Meet a Hijab-Wearing Marathon Runner

Syrian runner and Adidas ambassador Rahaf Khatib on crossing finish lines and breaking barriers.

Adidas is launching the next phase of its awareness-raising “She Breaks Barriers” campaign: a video series of personal stories by exceptional female athletes. Among them is marathon runner Rahaf Khatib, the first Syrian to complete six world marathon majors. With 11 Marathons and two triathlons under her belt, Khatib is also a cover star to boot. Gracing Runner’s World back in 2015, she was the first in the magazine’s history to wear a hijab.

A model of physical and emotional strength, Khatib balances motherhood with athletics and endorsements; she is now at work on creating a sports hijab for Adidas, to be released 2020. We interviewed the star of the “She Breaks Barriers” campaign, debuted on International Women’s Day, to learn about her motivations, the tension between modesty and sexuality, and running (around) the world. 

What motivated you to start running?

I’m the kind of person that loves challenges. I’m a mom of three, and I started going to the gym—not to lose weight, but because they offered babysitting services. It gave me a couple of hours away from my babies to just do something for myself—to feel good and to think, and sweat away those postpartum blues.

It worked but it wasn’t enough. So when my kids’ school signed up for a one-mile race, I signed myself up. Mind you, I hated running in school; I’d never run a mile outside of gym class, ever. But I thought, this is a challenge to step outside of that comfort zone of home, kids, cook, husband.

I crossed the finish line that day feeling like a million bucks. I felt euphoric and elated. I went back the year after that and completed the half, then the full marathon and became addicted to crossing finish lines. That’s when it dawned on me that there’s no representation of hijabis in the fitness or marathon fields. Nor is there diversity in such ads.

I wanted to break barriers and become first hijabi on cover of Runner’s World magazine, so I enrolled myself in a cover search contest they were holding in 2015. It became a way to help diversify the [community] of runners on Instagram. And it became my platform for social change in the fitness field, shedding stereotypes about us Muslims.

Did you have any athletes you looked up to growing up?

I had none. Back then hijabis were not visible at all. And I didn’t grow up playing any sports! It’s crazy and mind-boggling even to me that I’m a six-star finisher, 11-time marathoner, 18-time half-marathoner. But when you’re on a mission, there is nothing that can stop you. Not the way I dress, nor what I believe in or how I look.

Who inspired you, then?

My inspiration is my father. He was tough, wise, and fun. He was my world. When he was diagnosed with brain cancer in November 2017, I ran the London marathon in his honor. I raised $6,000 for brain tumor research. (I also ran the Boston marathon for refugees and raised 16k. My father was an immigrant from Syria, a PhD in chemical engineering. He taught me my faith, and now running and Islam are my two passions in life.

You started your TED Talk by stating that, 50 years ago, women were not allowed to run marathons because it was thought that our reproductive organs would fall out of our bodies! Did you have friends or family think it was outrageous when you decided to train for your first marathon? 

Yes people did think that! [Even so], Kathrine Switzer became the first women to cross the finish line in the Boston marathon at the time this was was believed.

Everyone thought I was crazy. My own parents were worried that I would “hurt my knees” and so did many of my friends. My knees are just fine actually and if you’re training right, you’ll never hurt them. In fact, you’ll strengthen them.

There are many myths about running. People toss questions and comments at me all the time, like that I’m “obsessed” or that I’ll make myself sick. But my mission and cause keeps me going. Especially when I see my kids smile when I come home with a medal around my neck. As a stay-at-home mom, every news article, ad, campaign, or marathon I’m in is a way to inspire my kids, to work hard and set goals and accomplish those goals.

As a first generation American myself, it’s tricky to balance the notion of modesty and sexuality. Oppression and freedom. How do you express this dichotomy?

Chastity in Islam isn’t about not having sex or being sexy, but about doing so (or being so) at the appropriate time with the appropriate person. So our understanding does not recognize that there is a dichotomy in the first place. Nor is modesty analogous to oppression. Modesty and sexuality are on different spectrums.

Muslims reject the commodification of women for the male gaze for public consumption. The same goes for oppression and freedom not being tied to the body. My hijab is my choice. No one made me wear it. The way I live my life is that modesty and sexiness aren’t opposites to balance. One is what I choose in public and the other is what I choose in private.

Which city was your favorite major marathon and why?

That’s a hard one. The Boston marathon was an emotional one, given the bombings of 2013. The whole city takes the day off to come celebrate the runners. I had also raised 16k for Syrian refugees. Being that I was born in Syria, this was quite emotional for me. It was the first time I had ever fundraised, and having Trump’s ‘Muslim Ban” going on at the same time made people eager to contribute.

Despite the 80-degree heat that day, I crossed the finish line with tears in my eyes, my heart heavy for all who’d passed on that tragic day. But my soul was elated with happiness. I was on cloud nine.

Running for charity can feel like an emotional marathon in itself. What are some tips you can share on how to choose a charity and fundraise? 

Choose something that touches your heart. If it doesn’t, people will know you’re just fundraising to get a bib. It has to be personal. After that, get in touch with all magazines and local TV news outlets and newspapers. Write to them tell them your cause. And someone is guaranteed to pick it up.

In what kind of world would you like your children to become adults? 

Where do I start? That’s tough because there’s so much sickness going on today. I would want a world that’s peaceful, loving, forgiving; where no one gets judged by what they believe in or how they look. Where good education and healthcare can be provided for all. A world with less crime and more justice. Where the rich give to the poor, and where everyone supports one another. To practice their faith and not have anyone question them. Or have people assume you can’t speak English just because I wear a hijab on my head.

Rahaf Khatib
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