One weight at a time: Hijabi fitness coach aims to break stereotypes about Muslim women while at the gym

October 4, 2016

Through her everyday grind, Yasamin Kubba proves that fully-covered Muslim women have a place in the gym and fitness industry.
Yasamin Kubba is a fitness coach and personal trainer from Leesburg, Virginia. She says she likes challenges -- one of them being breaking stereotypes as she works out, in hijab, at the gym. (AU/Omama Altaleb)

Yasamin Kubba is a fitness coach and personal trainer from Leesburg, Virginia. She says she likes challenges -- one of them being breaking stereotypes as she works out, in hijab, at the gym. (AU/Omama Altaleb)

STERLING, Va. -- Yasamin Kubba, dressed in a patterned gray, long-sleeved stretchy shirt, leggings and a black and white Under Armour cap tucked underneath a black jersey headscarf, swings open the door of her white RAV4, lifts her black gym sack over her head to protect her from the early morning rain, and makes a run for it. Kubba lowers her sack as she approaches the door of her second home -- LA Fitness. The gym is the only lit portion of the usually bustling suburban mall in Sterling, Virginia, with only 10 cars parked in front, including Kubba’s.   “Hey Yaz,” a petite woman in a black halter top and gray capri leggings yells to Kubba. Kubba embraces the woman then heads to a corner of the gym, past the endless rows of strength-training equipment. A black padded folding mat is laid out in front of two racquetball courts. Kubba sets her purple and green Hulk water bottle down, pulls out her cellphone, housing a myriad of fitness apps and workout timers, and starts leading a tabata workout. As a Syrian-Iraqi-American who wears hijab, Kubba wants to break commonly held stereotypes about Islam and Muslim women, and one of the places she does this, is the gym. “I had people tell me, ‘I honestly didn’t know that you knew how to lift a dumbbell when I first saw you,’” said Kubba, the 26-year-old fitness coach, personal trainer and entrepreneur. “When you’re a hijabi you kind of shock people.” Kubba started wearing hijab at 21 years old. She was inspired by Bahraini sprinter Ruqaya Al Ghasara, who was one of the first Muslim women to compete in the Olympics fully covered and in hijab.   “She didn’t have to go against her religion or principles to do it,” Kubba said. Kubba, who grew up being involved in sports, was hesitant at first to put on the hijab because she thought it would impede her ability to be active, since she would have to abide to certain guidelines of modesty. But when Kubba saw Al Ghasara on TV, she knew that hijab wasn’t going to stop her from doing anything. Hijabis similar to Al Ghasara have been making headlines this year. Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad was the first hijab-wearing woman to compete for Team USA in the Olympics this summer, and this September, six-time marathoner Rahaf Khatib was featured on the cover of the October issue of Women’s Running Magazine. Kubba said people underestimate what a big deal these accomplishments are.
“The more hijabis you see, the more Muslim women are comfortable wearing hijab because they see you can wear it and still live your life normally,” Kubba said.
That’s one of the reasons why Kubba said she feels the need to excel in fitness -- it’s not only for personal accomplishment, but for the advancement of the entire Muslim community in America. For Kubba, wearing the hijab motivates her to be the best trainer she can be. “Because I have to prove it to them, I always up it; I have to take one extra step to be better than the trainers around me,” Kubba said. Ibtesam Sharbaji, Kubba’s mom, said she has no doubt her daughter can do anything she sets her mind to. “She’s very courageous,” Sharbaji said. “Since she was a child.” Sharbaji recalls a story of when her family lived in Abu Dhabi. They had an apartment on the ground floor of the building, where there were two swimming pools -- one for children and one for adults. One day, Sharbaji gets a call from a perturbed neighbor that her 5-year-old daughter was swimming in the pool for adults. Sharbaji concluded later that day that despite a locked door, Kubba had snuck out of the apartment through a window. “Then I locked all the windows,” Sharbaji said, laughing. “I can never forget that moment.” But the most surprising part for Sharbaji was that Kubba taught herself how to swim. Since then, Sharbaji said her daughter has participated in various sports, from swimming, to basketball and track. Kubba’s determination and dedication is what attracts some of her clients. “The girl does not sleep,” said Karimah Al-Helew, who heard about Kubba through a friend that trained with her. “She is always at the gym grinding away to reach her goals and motivate her clients.” Al-Helew said she noticed changes in her friend that she hopes to see in herself after training with Kubba. Kubba usually trains clients following her morning workout. Afterwards, she goes to work at a law firm and then in the evening, she returns to the gym for an evening workout.
“I want to be the girl that’s lifting the heaviest weight. I want to be the girl that’s doing the craziest workouts,” Kubba said.