David Lintern speaks to Scottish hillgoer and accountant Zahrah Mahmood, aka the Hillwalking Hijabi
Please introduce yourself
Hello, my name is Zahrah Mahmood, I’m a Scottish Pakistani Muslim from Glasgow. During the week I work as a Chartered Accountant and most of my adventures are saved for the weekends or annual leave!
What’s your favourite Scottish hill/place and why?
Oh that’s so hard to choose! I absolutely love Glencoe, but how can you not? The Lawers range is also one of my favourite places to hike. The views are just awe inspiring, especially as you’re driving in. It fills you with excitement and eagerness to get hillwalking and the high-level start point also helps!
How did you get into it first off? Was there a key moment where it all clicked?
I was struggling while studying for my professional accountancy exams. Not just mentally – I made myself physically unwell with the stress and pressure. Two of my friends; Pamela & Fiona thought getting me outdoors and up a mountain would help me and help me focus for the exams. So, they took me up Ben Lomond, a Munro, which may not seem a big deal for some but for someone like me who had never done any (intentional) exercise never mind hillwalking and didn’t even know what it entailed I struggled, complained and moaned the whole way! I took loads of breaks and threatened to go back to the car.
The most soul-destroying moment was walking for about 50 minutes up hill and then coming to a gate signed “Ben Lomond” and I wondered what on earth I had been doing up until then!
During that walk, it wasn’t just my fitness that made me feel like I didn’t belong, my hijab and my race also did too. I stood out and was the only non-white, hijab wearing woman on the whole way up and down. So, I didn’t return to the mountains again after that, but I realised what I could change was my fitness. I joined a gym, did lots of low-level flat walks, including the Kiltwalk.
And then about a year later I was going through a difficult period in my life and though I had a lot of supportive people in my life nothing seemed to work until I got back outside. This time is was to a much smaller hill. All I focussed on was one step in front of the other and getting to the summit while enjoying the views. That half day break from being inside my own head was a great respite and meant I returned feeling refreshed and ready to tackle whatever was going on in my life.
I ended up passing all my exams, so even though I struggled on that first walk it was clearly beneficial for me!
What does going out into nature mean to you? How does it make you feel, what benefits do you see in yourself, how does it challenge you?
It is a part of me. Just as important as my loved ones. It strengthens my relationship with God and my faith. When I’m out in all these magical places with these stunning landscapes, all I think about is the Creator of such beauty.
People say the mountains are their church, for me the mountains and nature are my mosque. Not only do I love praying outside but it’s also where I reconnect, regroup and reflect. I see myself becoming more centred and content. I appreciate the “small” things and even appreciate the hard inclines (afterwards!)
I think it’s a great metaphor for life, as cheesy as it may sound. There will be ups and down’s but if we remember to breathe through it all then we will get through it and hopefully be better for it.
The hills are seen as a refuge from the stresses of everyday life for many. Are they a refuge for you too, or is it a more complex mix of experiences? If the outdoors is (also) a racialised space for you, or has been in the past, how has that presented itself?
The hills are definitely a refuge for me. They’ve come to my aid whenever I’ve needed them. But also, it’s a spiritual experience for me too. Not just because of the physical act of praying outside but the internal spirituality of resting the mind and, for me, thinking about my relationship and path to God.
Sometimes it can be difficult to do this when other people outside make it difficult. I get more than my share of stares and if I get talking to people, some have assumed that it is my first experience which can make me feel self-conscious and start to doubt myself. Because, I don’t fit into the “normal” white (male) adventurer and the lack of representation coupled with stares or comments can start to impact you.
Are there ‘blind spots’ in mainstream outdoors culture that discourage wider participation, and if so can you describe them or talk about how they might affect you, or wider communities of colour?
Yes, there is no (or little) meaningful representation. Posting a picture of a person of colour on your website or your Instagram is performative if it’s not backed up by sustainable action. And actually, it does more damage than good.
I think it’s thought this is encouraging but it’s not really because we see through it and we know it’s an act that’s designed to make the company or brand look good “using” us but not actually including us in this narrative. There needs to be meaningful action behind it to back it up.
How can white outdoor communities assist in changing or removing those blind spots? Is there anything specific that outdoors media or organisations could do?
There are so many amazing adventurers out there who aren’t white. It’s easy to find them if you’re looking! Engage with them and amplify them and their work and ask them what you can do to help them. Everyone’s needs are different. All that’s needed is to start a conversation.
Are there barriers within your own community that make participation in the outdoors seem less ‘normal’ or more challenging for you?
It’s certainly not seen as ‘normal’ to go every weekend and to keep it as a priority. The odd hike here and there is probably considered more normal (and only in good weather!) but though my loved ones may not fully understand they always support it and encourage it as they see the positive impact it has had on me and continues to have.
In what ways are you addressing those for yourself, or helping others to do so?
By continuing to share my adventures on my Instagram and show that the outdoors is for everyone and that if I can do it, anyone can! I try to be honest in my posts and show that it’s difficult and can be challenging but there are benefits to be had.
Are there cultural differences in the way that communities of colour engage with the outdoors? If so, what are these and how do they shape the experience?
I can only speak for myself and family and friends I’ve taken out. Muslims for example, we pray 5 times a day at set times and sometimes those times fall during an adventure. So, we may stop to pray outside. This can cause (more) unwanted attention and stares. People should just view it as a form of meditation and not something to be gawked at. While I mostly welcome questions, sometimes I just want to enjoy my time outdoors and switch off. I’m not in the headspace to answer questions all the time.
It’s been said that colour or race shouldn’t come into the outdoors, that we’re all more than just our colour or race and that it’s not a political space. Is talking through some of these issues reductive – or does it help, or is it some of both?
It’s a bit of both. It depends how it’s being done. It’s like the saying “I don’t see colour” which may seem like a positive but is actually a negative. Because my colour is a part of me and denying that is denying a part of me.
Where was your first trip to after lockdown eased, and how was it?
On the day lockdown eased I walked up a small’ish hill in Crianlarich, just to get my confidence back and then the following weekend I bagged 4 Munros (the Glas Maol circuit at Glenshee) which was 20km and a sure way to get my hill fitness and confidence back!
Which place(s) in Scotland would you like to explore more, and why?
I want to explore every inch of it! Getting into hillwalking has meant I’ve travelled and explored the most I’ve ever done of my beautiful country. And I’m ashamed it’s taken me so long. So even though I have places like Skye and Orkney on my “list” (an every growing not written in stone list!), I also want to explore places like the Borders and the East Coast.
Many thanks to Zahrah for her time. You can follow her adventures on Instagram at https://www.instagram.com/the_hillwalking_hijabi/