Written by Yasmin.
I do not identify as being Muslim but I was raised Muslim both in the UK and in Malaysia. I am an ethnic minority and a woman in a male dominated industry at work. The sports I tend to enjoy are also male dominated. There are so many avenues to go down with this blog, the difficulties being Muslim in the UK, the perception of being a Muslim woman as being disenfranchised of free will or I could go more broad and talk about the difficulties of being a woman in a male dominated sport like climbing. The list could go on but let’s focus on the need for a safe space for minority groups in climbing.
I regularly climb with a group called Colour Up in Bristol. The premise of the group is to encourage ethnic minorities in Bristol to try climbing in an inclusive space. Having moved from London, where frankly I felt more comfortable being an ethnic minority to Bristol which is far less diverse and aware of its own inequalities; I was so tempted to pack my bags and move back to London. That was until I found Colour Up.
So much of what ethnic minorities in the UK face is being seen as different. It seems to be the human condition to see differences rather than similarities, it’s how we define ourselves and organise ourselves. Being non-White British, we are from a different culture, we eat different food, we look different, we speak different languages: therefore we are just different and feel unfamiliar and unknown.
Being amongst the unfamiliar and unknown is uncomfortable and therefore we are seeing British society and politics become insular and popularist. For a lot of us, especially for those who have never lived overseas, the decision is either we assimilate to not be different or we fight to find a space to keep some of what makes us unique. For people like me I know there is no other choice but to accept that I am different and may not be accepted for that by everyone. The fact that this is the fate I am stuck with by the choices that were made by my grandparents and parents is sometimes outright depressing but when I go back to Malaysia, I realise… they all left for a reason!
For me, it’s hard to not talk about something without getting fully involved and talking myself down a rabbit-hole. I feel there is undiscussed xenophobia in Bristol towards people that look like me and that can often leave me feeling unwanted. I don’t always want to talk about my feelings of not belonging here amongst my peers but I want to be in a community that somehow gets it. We sometimes talk about that feeling of discontent and isolation and sometimes we just climb and focus on the problem (boulder) at hand. Colour Up has not just become my climbing group, they have become my social group and my support group during some tough times.
There is an amazing charity in Bristol that is advertised at Redpoint’s cafe called Talk Club which is a talking and listening club for men. They also offer sports clubs, similar to Colour Up and ClimbMuz. It helps men find a space to talk about their mental health in a safe space. The idea that sport is therapy is not because you release endorphins when you exert yourself. Sport brings people from all walks of life together to participate in something we have in common. Seeing a group of brown people doing the same things as the majority of people makes us seem not that different. Between climbs we would have random chats on the boulder mats and if you ever overhead us you’d realise we all have dating woes, annoying housemates or an irritating colleague at work. But we also can talk about how we feel, we talk about the shit days and the good days and we club together when we need to and we celebrate together too.
ClimbMuz is a very similar space and I felt so welcome when I climbed with them in October. The first thing they did was compliment my tattoo which I thought they would be a bit sceptical of. From such negative experiences in Malaysia: I strayed from Islam mainly because of how I felt religion was being forced upon me, not by my own parents but by Malaysian society. Being Muslim was apart of what it entailed to be Malay but also my religion (even now) is stated on my ID as being Islam and Shariah law can be applied to me. It also influenced the company I keep in Malaysia, I have no Malay friends and I don’t really communicate with my mum’s extended family outside the pleasantries because of that fear of judgement of being a ‘bad muslim’ and by defacto a bad person.
In all honesty, we climbed together, we did not talk about anything to do with religion or anything particularly deep. Bethwall has enough corner climbs to hurt your brain. But it made me remember that Islam is a tolerant religion. The women I met at ClimbMuz are tolerant and inclusive; they welcomed me with open arms. When I think of my parents, I see them as tolerant people. More importantly, Islam is a way of life that they choose to follow in the same way that I choose not to follow the Islamic way of life for myself. When you see a Muslim woman with a hijab crushing it at Bethwall, she is just as psyched as everyone else there, she is a strong woman making a free choice to express herself and I think ClimbMuz is a space that encourages that self expression in a familiar context. This is why spaces like ClimbMuz are important.