My name is Nura Arabi, I currently work as a physical education and swimming teacher in a primary school in the UAE. I write fitness columns as a hobby and part of a health research committee. I give daily health tips for kids on the radio (Pearl FM UAE 102.00)
Growing up, I’ve always loved meeting people from different backgrounds, getting to know them and being able to learn so much from them. But moving from middle school to high school was never easy, especially when trying to make new friends. I remember in high school, when I wanted to get to know some more people I had to sit down and brainstorm how I can make friends from different backgrounds . My mother advised me to join a sports team. I was not fond of sports activities but I was surrounded by a family that loved sports and grew up going with my mother and siblings to team practices like volleyball, soccer and basketball.
So I took her advice and went to my Physical education teacher, who was coaching the cross-country team at that time, and asked him to join the team. I told him that I am interested in joining, but didn’t want to be competitive, simply a part of the team. He told me that it’s all about participation in the end and that I can join! I was so happy that day and couldn’t wait to start the practices and meet everyone on the team. I loved everything about our group, the practices, the coach and eventually even the competitions that I participated at. I got to make new friends and I loved the sport. But there was something different about me that made me stand out in any crowd. I am a Muslim girl who wears the hijab (Islamic headscarf). Wherever I go, people are concerned about my headscarf and “if I am ok in there” especially while carrying out any sports activities. I continued running, even in university. I was the only girl with a headscarf on the running track. Of course I would get the same reaction from people. Are you okay in there? Is it too hot? Are you safe? How can you run in that? And at points I would hear racist comments like go back to your country, towel head, or terrorist.
Regardless, my experience in high school with the cross-country team had inspired me to pursue a healthier lifestyle and study a health major in university. I ended up finishing my bachelors of health and masters of education both at Brock University in St. Catherine’s, Canada. But the question: “are you ok in there?” always chased me. As I was finishing my Master’s degree, I took a course about ‘Physical Education in the curriculum’. And as I was completing my Master’s degree, my professor mentioned that we never hear much about Muslim girls in physical education and so if they make it to the top in the sports field most people are confused. He asked me, ‘Why don’t you write a paper about that?’
So I decided to write a paper that differentiates between religion, culture and the problems those girls face when participating and why their contribution is low in sports. From there, I was able to see the real confusion of non-Muslims about Muslim girls in the sports world. I was able to realize the struggles that non-Muslim physical education teachers have about teaching those girls in their classes. I saw that there was a need to talk more about the topic and explain more.
I decided to take the paper out side of university and presented it to the Toronto District School Board, under the equity department. They were pleased to hear that I was there to help as they were having some problems with students in high schools specifically in physical education classes. Because of that, I ended up giving talks to high school staff that explains the situation of Muslim girls in physical education and participated at academic conferences. Along that way, my passion for pursuing a healthier life style grew bigger and I wanted to share this healthy lifestyle. Same questions were still chasing. Throughout my talks, communicating with people and sharing my passion, I had the chance of moving from Canada and being hired as a PE teacher at an elementary school in a different country.
I then got to face racism at a closer and a different level. I was not accepted for how I dress and for my ethnic background. I was told to my face that “an Arab should never be a PE teacher because Arabs are lazy”. I was being managed by co-workers who were not supposed to be doing that, trying to watch all the work I do and searching for mistakes. Changing and trying to confuse me with dates so that I would fall behind. Making plans outside of work and never share with me so I would seem like a careless teacher. I was also told that I am not qualified to do what I was doing.
Everything that was being said and done to me, I took it as a challenge. Not to prove anyone wrong but a challenge that will push me forward and make the best out of me. A challenge that helped me reach my goals quicker. Alongside with the practice and education I got in university, I went ahead and bought books about the best PE teacher practice, researched questions online, expanded my knowledge in the health field and I am still doing all of these.
I was discriminated against and stereotyped. I never let that break me or change me. If anything, stereotypes and discriminatory remarks made me stronger and made me go further by taking bigger steps. Now, I work as a Physical Education/Swimming teacher in the UAE. I give daily Health Tips for kids on the radio, I write fitness columns as a hobby and I am part of a health research committee. Currently, I am working on a new project to further share healthy living tips that will come soon called Health Holds.
The world is full of different people and that makes it a better place to live in. Unfortunately, that scares some individuals. Be different anyway. Find something that you love to do and do it to the best of your abilities regardless of what people label you. The milestones that you set for yourself will draw out the hideous judgments from other people eventually. It also empowers you to be you.
If you enjoyed Naru’s story, follow her on Instagram @_iChallenger to keep up!