"There Is a Spirituality to Riding Horses": Riding in Hijab with Elif Kavakci
Growing up, Elif had dreams of learning to ride, but as the youngest of three girls, there just wasn’t the extra time or money to commit to expensive riding lessons. Still, horses held a fascination for Elif, especially as she became immersed in learning the faith of her family. “I have always loved animals, and horses are such amazing animals.” She continues, “Also, as a Muslim girl, in my Islamic studies classes, I had learned about Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him, the last prophet in Islam) and his horse, and about his relationship with his horse, how he is quoted as saying, ‘There is a blessing in the forelocks of horses.’” But it wasn’t until she was in her 30s and established in her career with a family of her own that she was able to begin riding. “I guess it’s better late than never, right?”
Despite the years that have passed since the stories of the Prophet Muhammad and his horse first captured her childhood imagination, Elif has carried the spiritual connection to horses into adulthood. “One of the most important reasons I wanted to learn the sport was based on spiritual reasons. I’m sure a lot of riders can relate to this, no matter what religion, or what belief background they might be from. There is a spirituality to riding horses.”
Although Elif was excited to begin riding, one problem became evident almost immediately. As a Muslim woman, Elif wears a hijab. It’s a non-negotiable for her, and the headscarf is more than just an additional article of clothing. “For those who are unfamiliar, there is a bodily practice that goes along with wearing a religious headscarf. It involves several steps. First the hair is tied up if it’s long, then most women wear an under piece like a stretchy cotton bonnet. They often might wear a scrunchy that gives the hair volume. Then you’ve got the silky slippery fabric that goes over all that and has to be stabilized with a safety pin or a magnet.”
Elif explains, “After doing all of these steps, adding the helmet on top of several layers is difficult. When you are done riding and you take off your helmet, the headscarf will have shifted in many directions revealing the hair underneath.” Elif quickly realized that, when you’re on horseback, and you add the speed of the wind to the speed of the horse, combined with your own body’s movement, regular scarves simply do not stay in place. This is a safety issue with the helmet, which needs to fit properly to provide the necessary protection in the event of a fall, as well as a modesty issue because Muslim women who wear the hijab prefer not to have a single strand of hair showing.
With experience as a fashion designer under her belt already, Elif channeled her passion for innovative new designs into solving the issue, not just for her own riding experience, but for Muslim women who face similar problems in a range of sports and activities. Since Elif is designer, woman and athlete, she was in a unique position to understand how the fabric needed to feel and function, and have the tools to actually design the product and bring it to fruition. She dubbed her new design the Comfijab (Comfortable Hijab), and once she started wearing it, there was no going back to anything else. “It is a very practical head scarf that is made from breathable fabric. It does not require an under piece, magnet or safety pins. It takes literally less than 10 seconds to put on. Once it is on it stays in place and does not move. It can be washed and put in the dryer. The fabric stays put and does not age with wear.”
Although the Comfijab has been tested over and over during the product testing phase, Elif probably completed the best challenge in terms of product testing inadvertently, when she took a bad fall off her horse. “I was cantering a very fast horse, and going over poles in a circle making sharp turns. The horse was doing great, but I could not keep up and flew off and got dragged a little. I specifically said flew off, not just fell off. It was a pretty intense fall. I had a lot of whiplash around my neck area, and my abs were sore from the intensity of trying to keep my core tight as I descended. I had zero injuries, and no concussion, which I consider to be a miracle from the look and sound of my fall. I am certain prayer protected me. It was like angels held me and laid me on the ground. My Ovation riding helmet saved my life; it was in pieces. It took all the impact to protect my brain. I walked away without any injuries, and got back on the horse immediately. When I took the fall, my helmet was in shambles, but my Comfijab had not moved or shifted in any way.”
While the development of the first equestrian hijab marks an important milestone for accessibility for Muslim women in the sports community, Elif is also quick to note that the material issues are just one factor. There are less tangible challenges, and those can be even harder to grapple with. There is a sense of elitism in many aspects of equestrian sports, and in some cases, it comes down harder on beginner riders hoping to get into the sport, especially those who are in the minority already.
“When I think about it, most of the people who ride at my equestrian center are white females. I can only think of one rider who I have seen who was not white. There is also that unspoken feeling of being uneasy in a sport that is somewhat elitist. Sometimes very skilled riders can get away with things that beginner riders can not. Which also reflects on the fact that when someone is seen as a minority, they have to work twice as hard to prove themselves. This is something I am currently experiencing.” Elif adds, “But I am very much used to this concept as a Turkish American female who is visibly Muslim living in the U.S."
"Sometimes very skilled riders can get away with things that beginner riders can not. Which also reflects on the fact that when someone is seen as a minority, they have to work twice as hard to prove themselves."
Just because that experience is prevalent certainly doesn’t mean it is acceptable, and as the mother of two daughters, Elif is committed to working toward change, starting with increased visibility in sports. “I believe it is extremely important for Muslim women to have role models they can identify with. When I was a young girl, there were no visibly Muslim athletes that I could look up to, but that is no longer the case.” Still, despite female Muslim athletes competing on the international stage, their voices still aren’t being amplified in the same way as their counterparts. “I would love to see more diversity and inclusivity both in the equestrian world and in women’s sports, in sports in general. I personally would love to see other visibly Muslim equestrians that I can connect with, share experiences with, and learn from. I’m probably the first hijabi equestrian being interviewed in an equestrian publication.”
As Elif continues to build a more diverse equestrian community for herself and those she identifies with, she’s looked to social media to broaden her scope and has found that she is not alone in the struggles she faced when it comes to finding activewear that meets her religious and personal preferences. Although her goal as a designer is to create apparel that solves a problem and fulfills a unique need for Muslim women, there’s a growing market for women’s sportswear that is looser or provides more coverage. And the reasons extend beyond religious preferences, with sun protection, comfort, and the need for adaptive clothing just to name a few. “I find it interesting that a women’s volleyball team is required to dress in tiny shorts or bikinis, versus male volleyball uniforms. At the end of the day, everyone is welcome to dress in whatever way they would like, but I’m questioning the sociological and cultural factors behind what the role of dress in society is and how it is coded based on genders.”
Ultimately, every rider, every woman, every athlete should be able to find safe, functional clothing that they feel comfortable wearing so they can participate and enjoy the things they love. “If I have not mentioned it enough already, I LOVE horses. I think they are the most beautiful creatures and God’s gift to humans. Being around a horse makes me feel spiritually and emotionally content. I mainly ride for personal reasons, and I consider horses to be therapeutic. Our lives are very demanding. Most people have a career and families and other responsibilities. My situation is the same. I’m a full time professor who has a design business, who is married and is a mother of two girls. I feel the pressure of being a career woman and the similar pressures society puts on all women who have to wear many hats.”
Elif continues, “Being around horses and the equestrian sport is my escape. Once I walk into my equestrian center, nothing else matters. I put on my equestrian hat and take off all the other hats I wear as a woman/wife/mom. I completely tune out everything else. I think being an equestrian overall makes me a better, happier, well-rounded individual. It makes me a better professor. It makes me a better designer. And it definitely makes me a better mom.”
With new equestrian inspired fashion in the works, Elif plans to continue experimenting with designs so more women, Muslim and non-Muslim alike, can feel confident riding and even competing in clothes they feel comfortable in. She also remains optimistic for the future of a more inclusive world, where riders who look, dress, and think differently can all come together, support each other, and listen to more diverse voices discuss the changes we need to make in the sport we all love. The one thing Elif says we can all agree on? “We can never talk enough about horses!”
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