Ten years ago my mother, her two children in tow, arrived at Mile End indoor climbing wall wearing a full-length hijab. No one at the centre looked like us. On the street you could see all kinds of skin colours – inside, everyone was white. It was if we had been transported from east London to a middle-class village in rural England. We stood out. But the staff at reception were warm and welcoming: all that mattered was we wanted to climb. From that moment, we were hooked.
Today, at 18 years old, I am a competitive climber and coach. I’ve spent the last decade climbing and coming of age at our local wall, tucked away next to an east London canal. Over the years, I’ve seen climbing become more respected as a sport: tomorrow, for the first time, a climbing event will take place at the Olympics. But are all climbers – and all athletes – afforded equal respect?
When I first started climbing, I found an accepting community which welcomed a Muslim, South Asian family into a predominantly white, male-dominated sport. But as I’ve competed in different cities over the last decade, I’ve discovered that this tolerance isn’t shared by the whole of the UK. On one occasion, I was not allowed to be in the group photo for winners at a regional climbing competition because I refused to swap my more modest T-shirt for a minuscule vest.
Why are South Asian women underrepresented in competitive sport? The expectation that women wear unnecessarily revealing activewear is one reason. But sportswomen are starting to push back: the German women’s gymnastics team wore full-body suits to compete in the Tokyo Olympics, while the Norwegian women’s handball team wore shorts instead of bikini bottoms to the European Beach Handball Championships in July – and were fined for doing so. These rigid, outdated dress codes act as a deterrent. If such inequality exists at the very top, the journey to elite level for athletes wearing a turban or hijab seems daunting.
The cost of outdoor climbing, which requires shoes, rope, crash mats, chalk, cams and harnesses, is another important factor, as is the covert racism that exists across competitive sport. Sometimes, it’s not even hidden. Take the time an older white male climber asked my hijab-wearing aunt, enjoying her first outdoor climbing trip, if she going to blow up the rock. Though the London climbing community appears to be inclusive, I have been struck by the noticeable absence of South Asian women in this sport: I am the only one I know who climbs at my level, and when climbing competitions take me further afield, I’m often the only non-white climber there at all.
As a competitive climber of Pakistani descent, I also know how important representation is in encouraging young people to take up sport. I know all too well the tensions of being a minority in sport: wanting to be recognised for my strength and skill rather than my skin colour, but knowing that as a strong brown climber – still something of an anomaly in the climbing world – I will attract attention.
The Olympic climbing debut, which begins tomorrow (3 August), will help improve inclusivity and representation, but there is a lot more work to be done to encourage young people from all backgrounds to consider taking up the sport. For me, it’s important that I am identified first and foremost as a climber, and that my ability is not judged against the colour of my skin. That’s true for all athletes. But maybe our differences do need to be highlighted in order to show they don’t matter. It’s just about the climb.
Hannah Zia is a competitive climber. Her film about the challenges of being a competition level BAME female climber was shortlisted for the final round for this year’s BBC Young Reporter Scheme.