Amal Murad is an Emirati who was born and raised in the UAE. She graduated with a master’s degree in multimedia design and in film, however; it was sports, particularly calisthenics and parkour, where her genuine passion was.
Today, she is a trailblazer, as one of the few Emirati women in the industry, breaking gender norms, and challenging the status quo in her industry.
In this exclusive interview from the UAE, we sat down with Amal to talk about sports in the Gulf, life as an Emirati woman in parkour, working at one of the leading gyms in the country, Gravity, and the challenges she has faced as a woman in the sports industry.
Zushan Hashmi: Let’s start off with your life outside of training?
Amal Murad: So, obviously, I am an Emirati, and I coach in parkour and calisthenics. My background though, is a lot of graphic design, local branding, making infographics and I specifically used to focus on designing wedding cards as my mom is in that industry.
So it just made sense when I was at university to take that route because my mum is a wedding planner and she literally creates the stage from nothing. She designs clothes, is an entrepreneur and has a hair salon.
Growing up, I felt like that was all I knew. And that’s why I went in that direction.
During my four years at University, I realized a lot of my time was behind a computer screen.
And if you know anyone who went to the American University of Sharjah, you will know that you have no life for four years.
When I was younger, back in school, I played all kinds of sports; basketball, volleyball, I did a lot of running.
I was one of the fastest in my school amongst both girls and boys.
I felt super strong as a child. And then growing up, I kind of lost that because of this dream of getting a full-time job and finding stability.
It kind of took over. And it’s sad, but no one really tells you anything else about happiness.
They just tell you to get a job and sustain yourself.
Fast forward a few years, I worked that full-time job as not only a graphic designer but also an event executive. Essentially, I spent a minimum of 14 hours working.
Growing up, I’ve always been anxious, I get very nervous about starting something new, and when I made the call to quit my job, it was difficult.
First, I had to tell my parents I didn’t want to keep working and second was telling my boss I don’t want to work there anymore. It was very hard because my mom and dad are entrepreneurs, and they started from scratch.
So, when I introduce myself to people, they go ‘You’re the daughter of so and so’, it’s a lot of pressure!
So right from the get-go, they knew me as a quitter because I quit my job. Either way, I got around to doing it.
And without a job, I started freelancing, designing what they call ‘small packages’, because, you know the saying, ‘the best things come in small packages’. And I’m small, so it made sense [laughs].
I’ll be honest, I needed something that would sustain me and allow me to do things I like, so I got a job with the Emirati government. I realized very early on that it doesn’t matter how many hours you work, if you hate your job, you will be miserable.
While I was between two jobs, I started running again. It wasn’t for me. I tried CrossFit too; I enjoyed it, but I still felt like it wasn’t my thing. And I kept trying different sports till I went over to check out what my cousin does at his gym called Gravity, here in Dubai.
I won’t lie, I had never heard of calisthenics or parkour. My only knowledge of it was the YouTube videos and those great brief clips.
So, I just gave it a go. I did not understand where it would leave me; as I wasn’t doing well in terms of my mental health and I needed an outlet.
Anyway, I ended up doing my first parkour class, and And I left.
It was overwhelming as I was the only woman in the class and the oldest at 22 or 23. Everyone around me was mostly 16-year-old boys. Anyway, I returned to the class regularly, and it took me a few months.
The way you analyze risk is so different as a child and when you’re older is so different, and parkour is all about risk.
After continuing with the sport for a while, I realized I really enjoyed it and wanted to train more. I knew then that I needed to get strong so I could coach, as I couldn’t tell people to do things if I couldn’t do them myself.
Eventually, I kept at it and got strong, believe me, I was so happy. I got certified and started my first class. I still had my full-time job, mind you, so it was work to work—go to the gym, coach, train and go back home.
This was essentially my routine for two or three years. It was exhausting, but; it was something that helped me grow as a person and that’s what I kept explaining to people who came to the class.
I would always tell them. If you think you’re coming to parkour for weight loss, then don’t show up, because that’s not the goal. And eventually, it became about educating people.
And I believe you did a lot of this by educating people through your social media? What was the response like back then, and the stigma around having a social media account as a woman?
Yep! that’s why I had to start an Instagram account. That’s a whole other story, I still had a private account as it’s very sensitive in the region for an Emirati woman to just have a public account.
So when I made a public account, Oh, my God, it was scary as hell as there really weren’t a lot of girls who had these accounts back then.
Yep, when I first started out, maybe there were 3 Emirati women with public accounts. I didn’t exactly have anyone to talk to about this.
Initially, there so many rumors and so many mean direct messages. I’m talking about religious and cultural aspects.
People would say things like ‘You aren’t Emirati’ or ‘how dare you put up the flag on your account?’ I would have to keep defending my position by saying that I’m genuinely interested in helping women in the region grow.
It was hard at first but what I liked and it’s something that my dad kept reminding me was that if you believe in your goal, people will come on board and if you are questioning yourself, people will question you.
That really resonated with me, because I didn’t want to be a rebel. I had people who wrote articles about me saying that I did it without regard for my parents, and I wouldn’t be able to take that, as my parents were always supportive.
In fact, they said, deal with it—This is your bed. You have made your bed now you have to sleep in it; you know? Even if this was tough love to some extent they pushed me to figure it out. You know, they weren’t baby meeting.
They were well aware that back in the day will people would not accept this regarding our culture and society and told me to accept that.
I even had women ask me why I would do something that is so masculine. Funnily enough, a few years ago, the Emirati Government Games, which is an enormous event, happened, with everyone from across the government competing, and they called me up to be an MC as an expert on the sport.
Yeah, suddenly, I was an expert and people started getting in touch with me to coach them for the government games. I stuck through and things are changing so significantly today.
Today, the Emirati government is on board with this, and it promotes a women’s competition too. Yeah, they were flying people from abroad.
I think they had the CIA and a bunch of overseas government agencies involved too.
I then decided that this was the right time to take this up full time. After this, I decided to quit my job, and do this full-time.
This wasn’t easy, I wasn’t sustaining myself, and to make matters worse, the month after I resigned, I broke my arm in a freak accident. I had metal plates installed. Meanwhile, I had recently gotten engaged and ended up breaking my arm before my wedding too.
So, everything was happening at the same time I was I was at a crossroads and I felt like breaking my arm really set my priorities straight. And mind you, the doctor literally said, I’ll be honest, I don’t know if you’ll be able to continue in parkour.
And that was a big slap in the face, I was crying a lot.
Both my husband and my dad are military men. So you can imagine their mentality.
My husband was like, ‘it’s okay, you can do this. I didn’t marry any weakling. You can do this for me right now.’ Support. Yeah.
Anyway, it took me almost eight to nine months to get back to a bit of strength and another year to reach a point where I felt confident again because trauma messes with your head so much.
Interestingly, this also opened up so many doors for me as a coach because now I knew what it was like to injure yourself. It’s different when you are a coach and have never gone through real trauma.
After I broke my arm, I also got pregnant. So I had to take a break from the gym for nearly 2 years.
This is a monumental change, you must understand your new body, after pregnancy, and realize what is the best way to train, and how things have changed.
Wow, so it seems like you overcame an entire range of challenges and made it through. Tell me a little more about the social media side of things. Has it become more tolerant and accepting on that front, for you to do what you do?
It’s far more liberal now, for sure. There’s much more of an understanding, however, there is still a long way to go. I still know many people who for example would say ‘I support her but I would never let my daughter do that.’
There is definitely a bit of reservation, but as I told you, our country has changed so much.
And people are trying to keep up with the changes. And what I love now is that people are more accepting, like, even if they aren’t on board completely, they’re still supportive of what I do.
I can also point to at least 10 girls I know that are in the sports field or in fitness.
This is also the case in the wider Gulf region. I know Saudi girls are into boxing and so many more.
People are much more open and each of us is setting the scene for the next generation, who will have it so much easier.
You raised an interesting point where you talk about that trial-and-error process of trying out different things. What is it about parkour, that made you decide, yes, this is exactly what I want to do?
With parkour you’re trying to reach a destination, you’re being innovative by looking at your environment, you’re exploring the distinct possibilities to reach this destination and eventually, the obstacles aren’t a burden.
Instead, these obstacles help you reach your destination faster.
I feel like that changed my perspective completely as I was no longer scared if someone came in my path, not only metaphorically, but literally, I could overcome it in so many ways.
Parkour also teaches you that there is no right way and long as you keep trying and adapting to that environment. Another thing was, it’s the only sport I tried that was mindful. I felt like when I went to training sessions; I was on autopilot.
Nothing else ever gave me this feeling and satisfaction, and I guess that’s how I knew it was the sport for me.
Let’s move onto a bit about the gym you work for, Gravity.
Gravity is the first gym in the region that specifically focuses on calisthenics and parkour.
Calisthenics is all about bodyweight movement with a focus on really mastering your body.
Calisthenics starts out with the repetitions that work on your structure to get stronger and then it becomes a lot about dealing with gravity.
There is also a freestyle element to it, known as the Battle of the bars, which is people competing against each other on the bar, like gymnastics, and it becomes more about choreography.
Gravity is definitely the pioneer on this front, changing how to manage things in the region and promoting both parkour and calisthenics, which have several crossovers in terms of training and growth.
What are your thoughts on this notion that calisthenics isn’t a sport because there’s no competition involved? You often hear people making comments such as that, and I’d love to hear more from you?
It’s annoying, to be honest. Why would I train someone if they will achieve nothing? Competition isn’t everything, they will change as a person, grow stronger, learn to avoid injuries, be more mindful and empower their children and kids through movement.
There’s so much that you can learn through sports and its competition in a lot of ways, albeit with yourself.
Competition is something very different from growing as an athlete. It’s very different. There is an individual journey and then there’s the competitive side of the journey. And if you haven’t built or finished your individual journey, you cannot compete.
And more often than not, I feel like we skip our individual journeys and think solely about competing, and that’s why many people get injured.
With our sport, you are constantly competing with your own demons and your own struggles. You’re trying to get better, you’re trying to be better than yourself from yesterday. Yeah.
Do you struggle to convince parents to continue bringing their kids to coaching sessions, particularly daughters after a certain age? What are some things that have worked in convincing parents, and what hasn’t worked?
Yes, yes, yes. It’s always the girls. After you reach a certain age, you stay home.
I used to play with the boys all the time in the neighborhood, and when I reached puberty, suddenly Emirati girls can’t go to the gym.
It’s not even about going to mixed classes. It’s just this perception here around women in sports.
I see this a lot as well in coaching; we have a huge gap. You have two age groups of women and girls who train. The first being from the ages of six to twelve, and then 17 onwards.
So, for most of their teenage life, they disappear and then come back to the gym.
The reasoning behind it is ridiculous, some families hear false rumours like it’ll mess with their periods and other girls are told that they’ll be too manly or that if you lift weights, you’ll get shorter and so on.
I urge kids like I urge parents and remind them that when your kids heading down darker routes, during their teenage years by doing things that they’re not supposed to do and you wonder why your daughter is doing such-and-such, it’s because they have nothing to do.
Personally, I completely believe that sports saved me in a lot of ways from going down paths I would have regretted.
You know, when you have free time, you’ll go online and waste away your time on social media.
Today, we have kids who are as young as five that have iPhones, if you really want your girls to grow up with that mindset of ‘I need to work towards a goal and the sacrifices that I need to make include learning discipline, patience, learning and growing’.
So, why not put that energy into a sport and not keep that energy to with all the crap that’s going on with social media?
Eventually, without activity, people, and in this context, women compare themselves with people on social media, their lifestyles and what they’re wearing.
Don’t let your kids reach that point where they can focus on these things, get them working on a goal!
Yep. I like that idea of an idle mind is the devil’s playground. Let’s move on, you obviously mentioned, amongst all of this, you’re also a mother. What is the secret? How do you juggle everything?
I would be lying if I said my days are easy. Yes, I cry a lot, and I get overwhelmed.
I also always tell people, there’s no such thing as balance in my life.
There are days and times you have to sacrifice family time for work, to provide, and times you have to sacrifice work opportunities for your daughter. It’s a continuous journey.
There are things that I have had to say no to, such as travelling abroad or doing certain events and I have had to say no, as I was still breastfeeding and I couldn’t leave my child.
And it hurt, but I had to prioritize things. Now my daughter is over a year old, and things are easier.
But, as I mentioned, I still really cry a lot, probably because I get really confused. And sometimes you get lost because you don’t know what your goals are specifically after you become a mom.
My entire world, understandably, revolves around my daughter, and I need to take a step back and remind myself that I need to do things for myself like parkour so that I’m able to give her the things she needs.
There are a lot of conversations that you also need to have with your family and your partner to better mitigate and manage things.
An underlying theme throughout our discussion has been about struggles. Could you tell me more about the struggles of Emirati women in sports in the UAE? Particularly, Khaleeji women, and how this is changing?
Well, it’s growing, but we’re not there yet. I feel like we’re not at a point where even the men’s sport is good enough, in fact, Emirati sports still has a long way to go.
We’re still growing and understanding the importance of sports as, for example, abroad, people get scholarships for sports, and that is not a thing here. The priorities in sports still do not exist.
With athletes making a living, it is still hard, as people often work two jobs, to sustain their livelihoods and need to pay for their own memberships to get strong in a sport that they are passionate about.
To be honest, I’m yet to meet an athlete that is doing it full time. I know it’s sad, but it’s our reality. And I feel like that’s why we’re not reaching the places we otherwise should be.
However, with the right support, I know that we can, because the passion and strength are there, but we don’t have the right guidance, per se, we don’t have the right structures and systems, set in place yet, either.
If you had told me five years ago that a woman who was pregnant is being encouraged to train, I would tell you, you’re crazy because people were told to not move during pregnancy back in the day.
The mindset is shifting, and so is our understanding, and eventually this will change further overall.
To finish things off, Amal, what advice do you have for young Emirati women in the UAE?
Do the things you love to do and don’t do them because someone else told you to do them.
I feel like to some extent the messaging has been super weird online.
People make it seem like the more haters you have, the more famous you are or the more successful you are, and I don’t believe in that.
If you love doing something, do it to grow as a person, and not to prove a point.
Sure, and if you’ll find obstacles in your path, take the time to understand each obstacle, take your time trying to make it work.
I feel like we’re very impatient. We want everything to happen quickly.
I would say take your time and share the things you love with the people you love and you’ll get there.