Sayeeda Chowdhury can’t describe the adrenaline she feels when she approaches the bench and deadlifts 275 pounds. Within the testosterone-soaked atmosphere of a crowded gym, this five-foot one athlete strides over to the bench and with a careful adjustment of her hijab, she dusts her hands with chalk and executes a flawless deadlift. As soon as the weight crashes to the ground, she is met with hoots and applause.
The 24-year-old relishes the opportunity to join other Muslim women in the fitness industry embracing the era of contemporary Islam by breaking gender and cultural barriers. Emulating her idol, Ibtihaj Muhammad, the first Muslim female to wear a hijab while competing in the Olympics, where she won a bronze medal in fencing, Chowdhury took up powerlifting to make a statement to other young Muslims, encouraging them to ‘live’ rather than exist, solely to please their parents.
However, the medical student from Queens, New York was met with disdain and a lack of support, when she shared the news with her family.
“My dad grumbled about how powerlifting wasn’t befitting of a young woman and that it would take away from my education. My mom had already consulted her little black book of potential grooms who would snap me out of this ‘stupid goal’,” Chowdhury says.
Her orthodox aunties and uncles doled out the dreaded question: “What would the community think of you?”
The natural trajectory of life for Chowdhury, who hails from a family that prides itself on tradition, customs and discipline, involves the pursuance of an education, followed by a meticulously thought-out marriage and culminates in the arrival of angelic bundles of joy. Once these duties have been fulfilled, the cycle commences again.
That’s the mind-set that Chowdury aims to combat.
Chowdhury’s father, a Bangladeshi native, who arrived in the U.S. in 1975, became a New York City policeman while her mother gave up her career to raise her and her sisters. “The ultimate objective was that all three of us would become successful, rich doctors, they could brag about, plus the added bonus of enhancing our marriage prospects”, Chowdhury says. “Nowadays, Muslim men want their wives to be educated, after all a household with a double income is a win-win in their books.”
After graduating in political science at The City University of New York, she decided to pursue medicine, thought it wasn’t because of her family’s expectations. Rather, it was the tragic death of one of her cousins, whose late diagnosis of breast cancer, threw the family into a state of turmoil.
Currently, in her second year at the Icahn School of Medicine, Chowdhury expresses an interest to specialize in oncology. “My cousin had young children, who now have to grow up without a mother,” she says. “The healthcare system has many flaws, one of which include doctors’ reluctance to seek a second opinion. It’s someone’s life at stake so my cousin’s death has driven me to turn my grief into hunger for this profession.”
Although, Chowdhury faces a long and arduous journey to becoming a fully-fledged medical attending, she says that it’s the challenges, she faces, that really test her passion for medicine.
“We have tests, hurled our way every single week, meaning we have to absorb anatomy and pharmacological terms at an alarmingly high rate,” she says. “Medicine is no joke, so the professors are also tough on us to prepare the class for their impending residency programs.”
Chowdhury also cites Grey’s Anatomy as a source of inspiration. “When you see Meredith Grey win a prestigious award for pioneering an abdominal transplant, you can’t help but feel motivated to get out there and kick ass but then again, how crazy is it that a bunch of ‘busy’ doctors rarely have the time to converse with patients but somehow, always end up getting ‘caught in the act’, in a supply closet?”
Despite her traditional career path, Chowdhury’s growing fascination with powerlifting, made her more determined than ever, to win over her family’s respect for the sport.
Chowdhury’s fitness journey began in January 2017 when she met a powerlifting coach in Liberia. She looked up the coach’s Instagram, “where she had posted pics of her deadlifting 200lbs like it was nothing,” Chowdhury says. “I commented ‘#goals’ and she DM’d me, offering to teach me how to lift.”
From that moment onwards, there was no question in Chowdhury’s mind that immersing herself in the world of extreme fitness was the right step to take. “I felt freer during that one lesson than I ever have in my entire life,” she says. “Maybe I was rebelling, but I wanted to get stronger, sculpt my body and show other Muslim girls that it’s okay to stand out.”
Whether it was chugging a vanilla flavored protein shake after each workout or filling up on chicken curry and lentils any chance she got to replenish her protein intake, Chowdhury dove head first into this new and unfamiliar world and has never looked back.
She also managed to prove her father wrong by keeping a 3.85 GPA by including the odd lifting round between classes. “Dad’s reaction was to grumble that it wasn’t a perfect 4.0 but it’s fair to say I won that particular battle,” Chowdhury says.
After competing in her first meet that doubled as a charity event: ‘Lift for Planned Parenthood,’ Chowdhury deadlifted 50 pounds, and received an invite to join the board of prolific women’s fitness association, ‘The Women’s Strength Coalition’ (WSC).
Chowdhury emphasized how her religion did not have to act as an anchor for her moral decisions, seeing Islam has classified abortions as being ‘haram’, the Arabic term for forbidden. “I’m pro-choice. It doesn’t make me a bad Muslim to believe that it’s the woman’s right to choose, even if it does clash with my parent’s ideologies.”
Though she is one of three children, her father has nine siblings and suffered through many adversities, including poverty. “The shame that is placed on abortions is what’s contributing towards large Muslim families who struggle financially as a result.”
For Chowdhury, education of the subject matter is key. That and normalizing the topic of sex and contraception which are often discussed in hushed tones.
The crucial and intricate doctrine of successfully blending religion with a contemporary perspective, is a battle, Chowdhury continuously fights.
Sporting multiple piercings and tattoos, hidden by her clothes, Chowdhury’s flashy red streaks of dyed hair can be juxtaposed with her decision to wear her hijab. A personal choice, she made during her formative years, to represent her pride as a Muslim woman.
“Of course, there’s the ignorant comment here and there, telling me that I should break out of this ‘oppressive’ get-up… The thought that any one entity could force me into covering my hair, is ludicrous”, Chowdhury says. “It’s something that has never stopped me from living my life.”
Contrary to popular belief, she does not have to remove her hijab during her workouts and covers her arms and legs under the otherwise revealing body suits, competitors don in official meets.
“It’s definitely a rarity to see a modestly dressed woman, lifting weights in the gym, regardless of her faith,” Chowdhury says.
Chowdhury says her first and foremost goal in weightlifting to improve her muscular strength. The visual enhancement of her arms and legs are merely the reward for her dedication and persistence.
According to Amir Hussain, a professor of theological studies at Loyola Marymount University, California, this appears to be generational in nature. Older family members and friends hold what he calls “outdated tenets” that a woman ‘should look feminine.’
He says while the Prophet Muhammad encouraged people to take up physical activity, it should not be for the sake of vanity and practising Muslims must note their physical health as a top priority, in place of the desire to change the look of what is essentially God given.
Chowdhury disagrees with Hussain, as what others perceive to be vanity, is what she perceives to be self-love. “What’s so bad about wanting to look in the mirror and see a better version of myself? I love the feeling of confidence that comes with powerlifting,” she says.
Sarah Mokh, a graduate student at New York University, studying Middle Eastern studies, who also indulges in weightlifting during her spare time, adds, “though Islam does not contain one monolithic set of scriptures, our actions are always judged by our intentions.”
If a female keeps her modesty, her body would be hidden, therefore, her personal agenda would not be called into question.
“The fear of being judged and ostracized, continues to drive Muslim females away from extreme sports,” Chowdhury says. “My personal agenda is personal for a reason. It’s no one else’s business.”
In February 2019, Chowdhury turned her passion into a part-time mentoring venture and took on the role of community outreach director at ‘Strength for All’, a serious weightlifting gym in Bushwick, New York.
Her first workshop is called ‘Learn to Lift’ and is specifically aimed at Muslim women. Chowdhury will train new members on a bimonthly basis, placing an emphasis on form and technique, along with underscoring the physical and emotional benefits.
She also succeeded in winning over her parents, though the rest of her family she says, is a work in progress. “Mom preps my meals whenever she can while Dad came to support me during one of my meets.”
“Lifting gave me the new-found confidence to conquer the world” Chowdhury says.
“I have a narrative, a voice and a platform to showcase my two passions, powerlifting and medicine,” she says. “Who said you can only have one?”