Diversifying the outdoors: the hiking and adventure group for Muslim women
Amira, founder of Wanderlust Women, is creating a movement. She wants all women, from all backgrounds, to access the countryside and feel confident about doing so. We spoke to her about her walking group and her plans for the future.
I started the group last year during lockdown. I started by organising one walk and made an Instagram page about it. All of a sudden, it was really popular – lots of people got in touch and wanted to support us.
The response was amazing. We gained so many followers and received lots of messages asking how to join, and messages of support from other walking groups too.
There were lots of messages saying how it’s great to see me doing this, that it’s great to see a woman like me do this. I just thought – why shouldn’t I?
It made me realise that a lot of women aren’t going outdoors because they don’t feel confident, or they don’t think it’s for them – because they don’t see anyone else who looks like them doing it.
I had the initial idea years ago – I wanted to organise adventure days and retreats for women from my community and provide a safe space for women to heal, get together and create a community.
This year I decided to focus on Wanderlust Women full-time – I quit my job and moved to the Lake District so I could train to become a mountain leader and create more opportunities for myself and the group.
I don’t like using the phrase safe space – we shouldn’t have to. The world, and its countryside, is for everyone. Instead, I try to see my group as a door to get through a blockage of low confidence and anxiety. I want it to be a space where women are comfortable, feel represented, able to have their beliefs in place and wear what they want.
It’s opened up massive opportunities for women who felt connected to the outdoors and women who didn’t. We have beginners who’ve never been to the countryside before, and women who have experienced and enjoyed the countryside but felt they needed to be with other women.
Faith and the great outdoors
The outdoors is well known for helping mental and physical health, but for me it also helps me with my spiritual health. I feel connected to my mind, body and my soul, too. It’s like a medicine. It helps me connect to my faith to God. It helps me reflect on who I am as a person.
After time outdoors, you never come back as the same person. Subconsciously you let go of a lot of things and think freely. You’re using all five senses, it’s a form of meditation. To me, it’s a spiritual journey and also a healing one.
Improving rural inclusion
I think there’s always room for improvement. Think about how diverse the world is. If you’re catering, is there halal options, kosher, vegetarian and vegan? If there’s kit provided, is the sizing inclusive?
For outdoor events, consider adding women-only opportunities, because a lot of women, not just Muslim women, prefer to be outdoors with female leaders.
It’s also important to consider if the location of an event is accessible to people from inner-cities, otherwise you need to own a car to take part. If you’re asking people of colour to talk about diversity and inclusion, make sure you’re paying them for their time.
When I initially started the group, we were in and out of lockdown – I had planned a few events and they were cancelled because of lockdown. It was hard at the beginning. We had a few walks and gorge walks before there was another lockdown.
This year we’ve been able to do a lot more, like retreats and courses – the summer has been so busy!
Now, we’re planning our next trip and I want to focus on not just getting women outdoors, but ensuring they feel confident outside. I’m planning courses on leadership and skill courses. I want to get women from diverse backgrounds and feel they are leaders. I want Wanderlust groups around the UK.
It’s been really busy – someone emailed me yesterday and said as soon as I click on the event it’s sold out. This year and next year I want more volunteers and leaders to be on board so we can do more events.
Young people in the countryside
My earliest memory of the countryside is with my parents in the Yorkshire Dales. I hated my first hike – I cried, I fell, I did everything wrong. Today, I look back and think it was such a small hike! The outdoors is like my office now!
The countryside can be daunting to young people, 100%. I really believe that. When you see the countryside represented in the media, it’s usually only white, older, middle-class men. You don’t see people of colour or women wearing the hijab.
If you’re not used to leaving the area you grew up in or you’re used to a certain lifestyle, it can be difficult. It’s not their fault though – access and lack of kit and transport is a barrier.
There’s also a lack of knowledge around the outdoors, particularly if you’re from an inner-city area. The women I work with who live in cities are so anxious about the countryside – just getting there is stressful for them.
They have so many questions – will there be phone signal, or toilets? Do I have the right clothing? How much do I have to carry?
Broaden your horizons
Whatever is stopping you from exploring the outdoors is in your head. You won’t know until you try it. You might try it and find you don’t like it – and that’s okay! Go on Google and research. Download the AllTrails app and see what’s in your area. Explore your local park. Start with a small walk and see how you feel
Gradually you can figure out what you enjoy. Ask friends if they want to come with you. There are so many local groups you can join too.
Before you get started, make sure you plan. Look into courses too. Don’t compare yourself to anyone else, and remember there’s no certain way to look to get outdoors. Write down whatever is stopping you and see how you can challenge that.
There’s lots of advice and resources online, and YouTube videos on basic things like what to wear. Just do it. You’ll learn more after you’ve done it. On my first hike, I did everything wrong, I wore the wrong clothes, I got lost. I learnt from that to get better.
We start with smaller walks to ease people in, with workshops beforehand. We explain navigation and planning which eases them and helps them take those first steps outside.
Discovering what you love – and hate
I thought I loved everything about the outdoors, but I’ve realised the type of terrain I like, even the type of mountains and hills I liked. The outdoors is more than just hiking, too. It’s about finding out what you actually like, whether it’s running, swimming, rock-climbing, paddleboarding. You need to try different activities.
It’s important to remember that the outdoors is challenging. I trip, I fall – the first 30 minutes is always the hardest. The next day, I can’t do anything because my legs hurt so much. We have to carry lots of equipment.
What people see on social media is different to reality – I try to show everything on our social media, because it’s important to talk about these things. People might think it’s glamorous, but it’s not!
What’s coming next
We’ve got the next two months fully booked up. We have hikes coming up, and walks in parks too, so people from cities can attend easily. We also have an event in the Lake District coming up.
I want to take a break to focus on planning next year. We have lots of retreats and courses planned for next year, including navigation courses, camping courses, mountain skills, and eventually an expedition abroad!