Breaking Through the Barrier Line: Interview with Comrades Marathon Runner Sherina Desai

By Fatima Haffejee

‘We cannot tell what may happen to us in the strange medley of life but we can decided what happens in us – how we can take it, what we do with it. And that is what really counts in the end.’

– Joseph fort Newton

Breaking Through the Barrier LineGender stereotypes are widely held beliefs about the characteristics and behaviour of women and men. Empirical method studies have found widely shared cultural beliefs that men are more socially valued and more competent than women at most things. These “biased self-assessments” have far-reaching effects because they can shape men and women’s educational and career decisions (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sexism )

Let’s face it, ‘stereotyping’ is still rife. Regardless of how hard we try to break free from the traditions of ‘old school’ thinking, it is still predominant.

When it comes to sport in particular, we bear witness to the feminist struggle on a daily basis. Ann Meyers Drysdal of the Women’s Sport Foundation in the USA strongly ‘believes there is still a lot of progress to be made when it comes to women’s sports. The title of her new book, “You Let Some Girl Beat You?” plays off of the fact that in sports often women are still referred to as “girls.”’ ( http://www.huffingtonpost.com/rachel-cosgrove/making-progress-in-womens_b_1885885.html , date accessed 08 March 2013). Furthermore, she believes that the language we use can help level the playing field between men and women athletes.

Fifty-something year old Sherina Desai has committed herself to something that was, and perhaps still is, considered a predominantly male sport. Participating in the comrades isn’t an idea many Muslim women would take to easily. Perhaps the growing question of our identity as Muslim women in sport and the nagging concern that we will be shunned by the community has a part to play in this decision-making process..

Despite the challenges, Sherina has broken the barrier, She has demonstrated the determination and muscle that Muslim women possess to compete at the same level as  men in the sphere of sport.

Q and A WITH SHERINA DESAI:

Q What prompted you to start running the comrades?

A I went through a very emotional stage in my life when my marriage of 15 years ended. It’s not that I didn’t want to deal with this, but I realized that in order to heal myself I was going to have to find the time to do something for myself. I needed to fill the emptiness with some sort of challenge. I needed to find an outlet. I was asked to help a development programme run by the Lenasia Athletic Club for Kids. This action was the stimulating factor for my running. I have been running for twelve years now.

 

Q Your separation was a difficult time in your life. How has competing in the Comrades aided your healing process?

A The comrades became an existential journey. It filled a void in my life. I would have certainly crept deeper into a dark hole, not wanting to face the world. Running assisted by pulling me out and giving me the self-value and respect that I had lost sight of with the emotional turmoil that I went through.

Q What was the biggest challenge that you faced?

A  Comrade runners’ are predominantly male. I’ve heard several negative remarks passed my way, but I didn’t allow this to deter me from my objective. I wasn’t running the Comrades to achieve gold status. I was simply challenging myself.

Q How did the Muslim community around you react to your decision to run the comrades?

A  I think most of my family and friends initially thought this was a phase. The stares one receives as a divorced woman living on your own is a clear indication of disapproval. Some people almost look down at you, even though I wasn’t displaying any signs of disrespect against my person or religion.

Q  By simply observing, 10 years ago there were not as many Muslims, women in particular, participating in the comrades or any sport for that matter. Did this prove a stumbling block for you in the beginning and how did you manage to overcome the stereotype?

A  It was difficult yes, but not a stumbling block. When one follows a path with no ulterior motive or gain your mind is clear. Participating in a sport or even attending a function on your own as a divorced female is a challenge to one’s emotional state. It is very difficult to enter into a social gathering “alone”.
If there is one thing I could request from society, it would be to accept divorced females without prejudice because none of us are aware of what the actual circumstances were around the divorce and how difficult the coping mechanisms are.

Q Were your family supportive? What was their initial reaction to your decision?

A My family has always been supportive, although I don’t think they believed that I could achieve a medal at the Comrades (I know they won’t admit to this).

Q In light of your own personal experience, do you believe that Muslim women facing difficulties in their lives can change their thoughts and perspectives positively by latching onto something they enjoy?

A Certainly, however I need to stress the need to set small goals first which derive the same benefit .It doesn’t have to be anything major. Start with small, basic steps. By going for a walk around the block, you are allowing yourself to breath in and out without any pressures of your home environment. You can think clearly without interruptions, you can feel with the gifts that the Almighty has bestowed you with.
Q How have you managed to maintain your identity as a Muslim woman whilst balancing your responsibilities as a mother and still finding time to do run every morning?

A Being Muslim isn’t something that can ever be compromised. Our everyday lives are governed by our Islamic upbringing (morals and values)As a mother my kids come first , there will always be sacrifices to be made. Your enjoyment becomes secondary.

My training basically boils down to effective time management and a strong support system from my family. My first responsibility has always been, and always will be my family.

Q What advice can you offer for women in general?
A As women, often we forget how important it is for us to do something solely for ourselves. The Comrades was MY choice of healing, but not everybody enjoys the same things. Find your niche and dedicate time daily, towards that which will revive your spirit. This will not only enhance your relationships but your spiritual well- being too.

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