A few months ago, the internet went wild after Nike announced the launch of a Pro Hijab line - a sportswear collection catering to modest and hijab-wearing women all around the world.
But, the face behind the campaign that stole international headlights? That would be the fierce Egyptian athlete Manal Rostom.
We had a chat with Rostom and got to know more about her as a person.
She's an idol for hijabis and Arab women in general, shattering stereotypes as well as the glass ceiling.
It's time you get to know her too.
A "third culture kid" ... Rostom explains her childhood
Rostom is an Egyptian national who grew up in Kuwait and currently lives in Dubai. But, what was her life like as a kid?
A young spirit at heart, the 37-year-old feels like she's still 17 years old. Speaking of her childhood, Rostom explains that there was one thing lacking during those years: an identity.
She was born to Egyptian parents in Kuwait and has lived in the Gulf nation all throughout her formative years.
"We grew up very mixed up ... like when you’re living as an expat in a country, attending an international school, and when your parents are one nationality and you’re living in another city. We're basically third culture kids as they call us. I feel like I grew up lacking identity," Rostom tells StepFeed.
When she was just 16, Rostom decided to explore her home country. So, she packed her bags and moved to Alexandria, Egypt.
"After I graduated from high school, I joined the faculty of pharmacy, studied for five years and earned my bachelor's degree. I followed that up with a master's degree in clinical pharmacy and graduated in 2006," Rostom adds.
She even got engaged when she was there, but broke it off soon after, and realized that "I don't really belong in Egypt at all."
Rostom moved back to Kuwait - where her parents live - before heading to Dubai in 2011.
Her trip to the emirate was initially supposed to be a temporary thing - but she's been there ever since.
On mountain climbing and #LifeGoals
Rostom is considered to be the first Egyptian hijabi to climb the highest mountain in Africa, Mt. Kilimanjaro and the highest mountain in Europe, Mt. Elbrus.
These two mountain peaks are part of the seven summits challenge.
“I have not climbed the seven peaks yet, that’s one of the challenges ahead of me. I’ve only climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro in Africa and Mt. Elbrus in Russia,” Rostom explains.
“I have attempted the second highest mountain Aconcagua in Argentina last January, which was sponsored by both Facebook and Chevrolet.
Unfortunately, I was not successful in reaching the top,” Rostom says going on to explain that the weather conditions forced them to stay at an altitude of 5,600 meters for three days.
“I only reached about 5,600 meters but we got hit by a terrible, terrible snowstorm. We were locked in at an altitude of 5,600 for three days. It was one of the most awful experiences of my whole entire life. It was heartbreaking to come down after having been on the mountain for ten days,” Rostom added.
That climb was meant to be a training for the more challenging Everest climb scheduled for this spring.
“If you don’t have Aconcagua on your CV then you can’t attempt Everest,” she said.
Yet, she persists.
"I discovered this whole thing in 2007" ... but "my dad was extremely resistant"
"I knew I was going to be an adventurer from a very young age. I only have one older brother, and I feel like I’m a tomboy," Rostom explains, adding that she grew up tempted to do "crazy things."
“[...] I discovered this whole thing in 2007 when I read about the first Egyptian man who climbed Mt Everest. I felt like he paved the way for me. I slowly got introduced to the sport and I soon started following him online, and then got in touch with him,” Rostom said, referring to Omar Samra who became the first Egyptian to climb the highest summits across all seven continents.
Admittedly, it wasn't easy for her to tell her parents about her wanting to follow her passion.
"Of course, my dad was extremely resistant and very opposing to the idea. 'A girl going camping for days on a mountain, we don’t have this in our culture. What will people say about you? What if you get eaten by cannibals?'" Rostom remembers snippets from the conversation with her father at the time.
"It’s actually quite funny and we laugh about it now … but it took me from 2007 till 2012 to convince my father that it’s actually OK and that other girls have done it.
And now he would love for me to become the first Egyptian woman to climb Everest."
Aside from her goal to climb the seven highest peaks in the world, Rostom has taken it upon herself to climb ... for the fun of it.
She's managed to climb the highest mountain in Egypt - Mt. Sinai - and the second highest in Africa - Mt. Kenya.
"I have a few mountains on my CV, but it's still a long way for the journey to be complete," she said.
"I have two main goals right now. One is to run a marathon on every continent and to climb the highest peaks on every continent," Rostom says.
"Well, because it’s fun. These kind of crazy goals give you purpose and reason to keep looking forward to all your challenges. Without goals, the challenge kind of loses its flavor."
"I’m not an Olympic athlete or an elite athlete. I just love being active."
"It’s always been a passion. I was very active at a very young age. It becomes an addiction, a habit. It’s very hard to break free from sports once you leave high school after all that," Rostom explains.
"Bad Hijab Days, Good Hijab Days."
"I actually used to hate hijab, and I openly talk about that," Rostom admits.
The 37-year-old mountaineer decided to wear the hijab in 2001, following a car accident she had in 1999 - though her parents were against it.
The accident "really shook me, shook my faith very much," Rostom said.
"Five minutes before the accident, we all swapped seats – I was in my cousin’s seat who passed away a few months after the accident. I just felt like life is too short," she explained, adding that it ultimately drove her to think about what she needs to do to become - perhaps - a better Muslim.
"We don’t really know how to go about our lives with [the hijab] unless someone sits us down and tells us what’s in it for us," Rostom explains.
But that decision came with a number of questions and concerns.
"What if I lose my sense of style? What if people judge me? But, then I had an epiphany."
"If someone is not going to wanna be my friend based on how I want to exercise my faith, then so be it," she says.
"Surviving Hijab saved my life"
"It’s been a roller-coaster ride. Bad hijab days, good hijab days," Rostom remembers the day she was contemplating taking off the hijab.
"When I moved to Dubai, I actually had thoughts about taking off the hijab," and that's when Surviving Hijab - a Facebook support group that currently has 490,000 members - was born.
The aim of the female-only group was to give women a platform to “share their fears, their concerns and their overall experiences with hijab,” she explained.
You don’t have to be Muslim, you don’t have to be a hijabi to be part of the group.
But, what you do need is: “to be a women and be supportive of other women,” Rostom explained.
The group exploded, garnering over 40,000 members in two months. It was soon recognized as one of the fastest growing groups in the Middle East.
The launch of the Nike Pro Hijab: "One of the best things to happen in this era"
"To have an international, cosmopolitan, mainstream giant brand like Nike come out in times where Trump is freaking the whole world out from Muslims … well it's a big deal.
I feel it’s the best thing that has happened in the history of hijabi sports. And that’s just my opinion.
Best part of all: you can wear it in exactly 30 seconds, or less. No pins, it doesn’t slide back, and it’s extremely breathable, which means it won't stick to your neck or anything like that.
It’s going to come in three colors; blue, black and grey. The girls are going to finally have something to wear and feel comfortable," Rostom explained.
A day in the life of Manal Rostom ...
- Rostom wakes up almost every day – outside of weekends – at 5 a.m. or 5:30 a.m. because she has early morning classes at 7 a.m.
- She grabs a coffee, no breakfast. Just coffee.
- Teaches her morning class
- Goes for another coffee and breakfast (favorite: eggs and avocado with a little bit of toast)
- Mid-day classes plus a smoothie
- Rest (she loves reading self-help books and is addicted to her Instagram. Check her out here.)
- Afternoon classes
Her good luck charm? A troll doll!
"I have a troll doll that I’ve had since I was 12 years old … and she comes with me on all my expeditions. Lisa [is] her name.
She’s climbed the highest mountain in Russia attempted the second highest mountain in the world with me. She still sleeps with me in my bed."