Being “the first” or “the only” as an underrepresented person in any area can be an overwhelming experience – at work, in the community, and yes, even on the playing field. While organizations and industries celebrate embracing diversity and fresh perspectives, the very individuals they celebrate are often fighting a battle they didn’t originally sign up for. That’s why we’re pleased to have Rahaf Khatib join our Voices of Firefly series to share her story. As the first Syrian to complete the Abbott World Marathon Majors and the first runner to wear a Hijab on the cover of a national fitness magazine, Rahaf is committed to increasing the representation of hijabi women in sports. Read on for more insight into her journey from struggling athlete to advocate, and her advice for brands who wish to engage this community.
Join Rahaf Khatib to learn more about her journey as she takes over our Instagram page on August 25! Follow us at @fireflyinclusion.
My Name is Rahaf Khatib. I’m a Syrian-born, Michigan-raised mom of 3. And I happen to be an athlete, charity runner, race organizer, running coach, triathlete, TEDx speaker, blogger, World Marathon Majors finisher…and the first Hijab-wearing athlete to be on the cover of a Fitness magazine nationally.
An Unlikely Athlete
I know it’s a lot to take in. You see, this all happened by accident. It really wasn’t planned…at least not by me. But I always say that everything happens for a reason.
I hated running back in high school. Really couldn’t stand it! I tried my best to skip gym class and the dreaded two-mile run. Fast forward to 2012, and I willingly registered for the first race of my life – a 10k (6.2 mile) run.
Crossing that finish line was pure bliss. I was a stay-at-home mom who needed to pursue something bigger than she could ever imagine. I needed something that would get me out of my mental rut and elevate my low confidence at the time. Little did I know that running marathons would open up a world of opportunities for me.
Speaking Out and Showing Up for Hijabi Athletes
As I kept crossing finish lines, my eyes were opened to the fact that we – Muslim women who wear hijab or Hijabi athletes – had very little representation in this field. I started to speak up about my experiences and lack of representation of Hijabi athletes on my blog and my Instagram page. My words picked up momentum not only with Muslim women, but also with brands.
This lead to the opportunity of co-creating the first Adidas hijab ever. That was an honor indeed! However, things still seemed to be the same. We weren’t being paid properly or represented as equals in this space. People wrote to me about their experiences of running in hijab and how there’s a lack of proper athletic gear in the summertime for Muslim women who cover. They also pointed out that athletic magazines had yet to feature us in the same way they feature other athletic models.
Celebrated…and Trolled for Being the First
I’ll never forget the day my Women’s Running Magazine cover went public on the internet. I was in Berlin at the time running one of the World marathon majors, trying to pursue my dream of finishing all six major marathons. Even though my cover made international and national news, there were some unfortunate comments that came along with it. Comments that were ignorant and downright abusive. Comments such as, “Go back to where you came from and run there,” or “Why don’t you strap a suicide vest and run back to where you came from!” Those were honestly shocking. Recently, brands have started to block comments like that and filter them, but some still make it through the cracks. I learn to read past them, and take in the positive comments from people instead. Whether in running or life itself, it’s always better to focus on the good and not the bad.
And in some ways, these comments only fuel the fire in me even more.
The Road Ahead for Muslim Representation in Sports
Slowly but surely, things are changing. My voice is being heard on some level. More and more Muslim athletes are partaking in athletic events. I hope that this will be normalized and that brands can recognize our presence not just by featuring us in ads for the sake of ‘Cosmetic Diversity,’ but to oﬀer us a seat at the table.
I do think more work needs to be done in terms of diversity and inclusion in these spaces, and that’s what keeps me going. Muslim women have been stereotyped for far too long. I hope to inspire other Hijabi and stay-at-home moms to get out there. Wearing a hijab means I’m guarding my modesty and respecting my body out of deep devotion to my Faith. With every marathon I run, I encounter experiences that I wouldn’t have imagined that’ll take my breath away! Whether it’s the people I meet, the crowds cheering your name, or the sights and smells you encounter on the course! I wish I could bottle it all up and give you a sense of all that. It’s definitely all engraved in my memory though, and it’s why I keep coming back for more.
Through every mile, marathon, and race I’m finishing, I come out renewed, refreshed, and rejuvenated with a little bit of hope that maybe I just changed someone’s mind about us. Wouldn’t that be crazy?
Advice for Brands That Wish to Engage the Hijabi & Muslim Communities
All in all, my biggest piece of advice for brands wanting to work with hijabis is this: Please, don’t hire fashion models to represent us in campaigns. Yes, they’re beautiful. Yes, they’re well represented by agencies, thus making it easy to hire. But your consumers are real people who want to connect with and hear the stories of other real people. It may be easier to hire a model who’s hijabi and call it a day, but is that true representation?
Please remember: It took us so long to get here. We’re out there. Many of us! Hire us, and include real Muslim women not only in your campaigns, but in your campaign meetings. Give us a seat at the table. Don’t dismiss us. And pay us the same you would pay a non-BIPOC athlete or leader.
I’ve learned that having my voice heard and my community rightfully represented is worth more than any ad or campaign. That’s why I have such a passion for this work and will continue to advocate for Hijabi and Mulsim representation – in sports and beyond.
To learn more about her journey and gain some inclusion tips, join Rahaf as she takes over our Instagram page on August 25! Follow us at @fireflyinclusion.