In an article published in Runner’s World, Zahra Arabzada ’19 speaks out about why she chooses to run in her hijab, as well as the purpose and hope that drive her to challenge misconceptions about Muslim women in sports. The article appeared in anticipation of Arabzada completing a 50-mile ultramarathon on Sept. 16, where she finished seventh in her age group after running for 16 hours and 56 minutes.
“Throughout the race, I constantly reminded myself that it is absolutely a blessing, honor and privilege to have the freedom, peace in mind and the support to spend all those hours in the trail,” says Arabzada of the Springfield, Mass. ultramarathon. “I thought of my mother who has a hard time leaving our house in Afghanistan because of security reasons and I thought of all the Afghan girls who wish to be right where I am at this moment. Those were my main motivations to cross the finish line.”
The article is titled, “Asics? Check. Hijab? Check. Meet the Afghan Student in New York Running for Equality,” and chronicles Arabzada’s journey from her home in Kunduz, Afghanistan to her life as a runner, biochemistry major and blogger at HWS. For Arabzada, running became a way to express her freedom and “change the narrative around veiled Muslim women.” She began to write her own blog, the Hijabi Runner, to provide a resource for non-Muslims about her experiences and to offer support to Muslims who choose an active lifestyle.
During these interviews, she says she has had the opportunity to reflect on the reason why she runs.
“I’ve learned you should run toward the person you strive to be in the next day, month, year and decade. Challenges will always be there and excuses will sound more appealing than reality. Choose reality because there is nothing more beautiful than looking back and patting yourself on the shoulder and saying, ‘Wow, did I actually do that? Because yeah, I did.’”
On campus, Arabzada is a member of the Public Leadership Education Network and the HWS Running Club. She is a Resident Assistant and a tour guide for the Office of Admissions. She was also a part of the HWS Physics Department’s RockSat-C aerospace research team and is enrolled in the Leadership Certification Program through the Centennial Center.
The full text of the Runner’s World article is as follows:
“Asics? Check. Hijab? Check. Meet the Afghan Student in New York Running for Equality”
Jenny McCoy, Sept. 15, 2017
The comments are unsolicited—and often accompanied by stares.
Don’t you get hot?
You are in America—you don’t have to wear that thing on your head.
It’s been three years since twenty-year-old Zahra Arabzada, an Afghan student at New York’s William Smith College, began running in a hijab. And while she’s grown more immune to the reactions about her running attire, she hopes that by continuing to run—and continuing to speak out about these experiences—the comments will change.
“People are unconsciously offensive,” says Arabzada, who has run two half marathons, one full marathon and is currently training for a 50-mile ultramarathon. “Since when does being more covered mean you are torturing yourself?”
For Arabzada, who was born in Iran and raised in Afghanistan, wearing a hijab is a personal choice. It’s about modesty, dignity and humility. “There is this image of Muslim women being seen as oppressed,” she says. “I am not wearing the scarf because I am oppressed—there is no man forcing me to wear this.”
It’s a freedom that Arabzada is acutely aware of; something she thinks about every time she runs.
Born in Iran, Arabzada is the second youngest of nine siblings. She was raised in Kunduz, a city in northern Afghanistan, by parents who never attended school and cannot read or write. Still, they recognized the value in education, and at age 13, allowed Arabzada to attend the School of Leadership Afghanistan (SOLA), an elite girls school in Kabul. The experience radically shifted the trajectory of her life. She learned English, honed her leadership skills and developed a passion for human rights. At age 15, another opportunity arrived: a scholarship to finish high school at St. George’s, an elite private boarding school in Rhode Island.
Transitioning to American life was difficult—at times, extremely difficult—and not in the ways most people might think, Arabzada says.
She adjusted to the foreign cuisine, the rapid rate at which people talked and the typical dynamics of teenage social life. But little, everyday things proved to be the hardest. Like becoming comfortable walking alone at night—even short distances like the 100-foot trek from the library to her dorm—because in a war-torn country, “women just don’t go anywhere by themselves.”
Or the fact that she couldn’t sleep at first because it was quiet, so much quieter than her hometown, where the sounds of gunshots and police cars and sirens played on a seemingly endless loop.
But Arabzada surpassed the cultural adjustments by focusing on her top priority: getting an education. “Every single day I was like ‘How I am here?’” Arabzada remembers of her first year at St. George’s. “I just thought ‘I am so blessed’.”
And then she discovered running.
Rewriting a narrative
It was the spring of 2014, and the cross country coach at St. George’s noticed Arabzada working out at the gym. She urged her to join the team that coming fall, an invite that Arabzada, a rising senior at the time, swiftly declined. “There is no way I will run like this with the scarf,” she responded. She’d never seen a Hijabi runner—and certainly didn’t think of becoming one herself.
“But then my coach said something that was really powerful,” remembers Arabzada. “She said, ‘I don’t want to hear you telling me that the reason you don’t want to run is the way you dress.’”
The coach’s words bounced around her head as she traveled home to Afghanistan that summer. After spending time there and experiencing the everyday oppression faced by women, she had an epiphany. “I realized what a great freedom it is to be able to run outside, so why don’t I do it?” says Arabzada. “It’s really a blessing to be able to put your shoes on and run.”
So Arabzada joined the team that fall. Her passion for the sport only grew from there.
In 2015, she connected with the nonprofit Free to Run, an organization whose mission is to empower women and girls in conflict-affected regions through sport.
Free to Run introduced Arabzada to a running coach who helped her train for the Free to Run half marathon in September 2015 and then the Free to Run marathon in September 2016. Seeking a “new degree of challenge,” Arabzada signed up for this year’s Free to Run 50-miler, scheduled for September 16 in Massachusetts’ Pittsfield State Forest.
“Running has never been about time, losing weight or being competitive,” Arabzada says when asked what drives her. Instead, it’s about running towards a different, brighter future.
In an effort to normalize Hijabi women in sports, Arabzada created a blog this spring, The Hijabi Runner, which documents her experiences—both good and bad—while running in her headscarf.
“Today, I run because I hope to change the narrative around veiled Muslim women,” writes Arabzada in a blog post from June. “Muslims’ lifestyle have been stereotyped and demonized for decades and the current political climate in the U.S. has hit many minorities and Muslims the hardest. I want this blog to be a useful and entertaining resource for both Muslims and non-Muslims.”
Another post, from July, describes a more meta reason for running. “We all run away from something, or toward something,” Arabzada writes. “Run toward the person you strive to be in the next month, year, or decade.”
An intestinal fortitude
Arabzada hasn’t been home or seen her family in more than three years. Her parents never went to school and don’t know how to use the internet, so they keep in touch with too-short phone calls from a rudimentary Nokia phone.
“I really miss my mom,” says Arabzada. “It’s getting to the point where I think about her everyday.”
Arabzada isn’t sure when she’ll be able to see her next. She desperately wants to visit her hometown, but it’s in one of the provinces currently controlled by the Taliban, so venturing there would be risky. There are also people in Kunduz—including some relatives—who do not approve of her living in the U.S. and pursuing an education. Arabzada is afraid of what might happen if she were to encounter them in person. And lastly, given the current political climate in our country, a trip home could to Afghanistan could jeopardize Arabzada’s chances of ever returning to the U.S.
And so she stays in Geneva, New York, burying her head in biostatistic textbooks and clearing her mind with miles and miles on the city’s winding, forested paths and alongside its iconic Seneca Lake.
“Every time I run, I realize more why I do this,” says Arabzada, who is majoring in pre-med. “Running reminds me how far I have come in life, and I think about how blessed I am to be in this place.”
Through training for the ultra, Arabzada says she’s learned that running is as much a mental challenge as a physical one. The sport provides an intestinal fortitude that helps her continue her education despite being one of the only Muslims on campus, despite being more than 6,000 miles away from her family, despite the derogatory comments that seem to follow her wherever she runs.
Arabzada’s ultimate goal: run a marathon in her home country. She knows it’s a bit of a pipe dream, at least at this point, in a country where women still struggle to walk to school safely. But she’s hopeful.
“Maybe having a marathon won’t stop the war, but it might change the mindset of a woman and there is nothing more powerful than that,” says Arabzada. “In Afghanistan, you grow up doing everything for the benefit of a man. To be able to give a platform for women to have 30 or even 15 minutes to themselves where they can feel like they own their own lives, that is so powerful.”