Championing diversity and inclusion in the great outdoors
During the 2020 lockdown, Haroon Mota founded Muslim Hikers in an attempt to inspire members of his community to take part in outdoor activities in the UK countryside. The organisation has since gone from strength to strength, breaking down barriers, attracting hundreds of people to its monthly events, and collaborating with global brands such as Adidas. Mota spoke to Nellie Khossousi about how his Active Inclusion Network – which includes the Muslim Runners and Muslim Cyclists groups, as well as Muslim Hikers – is making the great outdoors a more accessible and inclusive place.
Why did you set up Muslim Hikers?
I’ve been adventuring in the outdoors for nearly 20 years. There was a lack of representation. I wouldn’t bump into people like myself in rural spaces, despite living in a very diverse city. There needed to be a change.
When the pandemic came, I sensed an opportunity. There was a need for mental well-being interventions to tackle loneliness and isolation and connect and inspire communities.
Muslim Hikers is a global movement designed to promote safety, confidence and awareness in the outdoors and normalise physical activity for underrepresented communities like ours. What we’ve grown to become is now the largest community in the world for Muslims interested in the outdoors.
What barriers prevent minority ethnic groups from accessing the outdoors?
We have a lack of the outdoors embedded within our culture and lifestyle norms. If we didn’t have these opportunities growing up, and if we didn't see people like ourselves in these spaces, we won’t miss what we don’t know. You can’t be what you can’t see.
The South Asian community is a large portion of the Muslim community in the UK. We’re a community that is already affected by the greatest health inequalities. We’re also the least likely community to visit green spaces. Less than 1 per cent of visitors to UK national parks come from ethnic minority communities.
‘Our hiking events are typically attended by 150-plus people every month’
What projects are you working on the moment?
Our hiking events are typically attended by 150-plus people every month. They might even be the largest known regular walking events in the country. Our community is inclusive for everyone.
We’ve had hikers come from Sweden, Denmark, New York and San Francisco. The common theme is that they’re going online looking for an inclusive community, but they’re not finding any. They’re finding us in the UK and they're willing to travel all that way.
Creating compelling content on social media channels is an important part of our work. Instagram, Facebook, TikTok, Twitter, LinkedIn: we’re everywhere. It’s great that we’re taking people outdoors, but if people don't see that, then we’re not creating enough change or inspiring people.
How did your recent collaboration with Adidas and global sports retailer Wiggle come about?
We explored how we could address different barriers and thought that prayer mats [weather-proofed so they can be used outdoors] would be a great idea. They also suggested prayer signs [along a popular Peak District hiking route]. I considered how someone would feel to walk outside and stumble upon a prayer sign [designed to help Muslims incorporate their daily prayers into their hikes]. It would make them feel at home. I think it’s a very thoughtful gesture, not a tokenistic one.
What reaction has Muslim Hikers received from the public?
The overwhelming response is incredibly positive, especially from the Muslim community. They’re loving seeing these outdoor prayer mats and prayer signs. And even from the non-Muslim community as well.
There will always be a minority of people that will have an issue with what we do and what we stand for. The level of racism and hatred that has been subjected towards us is targeted and has manifested again.
‘We have many non-Muslim friends who come hiking, and it helps them understand and appreciate who we are’
How do you deal with online abuse?
We try not to interact with it, but we do highlight the issue. We collate the comments thrown at us and put them out there to highlight racism and the issue of Islamophobia. We show our own community that we won't let that deter us from the outdoors. We belong there, we’re safe there and we want to carry on doing that.
But we do have to give assurance to people in our community because comments can be problematic. It could hinder people who already feel less empowered to go outside.
How do you make the hikes more accessible for Muslims?
Simply by calling it Muslim Hikers. It’s a group for Muslim hikers, so that automatically opens people’s horizons. They understand that it’s for them.
We offer a lot of stewardship. Whether that’s what people need to pack, WhatsApp group chats for peer support and questions. On event days, we incorporate prayer time. Making considerations for the washing rituals, we try to pause our hike near fresh sources of water. We make sure that the food is halal.
What can people outside of Muslim Hikers do to make the outdoors more accessible?
Don’t make assumptions about us or assume that going outdoors is as simple as putting boots on and going outside. That’s most commonly the comment we see. ‘Who said the outdoors isn't for everyone?’ Just because it’s easy for you, or you grew up doing that, doesn't mean it’s easy for anyone else. And sometimes even Muslims fall into that category. Don’t assume your privilege is the norm.
Number two is to familiarise yourself with ethnic minority groups and organisations, understand what barriers the communities face, and come and join us for hikes. We have many non-Muslim friends who come hiking, and it helps them understand and appreciate who we are. Follow our work on social media. A like, comment, or retweet can go a long way. It amplifies our voice.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re still a fairly new organisation. We hope to build capacity and secure funding that will help us sustain ourselves and grow our team. We want to become an umbrella organisation that will then support smaller grassroots initiatives and create a coalition and directory to signpost to such organisations.
We want to live in a society where the outdoors is the norm, where young Muslims have role models in the outdoors, and where judgments aren’t made.
Nellie Khossousi is a multilingual travel writer, filmmaker and content producer who shares stories about underrepresented communities in the hope of making travel more accessible and inclusive.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect those of the Runnymede Trust.
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Photo © Muslim Hikers
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