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ClimbMuz: why are inclusive spaces important?

words by Yasmin Centeno

A safe space for minority groups

I do not identify as being Muslim but I was raised Muslim both in the UK and in Malaysia. I am an ethnic minority and a woman in a male dominated industry at work. The sports I tend to enjoy are also male dominated. There are so many avenues to go down with this article, the difficulties being Muslim in the UK, the perception of being a Muslim woman as being disenfranchised of free will or I could go more broad and talk about the difficulties of being a woman in a male dominated sport like climbing. The list could go on but let’s focus on the need for a safe space for minority groups in climbing.

Colour Up

I regularly climb with a group called Colour Up in Bristol. The premise of the group is to encourage ethnic minorities in Bristol to try climbing in an inclusive space. Having moved from London, where frankly I felt more comfortable being an ethnic minority to Bristol which is far less diverse and aware of its own inequalities; I was so tempted to pack my bags and move back to London.

That was until I found Colour Up. So much of what ethnic minorities in the UK face is being seen as different. It seems to be the human condition to see differences rather than similarities, it’s how we define ourselves and organise ourselves. Being non-White British, we are from a different culture, we eat different food, we look different, we speak different languages: therefore we are just different and feel unfamiliar and unknown.

Being amongst the unfamiliar and unknown is uncomfortable and therefore we are seeing British society and politics become insular and popularist. For a lot of us, especially for those who have never lived overseas, the decision is either we assimilate to not be different or we fight to find a space to keep some of what makes us unique. For people like me I know there is no other choice but to accept that I am different and may not be accepted for that by everyone. The fact that this is the fate I am stuck with by the choices that were made by my grandparents and parents is sometimes outright depressing but when I go back to Malaysia, I realise… they all left for a reason!
For me, it’s hard to not talk about something without getting fully involved and talking myself down a rabbit-hole. I feel there is undiscussed xenophobia in Bristol towards people that look like me and that can often leave me feeling unwanted. I don’t always want to talk about my feelings of not belonging here amongst my peers but I want to be in a community that somehow gets it. We sometimes talk about that feeling of discontent and isolation and sometimes we just climb and focus on the problem (boulder) at hand. Colour Up has not just become my climbing group, they have become my social group and my support group during some tough times.

Talk Club

There is an amazing charity in Bristol that is advertised at Redpoint’s cafe called Talk Club which is a talking and listening club for men. They also offer sports clubs, similar to ColourUp and ClimbMuz. It helps men find a space to talk about their mental health in a safe space. The idea that sport is therapy is not because you release endorphins when you exert yourself. Sport brings people from all walks of life together to participate in something we have in common. Seeing a group of brown people doing the same things as the majority of people makes us seem not that different. Between climbs we would have random chats on the boulder mats and if you ever overhead us you’d realise we all have dating woes, annoying housemates or an irritating colleague at work. But we also can talk about how we
feel, we talk about the shit days and the good days and we club together when we need to and we celebrate together too.

ClimbMuz is a very similar space and I felt so welcome when I climbed with them in October. The first thing they did was compliment my tattoo which I thought they would be a bit sceptical of. From such negative experiences in Malaysia: I strayed from Islam mainly because of how I felt religion was being forced upon me, not by my own parents but by Malaysian society. Being Muslim was apart of what it entailed to be Malay but also my religion (even now) is stated on my ID as being Islam and Shariah law can be applied to me. It also influenced the company I keep in Malaysia, I have no Malay friends and I don’t really communicate with my mum’s extended family outside the pleasantries because of that fear of judgement of being a ‘bad muslim’ and by defacto a bad person.

In all honesty, we climbed together, we did not talk about anything to do with religion or anything particularly deep. Bethwall has enough corner climbs to hurt your brain. But it made me remember that Islam is a tolerant religion. The women I met at ClimbMuz are tolerant and inclusive; they welcomed me with open arms. When I think of my parents, I see them as tolerant people. More importantly, Islam is a way of life that they choose to follow in the same way that I choose not to follow the Islamic way of life for myself. When you see a Muslim woman with a hijab crushing it at Bethwall, she is just as psyched as everyone else there, she is a strong woman making a free choice to express herself and I think ClimbMuz is a space that encourages that self expression in a familiar context.

This is why spaces like ClimbMuz are important.

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The Road to Climb Muz: part two

words by Siddrah , founder and attendees of Climb Muz events.

“I work in London, but I live just outside of London, in an area which is not very diverse. I’ve wanted to get into bouldering for a long time, but found it intimidating to go by myself. My experiences were limited to a few sessions as I had done with a friend years ago. During those sessions, the climbing centre had mainly been dominated by experienced male climbers. I was very nervous going to ClimbMuz by myself but I felt immediately at ease after meeting Siddrah and the group of like-minded women. It was a safe space to be myself completely. I received encouragement from the group and Siddrah, and simply enjoyed bouldering – something I’ve wanted to do for so long but never found the right opportunity until discovering ClimbMuz.”

When I started ClimbMuz, one of the things that weighed heavily on me was how do I make this group accessible. How can I reduce financial barriers to women attending these events as climbing is a very expensive sport. Initially, group members were paying full price for entry, then Bethwall which is part of the London Climbing Centre (LCC) offered us concession entries to the events which was absolutely amazing. To my surprise the group was growing at a steady pace.  Four months later, United We Climb (UWC,) stepped in to support. They provided financial support with shoes included. They had some funds available for people who could not afford to try climbing. I felt immensely proud at what the group has been able to achieve in a short space of time. 

 The events were proving very popular. Climbmuz’s profile was rising to the point where I had received a message from ‘The Nest’ climbing wall in Hayes. They were looking to increase diversity. There is  a huge Muslim community in their area so they offered the group free entry in the hope that other Muslims in the area would be inspired to embrace climbing as a hobby.  Other climbing walls, such as City Bouldering Algate in London also welcomed us as they were also interested in increasing diversity within their community.  

The other thing that weighed heavily on me, was how do I reach Muslim women who feel as though they do not fit in within the mainstream Muslim community.  I knew from conversations there were Muslim women out there who felt as though they were not accepted and judged by the other members of the community. Through these conversations with some of these women who identified as Muslim but for example were also part of the LGBTQIAI+ community, who dressed differently, were not as practising, tattoos, piercing and so forth felt at ease knowing that they would be accepted if they came to a ClimbMuz event and that they would have my full support. 

“I’d never climbed with Muslim women before so I was incredibly excited when I stumbled across ClimbMuz. Siddrah has created an important space that encourages Muslim women to become part of the wonderful world of climbing – a sport which may previously have felt inaccessible to them. As a queer Muslim woman, I was apprehensive about attending my first ClimbMuz event for fear of not being welcomed due to my sexual orientation. After a single conversation with Siddrah, my apprehension disappeared and I made plans to travel down to London for an event. When my partner and I met Siddrah at a ClimbMuz event, it was clear that we were in a safe environment free from judgement. I was relieved to find that ClimbMuz embodied some of the key principles of Islam of love and acceptance.” 

One of the questions that I have been asked is why these women cannot just go ahead and try climbing without this space. For some women, this space has given them the ability to try a hobby that they would have never considered. By creating this space, they have also had the confidence to go out and set foot into the climbing wall all by themselves.

“I am not joking, I really appreciate you. I know we barely spoke in the session but without your initiative I really would never have considered this hobby. It has helped my mental health so much. Thank you for creating ClimbMuz! I hope you know how much of an asset you are for us muslim women!”

To find out more about Siddrah and ClimbMuz – visit her on instragram, @Climbmuz and keep an eye out for upcoming events.