Image for ‘It connects us to nature’: the Muslim women finding joy in England’s woodlands

‘It connects us to nature’: the Muslim women finding joy in England’s woodlands

A group of Muslim women from east London have found kinship, fitness, spirituality and lots of fun through Nordic walking in the woods

A group of Muslim women from east London have found kinship, fitness, spirituality and lots of fun through Nordic walking in the woods

The rain is lashing down hard over Thames Chase Forest Centre on a Thursday morning in February. Ash, willow and pine are among the trees doing a decent job of providing a canopy for the women from the Muslimah Sports Association (MSA) during their weekly Nordic walk. Between two and 12 women can show up on any morning. Today there are six, and the heavy downpour is doing little to dampen their spirits.

“I’m enjoying the fresh air, the forest, the trees. It’s just … wow,” says Shafia Begum. The forest is 18 miles from her home in Stratford in east London and it couldn’t look, feel, smell or sound more different. Begum is a mother of three who has experienced anxiety for a long time. “These nature walks have benefited me a lot. They have strengthened my connection with, and gratitude towards, nature and my creator,” she says.

The Nordic walk sessions became popular after messages were exchanged over social media between Forestry England and MSA. Forestry England is a publicly owned organisation responsible for the country’s 620,000 acres of woodland. MSA is a nationwide charity that started 10 years ago to encourage Muslim women to participate in sports, addressing in one fell swoop mental health challenges, a need for exercise and loneliness.

Shafia Begum in the February foliage. Image: Helena Dolby

In its first decade, the association has enabled more than 2,500 women across the country to fence, box, swim, race boats, hit cricket balls, bounce basketballs and kick footballs.

This particular group draws women from Ilford, Romford, Forest Gate and Stratford in east London, areas with large Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities. Here, Nordic walks have proved by far the most popular activity.

Over the past few months, as part of Forestry England’s Feel Good in the Forest programme, Nordic walking leader Anne Mills has been taking the women through Thames Chase Forest Centre. Other walks take place at Pages Wood in the borough of Havering.

Nordic walking uses poles to engage muscles in the upper body. Image: Helena Dolby

Some travel over an hour to take part. “I come from Stratford because I don’t want to miss the walks,” says Begum. Although it illustrates just how important these sessions have become for her and others, the journey time also highlights a big challenge facing many people in cities in easily accessing big, open, green spaces.

Salma Quaium is the manager of the MSA’s group in east London. She is a vocal evangelist for Nordic walking – a form of exercise with Finnish roots that uses poles to open up the chest and engage muscles in the upper body as well as in the legs. It was developed by skiers to stay fit in their off season. Mills notes it is extremely helpful for those with lung conditions like asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or simply for “people that have been sitting at desks all day”.

“The biggest impact is the physical element. A lot of the women were exhausted the first time they did it, so it was a big accomplishment to complete one,“ Quaium says.

Salma Quaium is manager of the Muslimah Sports Association's east London group. Image: Helena Dolby

South Asian people suffer disproportionately with heart problems and diabetes, and studies have shown levels of activity in south Asian women in particular are low. “A lot of people, especially in our community, are experiencing mental and physical health issues,” says Quaium. “They come out for reasons like: ‘I need to escape’, ‘I need a little bit of clarity’. They’ve made friends and they’ve bonded. We have tea together at the end, which is really nice.”

For almost all the women, their forays into the forest are their first brush with nature outside of the context of a city park, says Quaium. “We try and focus on taking in what’s around us: face the sun, stop and look at plants and trees, and Anne, our guide, is very knowledgeable and gets us to listen to the birds.”

Quaium points to something lost from her parents’ generation. The south Asians who arrived in the UK often came from villages where being in nature was taken for granted. Like any immigrant parents they were anxious about their children losing their values and identity growing up in a different country. Quaium suggests that her parents’ generation prioritised their religious identity at a cost of the value of being in nature.

Nordic walker Anne Mills leads the group through the forest. Image: Helena Dolby

“Our parents were worried we lost out on being Muslim [when they left their countries] so have focused on our Muslim identity very heavily to us. [But in doing so], they broke that bridge from being part of nature that was in their lives.”

Unfortunately, some UK Muslim women face barriers to accessing nature, which can make a forest walk a daunting, or even seemingly impossible, prospect. One that has been identified in studies is the fear of facing racism and Islamophobia. Whether real or perceived, many ethnic minorities have historically imagined rural areas to be places where they are not welcome.

Knowing that there is a ready-made MSA community awaiting is an instant confidence booster for participants. Quaium tries to encourage women who are too nervous to attend: “I suggest: ‘Just get there, then give me a call and we’ll all walk in together’,” Quaium says.

Many ethnic minorities have deemed rural areas to be places where they are not welcome. Image: Helena Dolby

Connections within the group have made the women feel comfortable in the forest, but so too have ones fostered outside of it. Quaium explains that on each walk, passersby have stopped to say hello. “Muslim women [sometimes] stay within the community, and so they don’t often talk to people from different ethnicities,” she says. “Those little conversations made [the women] think: ‘We’re not odd. We’re not different. We’re all here for the same reason.’”

While interactions with other walkers are welcome, encounters with their dogs are different. Dogs make walks in nature a more complicated experience for Muslims – many of whom aren’t used to interacting with them. Quaium notes: “The guides were fantastic. They were really good at being mindful if there was a large group of dogs or dog walkers.”

At first, MSA’s Nordic walking sessions took place in winter, when Muslim prayer times are close together. This could have made it difficult or impossible for people to attend. So when the walks were scheduled near prayer times, Forestry England onsite partner the Thames Chase Trust provided the group with a quiet, private prayer space. This allowed the MSA women to take their time, enjoy the sessions fully, and even stay for a cup of tea and a chat afterwards.

These nature walks have strengthened my connection with, and gratitude towards, nature and my creator

The upsides to having your religion respected and accommodated go beyond the practical. Joining the walks has helped the women to access their faith through nature, giving them the sense that the outdoors is somewhere they belong. Quaium says: “There was a willow tree that we stopped and stared at, and there was something so spiritual that we felt looking at it.”

She recalls one woman with obsessive-compulsive disorder who came along to be among the trees. “We talked about the benefits and she tried it – she felt a profound connection.”

Main image: Helena Dolby

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