Head to Balsall Heath, a working-class area of Birmingham, on certain nights of the week and you’re likely to see something rare in our sport: a large group of Asian women running together. They are part of Saheli Hub, a remarkable club founded by a remarkable woman.
Naseem Akhtar loves a challenge. Back in 1998, she helped create a neighbourhood forum to tackle crime in Balsall Heath. The same year, following a consultation with local women, she set up Saheli Hub.‘A local [health] centre existed, but the women were worried it didn’t do women-only sessions and they lacked the confidence to use it,’ she recalls.
By contrast, Saheli Hub prides itself on being women-only. ‘I think women are naturally more social, so they want a more social kind of club,’ says Naseem. ‘Women come for each other, get advice from each other and support from each other.’
Initially, though, they didn’t run with each other – in fact, they didn’t run at all: ‘In my community, it was unheard of.’ That started to change when, in 2015, Naseem was asked by the local council if she would train BAME [Black, Asian and minority ethnic] women to take
part in the Great Birmingham Run. ‘I agreed, so long as they paid for their running shoes,’ she says
Getting them to train for a half marathon, however, required more than free footwear. ‘When we first talked to these women about running, they looked at us as if to say,“Why would you want to do that?”’
Some had a fear of crime or being out in the street, but Naseem also believes there has been a lack of female Muslim role models: ‘Imran Khan was my hero as a kid because that’s what I saw on TV: him winning the cricket World Cup with Pakistan[in 1992]. I do not know of an Asian sportswoman who is my hero.’
Naseem convinced 25 Muslim women to train for the race, 17 of whom ran it. And training built more than physical fitness. ‘One of the nice things was that the women started saying, “I don’t want to run in the park anymore; I want to run on the streets,”’ she says. ‘It got to the stage where they didn’t care who was watching; they just wanted to do it, so that’s what we did.’
Saheli Hub now has running sessions on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays. Its members have completed marathons around the world and three of the women now run sessions in their own parks.‘Running has had an amazing effect on people,’ says Naseem. ‘One of our ladies lost 5st within a year. It’s changed their lives and given them much more confidence.’
Saheli Hub runners will be out in force at this year’s Great Birmingham Run on Sunday, October 13. ‘The crowd are always really surprised to see a lot of Asian girls together,’says Naseem. ‘You get a real sense of your city supporting you.’