Kayaking as a Hijabi Muslim Women

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Published by Halaal Travels. Last Updated: 21 November 2022

Guest Writer: Anna Stishova

My name is Anna Stishova. I am a full-time mom, part-time copywriter and a Paddlesports instructor. I have been paddling since I was in my late teens. I love kayaking the most, but also enjoy white water rafting, and this year I got into SUP (stand-up paddleboarding). My toddler loves to get on water with me on or new SUP.

I have been kayaking since I was in my late teens. However, I came to UK in 2003, and then I converted to Islam in 2004. After converting to Islam, I kind of “lost myself” when it comes to fun and sports, mostly because of the prejudice in the local communities then (I am certain things have improved since then). So, I did not paddle between 2002 and 2011. It is the trip back to Russia in 2011 that re-ignited my love of paddling, especially kayaking. When I went back to UK, I got into my first canoe club, and from there it started. First it was white water, then swap to flat water canoe marathon racing, and after back injury this year – stand-up paddleboarding. I also tried canoe polo in 2012 in London and wild-water racing competition in 2013 at LVWWC.

As a teenager, I started kayaking, because I was looking for some escape from strict family life (my parents are Christian). It was school-music school-homework-chores-sleep-repeat every day almost. Music school took 8 years of my childhood, and while other children played outside, I was stuck (not willingly) to the piano. So, as soon as I finished music school, I joined a bard song club, and bard songs go hand in hand with tourism like hiking, climbing, kayaking and rafting. So, I joined the club’s summer kayaking and rafting expeditions. It was a breath of fresh air for me and my twin sister who was in the same situation (although I think she enjoyed the music school a bit more😊). It is that sense of freedom, that peaceful feeling on water, and then in the evening, next to the bonfire, that I would remember forever, and the chance to make friends outside the music school! 😊

My favourite feelings while kayaking are the ones that flat water marathon racing gives you:
– Feeling of “flying” on water. Even the paddles for this discipline are called “wings” due to its blades’ shape.
– Focus, goals, achievements (one of the reasons I went for Devizes To Westminster International Canoe Race for 3 years in a row).
– Team work (my 3rd attempt at DW race was a Junior-Veteran K2 kayak entry, so I had a chance to learn to work in a team with a teenager and our support crew.
– Sense of belonging to a large and friendly community which becomes your paddling “family”
– Connection with all the elements surrounding you: for effective paddling one needs to feel this connection to use their body, boat and “blade” effectively. Almost like the Force in Star Wars! 😊
On white water, kayaking is a great roller-coaster, teaches you problem solving, technical paddling skills, team work (paddling in groups is important for safety reasons), also self-reliance and self-worth.
White-water rafting – I had a 3+ week expedition trip in Siberia. It taught me good paddling skills, importance of team work, collaboration, patience, friendship, and also respecting the nature and its inhabitants.
Paddleboarding is a relatively new discipline to me, and I still have lots to learn, especially quickly changing my feet position and keeping balance when changing pivot point. But I enjoy the fact that it gives me opportunity to still get out on water while I am recovering from the slipped disc in my lower back (wasn’t a paddling-related injury), and also to take my toddler and my stepdaughters with me on water. Becoming a Brand Ambassador for KeikoBoards was a great help. I love this brand for the great quality and generous size of the boards, but also for their great environmental work they do by investing profits into tree-planting and marine-conservation charities.

What has been the most challenging about kayaking?

In UK, I started kayaking as a Muslim. First challenge came as money – I wanted to be good at kayaking, especially in white water, so that meant buying my own boat, paddle, drysuit, helmet, buoyancy aid, and so on, and hiring a coach. Also, I don’t drive a car, so getting someone to give you a lift is not always achievable unless you go on the group trip.
Most of the trips to white water we had, there were hardly any girls or women, it was very much white-male dominated environment then (good news is: things have changed dramatically now from 2012😊). And also a pub-after-paddle culture, and a difficulty to find a place to change after the paddle in decency (so I had to buy a changing tent). Also, not everyone was very understanding towards my health condition (hypothyroidism) and my need for often toilet breaks or need to get more layers on mid-trip. So, I started to feel like I do not belong to white water world. I sold all my white-water gear and bought a marathon racing K1 kayak.

Just to mention it again, the situation is much better now, especially with #ShePaddles and Muslim Scouts movements, there are so many more women, including female coaches on water nowadays, so it is the right time to try Paddlesports, for Muslim women.

If you have to recommend advice to beginners what would it be?

Find a canoe/ kayak club or a SUP club or a Paddlesports provider, and join the taster sessions and structured/ coached sessions. If you decide to buy your own craft – never paddle alone, and ALWAYS wear your buoyancy aid (PFD), a mobile phone in a waterproof pouch as means of communication in emergency, make sure you tell someone where you go paddling and when you are planning to get back, dress for water temperature (not for air temperature). There are many other points to cover, I think the best option is to get through a short Paddle Safer course by British Canoeing, for example, so you are well informed and equipped with the professional knowledge regarding your chosen craft, weather conditions, your paddling experience etc. If you follow someone on Instagram or Twitter and they do not wear safety leash on SUP or a buoyancy aid while on water – they are not the right role models, so you are better of following someone who promotes safe paddling practices.

When you are joining the paddling club or provider – be clear in articulating your Muslim-specific needs, they have a duty to be as inclusive as possible, and usually very happy to accommodate people from various backgrounds.

Disability is also NOT a barrier anymore – many clubs cater for people with disabilities and specific needs.

What advice or motivation would you give to anyone that has been wanting to kayak in terms of the gear and equipment that they need to get?

I would say again, join the paddling club or a group, ask the staff or members to let you try various items out, and see what suits you best. But your main three items of personal protective gear you need to concentrate on:
– Buoyancy aid
– Water neoprene shoes
– Helmet (if doing multiple person crafts, white water or fun activities)
– Waterproof pouch for your mobile phone
– Once you are into it, then consider investing into good drycag (paddling jacket) and wetsuit for summer (you can wear some loose trousers to cover the tight wetsuit), and a paddling drysuit for winter.
– It is not practical to paddle in long abaya, because of safety aspect in event of capsizing. So consider a shorter dress like burkini suit or a tunic and trousers instead.

Advice for Kayaking in a Hijab

HIJAB: DO NOT WEAR LOOSE ENDS & PINNED HIJABS!!! Please choose the hood-style hijab (i.e. sports hijab like JogOn hijab) or a burkini hood. It is for your own safety (there is always a risk of strangulation if you capsize and the ends of your scarf get entrapped in the gear and paddle-craft fittings).
NO COTTON! Please choose synthetic or woolen sports underwear, socks and thermals. Cotton will make you feel very cold and heavy as soon as it is wet.
No slippers, flipflops, sandals or wellies. You got to have footwear that sits tight on you, so go for walking boots, trainers, surfing boots, kayaking neoprene boots.
If you wear a veil/niqab, please choose sports non-cotton versions, same with the gloves.

CRAFT: try different types and disciplines in kayaks, canoe, bellboat, rafting, canoe polo, canoe racing, slalom and so on. Try different brands, go to the showrooms and take it for a test paddle. It is similar to choosing a bicycle – it will depend on your size, weight, what and where you want to do in/on it.
How has it been kayaking in hijaab? 

Hijab has NEVER been an obstacle for me in Paddlesports.
However, there are safety aspects to it to consider:
– No loose ends or wrapping around the neck should be present
– Hair should be in a low ponytail or plait to ensure that your helmet (if required one) sits well on your head.

Even a niqabi sister can do kayaking, even the white water and rolling kayak – but you need to remember that if you capsize, your veil will get wet, so unless the water runs off it quickly or it has additional ventilation holes in it, you may need to consider removing it for white water trip – GOOD NEWS – there are full face Paddlesports helmets that you may consider instead of wearing veil when doing white water kayaking.

My favourite place to paddle is Coniston, in Lake District. We often get to paddle Windemere lake as well. My best kayaking memories are of course of my Devizes to Westminster attempts and crossing the finish line in 2019 with my (Junior) partner Sirin Arif Gisel, in a Junior-Veteran K2 category. The Muslim female paddlers I follow now are Aisha Garwood @aisha_paddle_community and Saira Ishaq @sairapaddles. These two inspiring Muslimas are new #ShePaddles ambassadors, 2022-2023, for British Canoeing.
Together, we are striving to make Paddlesports a more inclusive space for Muslim communities in UK.

My dream is to go paddling in Norway, Greenland and Iceland, and to see the polar light (areola borealis).
Paddlesports, whichever you choose, be it kayaking, canoeing, rafting, bell-boating or SUP, is really great for our physical and mental health, especially for women and girls. I would love to encourage more Muslim women and girls try kayaking, SUP and other Paddlesports now, whatever the weather!

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