No woman enjoys exercising in front of a room full of men but this is even more of an issue if you are Muslim. Now a fitness instructor in Stanmore has come up with the perfect solution and puts Hannah Bewley through her paces in a class where women can take off their head scarves and really work up a sweat.
AFTER an intense half an hour of lunges, squats and push-ups the seven women in the class and myself are rewarding ourselves with tasty home-made cookies.
The sweet treats at the end of the class are not the only thing which sets sessions with Soraya Janmohamed apart.
As I walk in all the women are wearing head scarves and talking about different recipes they have been trying out as part of the healthy eating plan they have signed up to.
But, after the Observer’s photographer has put her camera away, the Muslim women take them off and the work-out heats up.
Soraya set up the Let’s Get Healthy Now programme three years ago and provides a relaxed environment where Muslim women can feel comfortable and talk about eating healthily with food they all have in common.
She said: “It is ladies only and it is private here, they can take their head scarves off and normally we do it without music and there are no men so it is a proper Islamic environment.
“I run two programmes, some women come to lose weight and others just to exercise. Once a month they are weighed and measured.
“It is 35 minutes of intense exercise and eating healthily so you don’t need hours and hours in the gym.
“We do a lot of repetitions and sometimes I bring in weights. I encourage people to exercise more than once a week and they do a lot of walking out of the classes.”
Soraya said that there are not many places which offer a similar service and although many Muslim women do join gyms and work out in front of men, they feel more comfortable if they are in a relaxed and female environment.
I can certainly vouch for the intense exercise part as we did press-ups which involved an added twist and worked every muscle and squats.
The classes take place mostly during school term times as many of the women are mothers and grandmothers and some have part-time jobs.
Soraya, a mother-of-two, is an accountant by trade and took some time off work and retrained as a fitness instructor.
She said: “I wanted to fill the gap in the market where they can train in a comfortable environment and there are no men.
“The food plan is based on good food and how it is good for you.
“Some of it is portion control and eating real food rather than packaged stuff.
“The benefits are better than slimming clubs as I talk about foods we would normally eat such as good curries, not just meat and two veg.
“It fits in with their own diet and ethnic background.”
Nurjahan Siwji, 59, has been going to the classes for two years and said: “My doctor told me I had put on weight and so I started coming to the classes.
“I have lost weight and haven’t put it back on again and I have started going to yoga twice a week too so it has made me more active.”
Woman of all ages are welcome at the classes and Soraya said: “A lot of the women’s health has changed and they have definitely noticed the difference.
“The mobility of the women has improved a lot and it is not about getting the perfect bikini body, it is about being healthy.
“I think everyone has individual aspirations and it is not about having the perfect body as that’s not what they would want, it’s about how to live a healthy life and it helps your own self-esteem and improve how you feel within rather than how you look for other people.”
Before the class Soraya spoke to the group of women about eating healthily and said vitamin D was an issue as they are always covered up. She recommended oily fish instead of trying to get vitamin D from the sun.
Soraya, who lives in Rowlands Avenue, Hatch End, said: “We pray at a particular time of day and we should do the same with exercise.
“We should make a habit of doing it every day, it is like Ramadan, you get used to going for a month without having breakfast so you can do the same with exercise, get used to doing it every day.”
Sajida Allibhai, 39, has been coming on and off for a couple of years and said: “The exercise is difficult but it does make a difference. If I didn’t come here and I had no option I would maybe join a gym but I much prefer it here where I can feel comfortable and take my headscarf off.”
The friendly group clearly enjoyed the class and the honey and cinnamon cookies were an added bonus.
For more information go to www.letsgethealthynow.co.uk.