"I Do Belong; I Do Have a Voice"—Zehra Allibhai on Empowering Women With Fitness
"Fitness is so universal that me doing burpees is the same as someone in a sports bra and shorts doing them," says Zehra Allibhai as we chat about her rise to Instagram fame. The Muslim fitness instructor has garnered a cult following, in part because of her belief that fitness can help every woman feel stronger and more confident in her own skin, no matter her identity, culture, or religion. From her home in Toronto, she posts motivating workout videos—unapologetically wearing her hijab—to her 76,900 followers on Instagram.
As her social following quickly grew, Allibhai realized she needed a platform to aggregate the workouts, motivational messages, and nutritional tips she was sharing with her audience in one place, and her site, The FitNest, was born. Through this community, Allibhai has found her true calling. "Even though it's not one-on-one, it's amazing to see how much of an impact you can have on people's lives and how much you can actually help people by motivating them and giving them the tools to reach their fitness goals," she explains of her online community. As we chat on the phone, it's almost as though I can hear her smiling as she elucidates her passion for empowering women through fitness.
Ahead, we talk to Allibhai about pursuing her passion, overcoming self-doubt, and wearing a hijab while working out.
On Pursuing Her Passion
Allibhai always had a passion for health and fitness, but it wasn't until her high school track-and-field coach recommended that she pursue kinesiology that she realized she could turn that passion into a career. "Straight out of high school, I had no idea what I wanted to do," she told MyDomaine. "Growing up with immigrant parents, there was some pressure to pick a profession—my brother was an accountant, my sister was a pharmacist—but I knew I would never be able to sit at a desk," said Allibhai. "I was the head of the sports and recreation committee at my mosque, so I knew I wanted fitness and activity to be a part of my life."
"When I realized that I could make [health and fitness] a career, which is not very normal, especially in our culture and community, I started getting my kinesiology degree," she explained. "After my degree, I got my personal trainer certification." Then, Allibhai started working as a trainer at various gyms, which is where she was discovered her passion for helping people. "I realized how fulfilling it was for me to have clients, and I realized that I could help people feel stronger and help them lose weight or just feel more comfortable in their own skin," she shared. "Now, with the website and social media, I'm realizing that I can reach so many more people," she added.
On Overcoming Self-Doubt
From a young age, Allibhai was always used to being different. "I never really felt like I didn't belong, but I just knew that I was different," she explained. For instance, in high school, "everyone would wear shorts and a T-shirt as a volleyball uniform, and I would have on my long sleeves and pants," she explained. "But I was very lucky growing up. I had such amazing support from my coaches and my teammates," she added.
It wasn't until Allibhai started pursuing her career as a fitness instructor that she started to grapple with self-doubt. "As I got into the fitness industry, the biggest barrier was me knowing that I was good enough to belong there," she divulged. "I knew I would get looks if I went to a fitness club, for instance, things like that," she explained. "I was definitely one of the few or one of the only female instructors wearing hijab, obviously, but the more confident I felt, the more I realized I had the support of the people around me," she explained. "Sometimes, you're your biggest critic. We all have those walls we put up for ourselves."
While Instagram has been labeled as a platform that inspires self-doubt, Allibhai has found that it has had an opposite effect on her. "As I share more on social media, I'm realizing that I do belong, and I do have a voice," she added. "With the positive comments and the amazing feedback I get, I do feel a little bit more each day that what I'm doing is helping people and that what I'm putting out there is beneficial for the people watching it."
On Creating an Inclusive Space for Women
Although Allibhai loves seeing clients one-on-one, she has wholeheartedly embraced her role as the leader of an online community supporting women working toward their fitness goals. This past January, she launched her first six-week-long online fitness program along with a private Facebook group for participants to support one another. "It was beyond my expectation of what I thought it would be. I knew it would be a group where people would post and hold themselves accountable, but seeing the sisterhood develop, it's what I've always dreamed of but I wasn't sure how to create," she explained.
Allibhai has found that there's something about fitness that just brings people together. "Everyone wants to be the best version of themselves, and if you're stronger and you're healthier, that doesn't take away from someone else," she explained. "I find it's a very supportive environment in the sense that these women who are new to fitness are coming in vulnerable, and other women who have been there are supportive because they knew how it was to come into that space and feel vulnerable as well."
On Being Unapologetically Herself
Growing up in Canada, Allibhai started wearing hijab at a young age. "It didn't jade me," she said confidently. "I went to a very multicultural school, so even though I was the only girl wearing a hijab and I had darker skin, there was a range of people—I felt like we were all different, but that was okay," she explained. "I've always felt like if you put your mind to it, and as long as it follows the guidelines of your faith, and if you work hard, you will be able to do it," she explained. "I've always felt like there's nothing holding me back," she added.
If you scroll through Allibhai's Instagram, you'll notice right away that she still wears hijab today. "I started wearing hijab from a young age, so it's always just been a part of my every day," she explained."With my Instagram workouts, it's just natural because that's how I would cover myself if I was working out in a co-ed gym or if I was going out for a run. That's just me, and that's how I dress normally, so that's what you see," she explained. "And the response has been amazing."
"I get a lot of comments from people who aren't Muslim, people who don't wear hijab, that it's just nice, refreshing to see something different," she shared. "I'm showing people that fitness and health can be practiced by so many people in all shapes and sizes," she added. "I also get a lot of comments from moms with young girls that wear hijab telling me that they're realizing that it's okay to go out and be active, and wearing hijab shouldn't hinder you from wanting to play sports or wanting to run or wanting to work out."
Allibhai's platform has helped so many people (myself included) reach the same conclusion that she has: "Fitness is so much more than just how much you weigh and how your clothes fit. It's about so much more than that."