When the This Girl Can campaign hit TV screens and billboards nationwide in 2015, it aimed to help women overcome some of the barriers they faced to be active.
The campaign continues to be a great success in encouraging women to be active. But for some women, the barriers aren’t as clear cut as body image or having the time.
For some, there are religious or cultural reasons that make being active inaccessible to them. It can often take someone like Akeela Mohammed to provide the opportunity.
“My daughter was a really good swimmer and loved it,” explains Akeela, who lives in Doncaster.
“Because we’re Muslim, she couldn’t wear a swimming costume anymore as she had become a teenager. She just stopped going for a couple of years.
“I had a chance meeting with Jon Whiteley from DCLT and asked how we could provide not only women-only sessions, but sessions that worked for women in the South Asian community. It’s things like covering the windows so people can’t come in, and not allowing people to walk around the viewing area above the pool.
“We started doing swimming sessions in Rossington every Sunday morning. It was mostly Asian women, young and old. One older lady came and told me she first went swimming with school. She loved it, but when her dad found out it was the full class including boys, he stopped her from going. Here she was, forty years later, back in the swimming pool.
The sessions whetted the appetite for activity and soon Akeela was being asked to look into other sports. First it was cycling, and then fencing.
After linking up with British Fencing, a new group was established in Doncaster, working alongside Maslaha Charity, who led female empowerment sessions after the activity.
“We didn’t call it ‘Muslim Girls Fence’, because we didn’t want to segregate – we don’t want or need that in our community,” said Akeela.
“Some of the women who came along has never met Muslim women before. It was a real eye opener for them, and everyone was really open and honest. Masahala is a Muslim charity, but we had Iraqi, Kuwaiti, Pakistani and English women all involved in the empowerment sessions.”
Akeela’s motivation is to provide opportunity for women like her and her teenage daughter.
“It’s giving women that opportunity that they may never have and saying to them, ‘you can do it’. Especially the young girls, who for religious or cultural reasons think they can’t do something, and giving them an opportunity to have a go at something.
“For the elderly women, it’s about getting them out of the house and reducing their chance of getting ill or depressed, and just doing something different.
“When they do something, I’m just really proud of them. I know how hard it is for them, particularly culturally for Pakistani women to do something that is not our norm, like going on a bike.
“I used to love riding my bike, but had to stay in the garden while my brother went out and around to his friends.
“Doncaster isn’t a big Muslim community, so there aren’t that many women only sessions, compared to somewhere like Sheffield. I feel like there could be more and more of an emphasis put on it, but until then, I know that if didn’t take my own time to do this, there might not be the opportunity for the women.”