Female weightlifter Amna Al Haddad appears in the latest online documentary for Nike Training's "Inner Strength" series. The young athlete hails from the United Arab Emirates and hopes to qualify for Rio 2016.
The black-and-white video depicts Al Haddad working out, hijab in place and Nike gear on point (all of which you can buy here). As she drops and lifts terrifyingly heavy weights, she reflects on who she is, what she represents, the spiritual act of weightlifting itself, and what people can learn from her.
Al Haddad's story is well-chosen for reasons both obvious and not: She's a Muslim woman in a male-dominated sport, but just years ago, she was also a journalist with an unhealthy lifestyle who decided to change her situation.
"I realized I have a competitive spirit in me," Al Haddad says of pursuing bodybuilding, weightlifting and even Crossfit. "That changed my view of strength sports for women."
And for those who perceive weightlifting as a mindless bro sport, she's got something to say about that, too: Mindlessness is perhaps the point, and that isn't a bad thing.
"You have the weight on the floor, and then bam—it's over your head. That moment in between is non-existent," Al Haddad muses. "You can feel every aspect of the bar, and the two of you become one. It's kind of like meditation."
Her calm voice, mischievous demeanor, and projected strength credibly address three different targets: Westerners who've never actually spoken to a veiled woman; people whose notions of sports are still framed by gender dynamics; and women who need a lift—particularly veiled women who want to be seen as more than their gender, and more than a headscarf.
It's a story that's particularly poignant in light of the cultural tug-of-war currently happening in the Middle East, which is trying to strike a coherent balance between its own organic evolution and Western culture.
A recent survey of Arab youth reported a growing desire to improve personal freedoms and human rights, especially for women, whose rights are fractured at best across the region: In Saudi Arabia they can vote (as of last year) but not drive, for example.
But the United Arab Emirates is in some ways a model for the women's rights charge: It granted limited suffrage to both men and women in 2006, and last year it elected the first woman in the Arab world to head the National Council. It also has a female foreign ambassador to the United Nations, Lana Nusseibeh, who believes in using the rule of law to empower women.
The hijab itself makes potent fuel for this conversation on the ground floor, particularly in sports. Is it an imposition or a choice? And if it's a choice, does its charged role in a patriarchy make that choice demeaning?
As Al Haddad says, "I don't normally show all aspects of my personality, but as I keep saying, there's a lot going on under my hijab. I'm a complicated individual, OK?"
So is the role of the headscarf, for spectators and Muslim women alike. One in five Muslim women exercise at least once a week, which sounds pretty good, but is actually lower on average than any faith group. So it means something to see a relatable human up there on an Olympic platform; it may actually change behaviors.
Thankfully, Al Haddad isn't the only one representing covered ladies—although there remain too few like her. For the 2016 Summer Olympics, fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad will be the first Muslim-American woman to compete in hijab. (In fact, she's always worn it under the mask—but now she'd like everybody to know.) There's also the hijab-sporting Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari, who, despite embracing her role as a symbol of feminine, ethnic and religious perseverence, was nonetheless criticized by another Muslim woman, journalist and author Farzana Hassan, in the Toronto Sun, for not being brave enough to remove it.
It's a complicated subject, but again Al Haddad has perhaps the most apt words for it.
"I'm someone who broke a lot of barriers for Muslim women," she says toward the end of the Nike video. "There's a lot of resistance, a lot of rejection. But when that is happening, you know you are tapping on something that's untouched, and that's when you start to pave a path for others. That pushes me."
The "Inner Strength" series launched in March of last year, with an episode featuring golfer Rory McIlroy. Since then, it's spoken in the voices of footballer Marcus Mariota, surfer Nat Young, Olympian lifter Mat Fraser, Decathlon world and Olympic champion Ashton Eaton, basketball star Kyrie Irving, and even actor/comedian Kevin Hart, who gets up at 5:30 every morning to get in shape.
Al Haddad is the first woman the project has featured. Her story will appear on Nike Training's Twitter and Instagram channels, as well as the blog, where, as mentioned, you can score her gear.