Almost three years ago, I started what I considered a new hobby, an activity that I believed would serve as a tool to support me in better managing my emotions during the height of challenging times. My activity of choice was cycling. I chose to engage in an activity that I loved as a child, riding my bike through the streets of North Philadelphia.
I remember telling three of my closest friends that I was going to purchase a bike; two were supportive, and one asked “what are you going to do with that?” I thought it was obvious, but I guess she had questions. My intentions around my new hobby were simply to use it as an outlet. I went on my first official ride June 19, 2020, with a friend on a public trail that runs through the city of Philadelphia, the suburbs, and beyond. Some of the most interesting factors in all of this were how my bike purchase, during some of the most uncertain times, has served as a gateway to self-discovery, clarity, and fused purpose. An interesting point is, if I were asked to go on a ride a few years earlier, I probably would have, but the benefits and opportunity were never presented to me as it had been during the pandemic.
As time progressed, I fell in love with the activity and movement that cycling required; however, while I had the bike and knew where I would ride it, I had to consider what I was going to wear. For others, this was an easy accommodation. There are a variety of brands that make cycling apparel, but as a Muslim woman with a goal of maintaining modesty, while being comfortable and safe, this posed a bit of a challenge. When I started cycling, it was summer, so I was in need of long-sleeved jerseys and full-length bibs. The goal was trying to find full-coverage apparel. I also needed a sports hijab that I liked, which was difficult as there were not a lot of options available. This discovery could have been discouraging, yet I was determined and persistent to enter the world of cycling and do it in a way that was authentic to me and my identity and passions. I suppose brands had not really considered Muslim women cyclists or those that needed to be accommodated in this way, which is why showing up, making space, and creating community became so important to me.
I can recall taking my first ride on the Schuylkill River trail, a well-known and well-used trail in the area. I rode with a friend, enjoying the sun beaming on my skin, inhaling the fresh air, and admiring the tree canopies covering us. I felt joy, peace even. We were just riding, not talking much, but we were smiling and having a great time. The experience felt so childlike but also healing and validating. It was an experience that, looking back now, I needed. There was a sense of calm. I could process my thoughts and be present in the beauty that was the outdoors, an experience that I do not often get with living in the city and being a mom of three. For this reason, cycling became much more than an occasional hobby but a passion, a lifestyle. It was my source of active meditation. Every aspect of my engagement began to provide me with a certain happiness that I had not realized was required and needed for my health and well-being.
I did not realize, but with cycling came a social component that has enhanced my experience. Who knew my bike purchase would lead to not only a re-engagement with the outdoors and nature, but also access to an entirely new community amongst various cycling clubs, teams, and industry partners? I was able to meet and befriend such an amazing group of like-minded individuals. However, the more immersed I became in the cycling community, the more I began to realize a few things. The honeymoon stage of starting a new passion had passed, and I was starting to see a bit of the reality of this sport and activity. I began to make observations and gained a better understanding of a need, a purpose, and an alignment.
My friends that were following my journey would always ask me how they could get started or what they could do to become more active. I can recall being on a ride and thinking to myself, how cool would it be to create a space and community like this for teen girls. My thought was the earlier the exposure, the more of a lifestyle practice it will become. Thus, “Philly Focused & Fit,” a summer program for teen girls was born. Aspects of She Is Focused, and our teen-focused summer experience were born from my professional interests, personal passions, and individual needs that I recognized in my community. She Is Focused was created from a woman wanting and needing to create a space for others that she believed she needed for herself. However, now, it has turned into a business and movement. She Is Focused, as a reflection of its founder, centers uplifting, empowering, and supporting women and girls through using the power of movement and community healing.
Since its establishment, She Is Focused has grown in scope and has been responsible for leading and hosting various types of programming and community-focused events. The core of the organization is to ensure that we are providing space and support for women and girls that lends itself to social, emotional, mental, physical and communal healing and growth.
One of my main goals was to make space for myself in this new community, in addition to making space for others, and creating a representative and inclusive community and experience. I used my experience as a Muslim woman cyclist to create full-coverage cycling kits. I identified a need, which was that, as a modest dresser, as a Muslim woman, it was difficult finding clothing options for my now new passion. I did not want clothing or the lack of appropriate clothing options to prevent women like me from engaging in this amazing sport. Thus, I was the change I wanted to see and created modest cycling apparel for not only Muslim women, but for anyone who would appreciate full-coverage kits. So far, these kits have received great reviews and responses. People appreciate the effort to make cycling an inclusive and representative sport for anyone who wishes to engage in it. At the end of the day, this is what it’s about. It’s about building community and creating accessibility, and for me, creating modest or full-coverage kits was a way I could help contribute to that cause.
Philly Focused and Fit (PFF) was born from understanding how powerful it is when youth get together and engage in personal development activities and physical activities. What could be more fun than riding a bike? Many of the activities I incorporate into this summer program focus on self- reflection, exploring the outdoors, and exploring career pathways in the cycling industry. My thoughts behind the camp were simply, “how do we create space for girls to gain exposure to a sport/activity that they may not have known about otherwise?” It was about exposure and experience and providing a new perspective and pathway. In addition to the camp, PFF has held programming in Philadelphia public schools, creating space for girls to learn more about career pathways in the cycling industry and engage in conversations centered around topics such as exploring their creativity, sharing narratives of those trailblazing in sport, and being comfortable with being the representation that is needed. We often hear folks say, “representation matters,” and I agree. One of my main goals with PFF is to instill the understanding that it matters on both sides. Others need to create the space, and we must be confident to show up and take it. The joy in their eyes and the smiles on their faces gave me all the affirmation I needed, they get it and I could tell.
She Is Focused also offers women-focused outdoor experiences and cultural education activities. All this work has been developed and centered around the idea of engaging in a new activity, having amazing experiences centered around the activity, and wanting to share it with others. I recognized that in the community that I come from, there is a need to provide opportunity for engagement and exposure. Thus, my programming has been created to help meet that need and close the gap. With the support of amazing community members, community partners, fiscal sponsors, and industry leaders, we have been and will continue to provide culturally inclusive programming and opportunities to support the people who live in the areas where we live, work, play, and ride. It is about understanding equity and creating space for people who look like me. The equity piece is being so self-aware that you fully understand your value and move as such—understanding where you come from, your story, your experiences are what makes you unique and that is to be celebrated and respected. It’s about being “united by focus and together with purpose,” creating the impact that I want to see for generations to come.
Words by Ajoa Abrokwa, Photos by Chanea Whittington