Ever since Qatar won the bid to host the 2022 World Cup, the sports scene began to thrive and grow to accommodate Qatar’s vision for sports. Alongside the growth of sports facilities and talents, the sports community in Qatar has increased significantly in numbers and variety, making Qatar a beacon that lights up the international sports scene and enriches it. However, even with all these accomplishments, the representation of Qatari women in sports remains behind the representation of men. Thus, Qatari female athletes have taken it upon themselves to change this narrative challenging the stereotypes in society regarding women’s sports. One of these brave women is the rising runner Mariam Farid, who proved through her achievements that Qatari Muslim women could wear the hijab, participate in sports, and excel. So, who is Mariam Farid?
I am 23 years old. I was passionate about sports, competing, running around, and being physically active from a very young age. I studied in a French school where the system encouraged the students to play sports incorporating sports in our final grades. I used to play sports at every chance I got just for fun until I was fifteen when a coach scouted me and asked me if I can undertake some performance tests to see if I am fit enough to join the national team. Praise be to Allah; I proved myself and my skills in these tests. Within a year, I was at the same level as the athletes playing for the national team and have been in the field for over ten years.
Have you always wanted to become a runner?
I love playing all types of sports. I am the type of person who tries anything, and everything but running has always been the sport for me. It is my passion. I have never wished or wanted to pursue any other sport.
How was your journey as an athlete?
A year after joining the national team, I was chosen to be the ambassador for the IAAF World Athletics Championships Doha 2019. This was an international sporting event that an Arab country like Qatar would host for the first time. The team responsible for the file was big and full of big names in Qatar, such as Sheikh Saoud Al Thani, deputy CEO of Qatar Airways Yousef Al Obaidly, beIN’s CEO, and the ambassador Mutaz Barsham. I was sixteen back then, the youngest member of all the bidding teams. I gave a speech on why Qatar deserves hosting rights. The speech was full of emotions and messages to the selection committee. My speech was supposed to be in English, but a day before my presentation, we changed it to French since I spoke the language and most of the committee were francophone. I was very emotional as I spoke from my heart. It looked very innocent coming from a girl who loves sports and had the ability to speak, not only on behalf of women in Qatar but all Arabs in general.
Although years passed, I still distinctly remember the speech that I gave to the committee. I remember asking them when will we have the opportunity to host the World Championship, the third most important international sporting event, as it is time to bring it to the Middle East. I also said that I am a Muslim woman, and people are not aware that many Muslim girls dream to patriciate in these events. Many people think that since I wear the hijab, I cannot and will not compete. Some would even think we are oppressed because of wearing the hijab. However, I knew that through my participation, I would be able to break that stereotype. Although there was a whole bidding team asking the committee for hosting rights, I asked the committee from the perspective of a young girl who just wanted to compete. Praise be to Allah; I did compete for the first time in the World Championship 2019 in Qatar as one of the first competitors under 23 in the World Championships. I competed in the 400-meter hurdle as one of the first women representing Qatar. It was a beautiful experience and a dream that came true after I spoke years ago as a little girl who wished to compete in this championship. I broke my personal record, and I was close to breaking the national record. I was proud and honored to have competed in this competition, and I got amazing support from everyone around me, from my country and heads of committees to my friends and family. To say that it was an amazing experience is an understatement. I was breaking national records and getting medals. I competed in diamond leagues where I represented the national team, and I went worldwide for training camps.
How was your experience being an ambassador representing Qatar at such a young age?
When I was offered the position, I took it just because I love speaking and presenting in front of a crowd. However, with time I realized that this was something serious and a big responsibility. Thus, I started taking my role as an ambassador very seriously. I felt as if I was shouldering my dream and the dream of many Muslim Arabic women. After giving the speech in front of the selected committee for the World Championship, I began giving tours to the committee whenever they visited Qatar. I would show them what we do and how we train. I was also attending any meeting related to the World Championship. Furthermore, I would appear in newspapers and social media and work with the Qatar Olympic Committee to represent Qatar to the best of my abilities on an international scale. It was as if I was speaking on behalf of all women teams and women athletes in Qatar. All of this was possible because I became the ambassador for the bidding team. I am grateful for this opportunity as it taught me how to carry myself and speak in front of crowds.
Have you faced any challenges in your journey?
Unfortunately, the challenges that come to my mind are related to me wearing hijab. When I was in a training camp in France, I had to compete weekly to mark progress. In the first week, we were competing in a 100-meter race. I started getting ready for the competition on the track, and everyone around me was taking their clothes off to be in their short running gear. They were waiting for me to take my hijab and clothes off. Everyone kept staring at me as if I am a weird person for refusing to take off anything. They did not think that I would be able to win since I am covered head to toe which might hinder my speed. Surprisingly, I ended up winning first place by a long shot! They used to ask me if I was feeling hot wearing the scarf. At that time, I used to dismiss these questions and say that I am fine and used to it. I did not realize the magnitude and importance of what I am doing competing with my hijab. I showed that winning is possible while you are covered from head to toe. These experiences have made me protective of my hijab and identity; I want to do everything in life with my hijab on. That was not the first and the only time when I was questioned about wearing the hijab. In the French school that I attended, they followed a system in which no one in the school was allowed to show religious symbols. During my time in the French school, I remember coming from vacation when I was thirteen with a hijab for the first time. When I went to class, I was requested to see the principal. She told me that I am not allowed to wear the hijab even though the school is in a Muslim country! Furthermore, she said she would not allow me to continue my day at school if I insist on wearing the hijab. I got angry and defensive since the hijab was my choice and my freedom, and everyone has the freedom to do whatever they want. For an entire week, I had to attend my classes alone, in a separate classroom where teachers had to come to me, as they did not want me to mix with other students. In that week, the Ministry of Education in Qatar was in constant contact with the school to support me, and it became a hot topic both in Qatar and France. The options given to the school were to either let me in or be forced to shut its doors, while the school pressured my father to either switch my school or take off my hijab. This incident made me more attached to my hijab, as it made me realize the responsibility I bear when I wear it. I believe that Allah gave me the power to be patient during that week, as it was not easy facing adults who belittled my choice and my faith. Praise is to Allah, my case won, and the school was forced to accept students who wear the hijab. I like to think that I had to go through this experience to open the door for other girls to be able to wear the hijab to school. It was an opportunity to help others that Allah bestowed on me. Since that incident, I realized that I would stand for what I believe in. You cannot negotiate or tell me what I am not supposed to do as long as I am not hurting anyone; I will preserver. This was the first step I took to stand up for myself and what I believe in and be the only hijab-wearing student at school.
What is the message that you want to send as a sportswoman who wears a hijab?
I am proud and honored to represent women in general and Qatari women who love sports, women who wear the hijab, Arab women, and Muslim women. I think of myself as a representative of all these women. I had young people such as my classmates and people from my community looking up to me even though I was young. I grew up having this vision to inspire people to do whatever they want and love. As long as you are not hurting anyone, there should not be anything stopping you from doing what you love. Sport is an area where Muslim women are trying to break barriers, and we have to show that we can play sports while still being conservative and respecting our religion and culture. I grew seeing other people not seeing us for who we are. While competing as a Muslim woman who wears the hijab, I have faced much ignorance and confusion from people when they meet me. Through this experience, I realized I do not owe anyone any explanation on why I am wearing the hijab and competing. If they are not well informed, that is their fault for not doing their research to understand why many Muslim women wear the hijab. I will not separate my identity from sports, as they are intertwined. As the years passed with me on this track, I started growing as an individual. I worked on myself and on how I promoted what I do because this was not just about competing but also about encouraging others to enter this field. I share what I do on social media with people. I really love social media. I am blessed by all the support I receive from my family, friends, and my country. I also understand the impact I can have, and I try to use that impact to do good. I started giving speeches to young kids in schools and universities, even when I was a university student.
How was your experience in studying and competing professionally at the same time?
My training regimen grew more intense over the years forcing me to change schools. The French school system was very rigorous. We used to take twelve subjects at the age of 14-15, so the students did not have the time to pursue anything outside of school. However, I wanted to do what I love and follow my passion, so I changed school and studied International Baccalaureate (IB) at Gulf English school. The IB system was completely different from the French system; thus, it enabled me to pursue running professionally while still receiving my education. Education is very important to me. By attending school while competing and training professionally, I wanted to show that you can be a professional athlete and pursue education simultaneously. I know many former athletes who regret not finishing their studies, even after they retired from sports. This shows the importance of obtaining a degree, as we do not know where life will lead us. I come from a family of doctors, and the path that I took differs significantly from the path that my family members chose to take. Hence, pursuing higher education was also a way to assure my parents that I would not sacrifice my education for the sake of sports, which was of the utmost importance to them.
When I began planning to pursue higher education, I looked at universities abroad and applied almost everywhere. However, after reviewing my options and my career as a professional athlete, I decided to study in Qatar. I had a brother who was part of the first batch who graduated from Northwestern University Qatar (NUQ), which encouraged me to apply to NUQ. We have the best universities in the world in Qatar Foundation (QF), my parents and the people I love are here, and I have built a name and a career for myself here. If I study abroad, I will have to start from scratch, and I didn’t want that. I found myself connected to NUQ because I was already doing most of the things that are taught in their communications program. I am an athlete who appears on TV, and I communicate with different people and communities to share with them what I do. I just graduated in May 2020. When I first entered NUQ, I thought it wouldn’t be easy to explain my sports career and the flexibility that I required from them when it came to classes. I have to travel every three months for competitions and training camps, and as such, I needed support from the university to study and compete at the same time. With Allah’s blessing, I got all the help from both NUQ and QF. When I traveled during finals and exams, the professors were supportive and accommodating, as they knew I was competing professionally and supported me.
Were there any moments of doubt as you pursued this path?
At no point did I experience any doubts regarding the choices I made. I made up my mind when I was young to do the thing that I love. I see the choices that I made as a win-win situation, where I was positively representing my country and competing. I loved this whole experience. It helped me grow and develop and become who I am today, a strong, confident, and independent woman. Because I loved what I do, it helped me push myself to do more. I am grateful to have been able to figure out what I wanted to do early, as many teenagers didn’t know what they wanted to do. Praise be to Allah; sports ensured that I did not get lost as I had no time for anything beyond studying, training, and seeing my family. Sports is like a third parent that everybody needs. I encourage parents to enlist their children in sports because it will teach them things that the parents might not be able to teach. Sports is not just about training, but it is also about discipline as you have to train every day for two to three hours, and sometimes even twice a day! Sports instill discipline as nothing else will, and it keeps people on their track. Without discipline, you will not achieve anything.
Just to show you the extent of discipline sports introduces to your life, my regular schedule was centered on a strict training regimen. I used to wake up at 8:30 am for university, and I would be done with classes at 3:30 pm. I then leave for training around 4-4:30 pm. After that, I would go back home. I used to love this routine; I would even go out with my friends every once in a while. When I started university, I had to search for a new coach; therefore, I was forced to sit at home and do nothing for six months, and that was the worst period that I ever went through in my entire life. Sitting at home and doing nothing is not what I want to do.
I have also managed to avoid moments of doubt by ignoring people that do not wish for my success, people who do not help me train and try to put me down and stop me. I grew up proving people wrong, even though that’s not what I planned to do. I reflect year by year on my achievements and progress, and that’s when I noticed that I have proved people wrong.
Could you describe moments that you are most proud of?
I have two memories that I would never forget; the first is competing in the World Championship with a home crowd and getting all the support and love from everyone around me. It meant a lot to me. The experience felt so beautiful and emotional, and it motivated and inspired so many people. The second memory is when I got a medal in December 2020, when I competed in the Gulf Games in Kuwait. At that time, my father was sick, but he insisted that I travel and compete as he saw how hard I trained for this competition. I promised him to bring him medals. And all praise to Allah, I was able to keep my promise. Although everything went well, I would never do it again. My father was happy with the medals, but for me, it was hard to compete with the person I love the most; my biggest supporter is in hospital suffering.
Do you have any plans to channel your experience as a sportswoman into a project?
I have an exclusive for Women of Qatar! I gained many experiences in sport, and I even became a certified coach. I want to utilize that experience to help women in Qatar. I will hopefully open a wellness and fitness studio soon. I am currently working on it, and it will be a ladies-only space that I think many women would love. It will include personal training, coaching, medical, and nutritional services. Essentially, it will provide a fulfilling experience for anyone looking to change their lifestyle and become healthy. It will cater to every woman in Qatar, whether a mother, a teenager, or a young adult. We don’t often find an all-age inclusive studio in Doha. Moreover, I have noticed that we need more businesses that understand what the sports community needs and tailor it to women because we live in a conservative and traditional society. Instead of going against those transitions, we should be more accommodating towards it. Sports somehow has become complicated, so I want to make it as simple as possible. So women can love it and be inspired to be more healthy.
Could you tell us about your project “Jama”?
I founded Jama in Qatar during the Corona pandemic. The idea came as I was looking for summer dresses. I especially love flowery dresses, and I decided to create my dresses from scratch. Jama comes from the words “Khama” (material in Arabic), and the J in Spanish is pronounced “Kh,” so the name reads “material” or “fabric.” Alongside sports, I was intrigued by the business world and wanted to enter it. I decided to do that by opening a small business like Jama. Through Jama, I wanted to give the women gorgeous dresses with superior quality, and that highlights her femininity.
What is your advice for women in Qatar?
I would advise them to do everything they love to do, break barriers, and change the stereotypes about who we are. Believe in yourself and stay strong. Everything is possible as long as you know Allah is with you and that you are not hurting anyone or doing anything wrong. If you don’t do what you wish, who is going to do it then? There will always be someone who does something for the first time in the community, and as scary as that might seem, remember that it opens the doors for others. Everyone starts from zero. I did not enter World Championships because I was at the same level as the other athletes, but I knew they were in my position one day. Taking the first step is always scary, but you should push yourself while ignoring people’s negative comments.
Furthermore, you need to surround yourself with good people who will always encourage and love you, who will praise you, and recognize your hard work. Without a supportive group, things might be harder but not impossible to achieve. Sometimes, it is not you who is doing something wrong, but the people around you who are not recognizing what you do. So, never stop thriving and working on yourself.
- Interview written by Al Anoud Al Kuwari.
- Interview was edited to improve readability and flow.