If you walk along the riverside at South Bank, London, you’ll soon become aware of the graffitied skate space tucked beneath Royal Festival Hall. You’ll hear the skaters before you see them as their decks hit the ramps and grip tape scratches on the heels of their shoes. As the space comes into view, the people will mostly take the same form – young white guys wearing beaten up trainers and graphic oversized tees.
This scene pretty much sums up mainstream skater culture. It has always felt like a predominantly white dude sport for guys with names like Ryan and Eli, who are precious about their Spotify playlists.
So, working to empower women to redefine this culture on their own terms is the all-women Muslim skate crew, Skater Uktis, which began in London. Ukti, or Ukhti, is an Arabic term of endearment meaning “my sister”, which perfectly encompasses this community who have come together to share a love of skateboarding, and also to strengthen their religious faith. Since starting out in January 2020, the crew has grown to 23 team members. These women are working to establish a global presence of skaters who are interested in joining the crew, before the formal membership system launches soon.
The first thing Skater Uktis wants the world to know about them is that they are a sisterhood run by the sisterhood. “Even though the story starts with me, I don’t want the story to be about me, it’s not a one-man rave, you know?” says a founding member of the global network, Aisha*. After skating alone on empty rooftops in Saudi Arabia, and attending Vans’ Girls Skate Nights in London, it became apparent to her that Muslim skater girls were very much out of sight.
“Our main thing was to … kind of fill in that gap that was within the skate scene,” she tells me. From then on, she recruited 18 sisters for their overseas teams across England, Norway, Spain, USA, Nigeria, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Iraq, Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand.
“The Skater Uktis haven’t set out to challenge stereotypes or improve what the everyday person thinks of them”Aisha
“The two main goals are to develop spiritually together and develop as skaters. One thing in Islam we know is we’re all born to be a leader. Whether you’re influencing a younger sibling, a friend, or a community of people, that automatically puts you in a leadership position and we wanted to become better ethical leaders together,” she says.
The crew facilitates this by balancing skate meet-ups, according to Covid-19 rules, with halaqahs known as ‘Spiritual Seshes’.
The seshes consist of spiritual Zoom talks from different members of the community that foster a sense of openness, where Muslim women, and non-Muslims who are curious about the faith, can engage in open dialogue and discuss their mental health during this stressful time. “It doesn’t matter what level of religiosity you are, it’s literally about building together. Whether you’re at level one or level 10, no one should judge one another,” Aisha says.
For some women, the appeal of shared spiritual betterment was what led them to Skater Uktis. Zara Rawat, 20, is a London-based student who joined when the sisterhood first started. “For the past few years, I’ve been trying to become a little bit more connected spiritually,” explains Zara. “So having this and it not being a male-dominated space [was a game changer]. It’s frustrating to not have a female perspective.”
“With Skater Uktis, it’s easier for me to ask questions, communicate, and to go through different routes and paths, ” she adds. There is a tendency for faith-based projects to elevate devout individuals and further isolate those who feel less religious, but Skater Uktis have made it a priority to do things differently.
“There’s a lot of damage done by teaching Islam the wrong way to the younger generation,” Aisha tells me. For this reason, Skater Uktis encourage all members to come and learn but to use this as a foundation of knowledge to develop their own research. “It’s been such a beautiful connection. We’ve become such good friends with some of these sisters over Zoom,” she adds.
Skater Uktis organised their first skate meet-up before lockdown rules took effect and they rallied women together who had never even stepped on a board before. “Prior to joining Skater Uktis, I had never skated before. In fact, I was very reserved about trying it and always thought of all the risks,” says Amina Mohamed, 23, who joined Skater Uktis after encouragement from a friend.
““The biggest lesson I learned is that skating is more [of] a mental thing than a physical one”
“The biggest lesson I learned is that skating is more [of] a mental thing than a physical one,” says Amina. “You have to learn to remind yourself that you can do what you put your mind to. Every time I skate I ask [myself] ‘if I can do this, then what else can I do that fear is currently holding me back from?”
It’s not just that men dominate abstract skater culture, they also physically dominate skate parks. When entering these spaces, unwelcoming looks and comments can feel intrusive to new women skaters. “I do feel like part of it is also them feeling a bit intimidated because they don’t know what to do with all these Muslim women in one space,” says Aisha.
This intimidation hindered Zara’s progress before she was part of the crew: “It can be [uncomfortable] going to a skate park when it’s just guys. I’m a very awkward person, so I’d never actually go to a skate park to skate. The only time that I would go was to see other people skate, but never for myself. I would just cruise or find an alley and I would skate there,” she reminisces.
“The bigger the space becomes, the easier it will be for more sisters to get in there and really change things up, show these white men, sorry, we’re here to stay,” says Aisha with a cheeky smirk.
The now delayed 2020 Tokyo Olympics were set to debut skateboarding in the medal programme. With a specific category for women, lucrative brand sponsorships began pouring in and it became clear that women’s advancement within the sport was progressing. But with the intersection of being visibly Muslim, there is still a long process of ‘normalisation’ to be undertaken and this requires numbers.
It is not solely the skating sphere that others Muslim women – the visibility of this community is often reduced to ‘inclusive’ campaigns, which rarely result in more Muslim women taking up sports. In 2017, Nike announced their Pro Hijab which was supposed to address the barriers that exist between exercise and religion, but many Muslims felt that they were simply being used for profit.
“It doesn’t matter what level of religiosity you are, it’s literally about building together”
For Aisha, “most non-Muslim brands are trying to make money out of the community. They just tapped into a market that they didn’t realise existed. When it comes to Islamophobia, are they speaking out for Muslims? Are they trying to help us? Do they actually care about our religion? No.” For these women, real change happens when they feel wholly represented, rather than being used as visual props. This means supporting brands who show up for the livelihood and rights of Muslim women, even when there are no coins to collect.
By placing this marginalised sisterhood at its forefront, Skater Uktis hopes to make the variety of Muslim women more visible. This is why they have created a comic series called ‘Digi Uktis’, following the adventures of a hijabi named Covi, a niqabi named Hana, Nala who wears a turban scarf and Zora, who doesn’t wear a head covering.
“Each of these characters [has] their own strong personality,” says Aisha. “We’re using them to also make the whole Covid situation easier. We’ve had a few comic scripts out which relate to the quarantine situation and we hope to also, Inshallah, bring a ‘Karen’ into the comic strip to tackle the issues around the attacks [racist white women] throw on us.”
The Skater Uktis haven’t set out to challenge stereotypes or improve what the everyday person thinks of them, that is simply “an added benefit” of being “badass practicing Muslim women” on wheels. Instead, they want to empower a generation of young sisters who eye-roll at their community’s ascribed gender norms but still hold their faith dearly and want to prepare for the afterlife. After all, heaven is a halfpipe.
*Name has been changed