respect themselves as powerful individuals. And Houdah admitted several times her total love for her body, a love rooted in wellness without a tinge of ego.
I asked, “Why, then, do you cover it?”
She informed me the covering has nothing to do with shame. Rather, Muslim women cover their bodies in modesty and self-respect.
“We don’t want to be gawked at and looked at by men,” she said. “We’re not gonna be wearing short skirts that will reveal our bodies.”
I asked, “Doesn’t this yield a tension with your love for your body?”
She told me, “I do it for myself, not for other people. Even though you can’t see how I look, I see how I look. And that’s the most important thing. If you’re doing something for other people, it’s not going to stick. When you do something for yourself, it’s gonna stick.”
No arguing with that.
We got a little more into her faith. During the thirty days of Ramadan, Muslims fast from dawn to sundown, bookending their days with large meals. By fasting, I do not mean they give up a particular food or drink. They give up all food and drink, including water. Houdah remains dedicated to the month of Ramadan when it comes, and amidst it, she still hits the gym. She stays up until sunrise, prays, sleeps until about three, wakes up, does cardio (incline walking), goes to work for a few hours, eats after sundown, digests for an hour, then lifts weights. That’s a level of dedication few reach.
As our conversation reached its apotheosis, it became clear that pretty much all of my perceptions of Muslim women had come from the mainstream media. Houdah observed, “The way the media portrays Muslim women is that we’re oppressed, confined to our houses, and can’t do anything. And that’s not at all what Islam does for the women. That’s more based off culture and the way you’re raised. It has nothing to do with the religion.”
“So people are confusing the culture with the religion?” I asked.
Houdah nodded. “The religion never prevents women from doing what they want to do. It does say ‘Obey your husband.’ But it also says, ‘Obey your wife.’”
Who would have thought the American media would sway the truth?
Through her presence and words, Houdah had dismantled more of my perceptions than I could count, all through open-mindedness, confidence, understanding, and compassion. In the end, amidst all the lessons she taught me, her predominant message focused on the importance of self-love, and how connected self-love is with our relationships to our bodies and our minds.
“In order to be healthy, to have a healthy mind, is to love yourself. When you’re looking at yourself in the mirror, it’s to love what you see. It’s not about how many miles you can run or how much weight you can lift. Just being able to go about your life happy with your life, happy with who you are. Being muscular is not for everyone. It’s about feeling comfortable in your body, loving your body.”
When so many media-infused perspectives focus on critiquing and belittling women’s bodies, when eating disorders and body issues are at least as significant as ever before, Houdah’s perspective affirms the ability to transcend cultural paradigms by embracing internal strength and purposeful living, unaffected by the fears and judgments others carry. Hateful people surround us, and if we listen to them, we choose to descend to their level. Despite all the compliments she receives, Houdah still experiences some negativity. Some people tell her, “I don’t want to look like you.”
With a confident smile, Houdah replies, “Don’t worry. You never will.”
Workout and Aftermath
I won’t take you through every set and rep of the back workout Houdah led me through. I’ll just say she totally kicked my butt. I’m not a weak guy (though I’m no Arnold, admittedly), and each set, Houdah pulled at least as much weight as me, quite often more. I left exhausted, knowing my back would be sore for days, and as I departed, Houdah informed me she was about to blast her deltoids. That butt-whooping was but half of her workout.
I left the gym that day with a strong sense of gratitude, a sense that still remains. I am grateful this strong woman trusted me enough to shine light on her unique perspective, a perspective that can help Americans like me expand our media-downloaded perceptions of the religion of Islam. So much strife comes from premature judgment and misunderstanding. I am grateful Houdah walks confidently through the world and breaks barriers with her presence, challenging people to see outside of what they think they believe, for so often, what we think we believe proves oceans separate from the truth.
*Houdah’s Instagram page, “thecoveredchronicles”, can be found here.