Current research indicates that a significantly large proportion of females from ethnic minorities, particularly South Asian communities, are failing to participate in physical activity in the UK. Samaya Farooq and Gerald Griggs share their research

Current research indicates that a significantly large proportion of females from ethnic minorities, particularly those from South Asian communities (e.g. Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Indians) are failing to participate in physical activity in the UK. Reliable data on participation trends which pertains to women from South Asian communities is scarce. The aim of this study therefore was to make a contribution that will help to shed light upon the real and lived experiences of South Asian females and their engagement with physical activity in the UK.


In March 1988, the UK Sports Council published a report articulating that a significantly large proportion of young people and women, particularly from ethnic minority groups, were failing to participate in physical activity (Verma et al, 1994).

Despite a wider increase of female participation in physical activity, involvement of females from ethnic minorities, particularly those from South Asian communities still remains consistently low (HEA, 2000; Gill et al, 2002; Fischbacher et al, 2004).

In spite of the apparent lack of research examining the unique experiences and issues of race and sport as they pertain to South Asian communities, there is a consensus that those from ethnic minorities are disadvantaged and discriminated against in terms of participation and access into physical activity (Carrington and McDonald, 2001). Many people from ethnic minority groups, especially women, are reluctant to participate in physical activity in the West due to the fear that it will jeopardize their own cultural identity, their customs and their cultural heritage (Bloom, 2000 cited in Coakley, 2003).

The aim of this study therefore is to make a contribution that will help to shed light upon the real and lived experiences of South Asian females and their engagement with physical activity and upon the factors that are currently influencing the involvement of females from three South Asian communities in the UK, namely Pakistanis, Bangladeshis and Indians.

Barriers to female participation in physical activity

A review of existing literature identifies this with the prevalence that barriers are believed to manifest themselves in three key areas; religious (see Lyons, 1990; Rai et al, 1997; Pfister, 2000), cultural/ethnic (see Carroll et al, 1993; Taylor et al, 1999; Johnson, 2000; Tirone et al, 2000) and racial barriers (see Long et al, 1995; Ismond, 2003).

Religious barriers

There is a consensus that religion, as a barrier to female involvement in physical activity, holds strong for Muslim females (Taylor, 2002; Balboul, 2000; Hargreaves, 2000), primarily Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. While these findings are often misinterpreted to imply that Islam handicaps female involvement in physical activity, it is important to clarify that Islam does in fact exhort its followers to pursue physical activity, and to inculcate this practice in both males and females provided the underlying precepts of Islamic Shar’iah – the law revealed by Allah to the Prophets – are maintained (Walseth, 2003; Zaman, 1997; Sfeir, 1995). For example, the absolute obligation for those Muslim females who wish to participate in physical activity is that they practice pardah: cover their bodies for “Allah has cursed those women who wear clothes yet are still naked” – The Prophet, (Abdelrahman, 1992); avoid free mixing with men out of wedlock (Faruqi, 1994), and deny pastimes or recreations that may spark fitna (chaos or temptation) amongst male onlookers (Daiman, 1995; Navabinejad, 1994; Mawdudi, 1989). However, evidence pertaining to Muslim females both in the East and the West does not reflect this position. For example, it is articulated that religious opposition to Muslim female engaging in physical activity is evident in the apparent lack of formal opportunities and provisions for Muslim females to engage in physical activity in their homeland (Pfister, 2000; Sfeir, 1995) through to the fatwas (decrees) of Ulamas condemning the Western sport etiquette for contravening the Shar’iah in the context of game attire and mixing of the sexes (Sarwar 1994; Walseth et al, 2003).

Ethnic/cultural barriers

The prevalence of ethnic/cultural barriers and issues of gender and physical activity as they pertain to women from South Asian communities are widely evidenced in existing literature (see Carr et al, 1993; Carroll et al, 1993; Rai et al, 1997; Johnson, 2000; Tirone et al, 2000). While some researchers account restrictions of ethnic females from physical activity to the assimilation of culturally acceptable (gender-specific) roles (Taylor et al, 1999; Tirone et al, 2000), others stipulate that negative attitudes towards physical activity (e.g. continual disapproval from parents and respected elders) oppress children, particularly daughters, from pursuing physical activity (Porter, 2001). In this instance, it is often argued that girls, particularly those from South Asian communities, are taught to place family commitments (such as upholding family honour, respecting elders, preserving their modesty and chastity) and academic achievement ahead of their own needs and interests (Gallop et al, 1981; Lyons, 1990; Figueroa, 1993).

Racial barriers

Race as a barrier to physical activity involvement is a volatile issue, yet one that has been part and parcel of the Western sporting arena (Anderson et al, 1993; Wiggins, 1997, 2000; Sellers, 2000; Sailes, 2000). Journals, newspapers and books from the 17th and early 20th century are littered with references that give prominence to ‘whiteness’ while smearing the physical and intellectual capabilities of ‘non-whites’. The use of ethnic/racial stereotypes to legitimize and determine the suitability of ethnic groups in a particular sport has been common practice (Opotow, 1990; Maguire, 1991; Long et al, 1995).


Twenty-nine South Asian females varying in age (14-68 years), ethnicity, religious faith and social status were selected for this study. Participants were recruited from various inner city neighborhoods and regions within Birmingham, UK, where several generations of ethnic communities from South Asia have settled and flourished.

Data collection was in the form of semi-structured interviews with those females above the age of 16 (n=17) and qualitative questionnaires with those who were under the age of legal consent (n=12). Parental and teacher consent and personal authorization to participate in the study were secured from all young participants. Anonymity and confidentiality were also assured hence identity and personal information including age has been obscured. Interviews took place over a five-month period in venues that were suitable to each participant. All interviews were audio taped for accuracy with the most relevant contributions being transcribed and coded (Gillham, 2000). In order to identify specific groups within the analysis, code letters were assigned to each transcription (I denotes Indian, P denotes Pakistani and B denotes Bangladeshi. Therefore, for example, IFG would represent Indian First Generation, PSG would represent Pakistani Second Generation and BTG would represent Bangladeshi Third Generation).


The prevalence of negative attitudes towards physical activity among the larger majority of females from the first and second generation was identified as a key practical barrier to their physical activity involvement. Put simply, women in this category lacked interest in physical activity, did not appear to engage in physical activity and sought to ‘avoid’ physical activity involvement at all cost. Reasons for the existence of negative attitudes are highlighted below.

Lack of knowledge

It was evident that while the need to pursue a healthy diet was acknowledged, there was a prevailing sense of ignorance and widespread failure to appreciate the role(s) and benefit(s) of physical activity in maintaining health and fitness. In addition, the widespread illiteracy in English among these women hindered their ability to access information about health and the availability of physical activity provisions, e.g. women-only classes, female gym instructors and the increasing trend of Asian females being encouraged to exercise in their traditional attire such as the salwar kameez.

Lack of exposure

For the larger majority of these women, exposure to and association with physical activity had been low or non-existent altogether. For example, many older females reported that physical education in their home countries was not offered to girls within schools. As a result, many women expressed that they lacked confidence, did not feel comfortable or simply lacked interest in pursuing physical activity as a whole. In addition, the apparent lack of engagement in physical activity during their childhood fueled the belief that they were unable to play sport, thus further dampening their interest to pursue any kind of physical activity later in life.

Religion as a barrier

It was evident that the underlying religious beliefs and values gave meaning to the ways in which many South Asian females structured and approached their life. For Muslim females, Islam was a fundamental aspect of their life and their identity (Ahmed, 1992; Faruqi, 1994). Many stipulated that the etiquette of physical activity in England was at odds with Islamic law (the Shar’iah) due to the violations that would be incurred on the obligations of pardah (covering the body) and female modesty, (Walseth et al, 2003). “We can’t wear shorts and mini skirts and prance around with or alongside men we don’t know. There are half-naked men in those arenas and everyone can see you getting undressed. It is haram (a sinful deed) (BFG).”

For Hindu women, the need to avoid such tension was equally imperative. One stated that “even though there aren’t any specific rules that say women can or can’t be involved in physical activity, as a Hindu I’m aware that my fate is dependent on avoiding bad karma (bad deeds)” (ISG).

Meanwhile for Sikh women, leading a responsible life as part of the community was integral to their religious beliefs. In such instances, since physical activity involvement would breed communal disapproval, avoidance of physical activity was seen as a necessary and appropriate step.

Culture as a barrier

The majority of older females, both Muslim and non-Muslim, took pride in retaining highly ‘cultured’ and traditional lives, (Porter, 2001). Many failed to contemplate the idea of engaging in physical activity for fear that it would not only smear their Asian identity and take them away from their Asian roots but that it would also contravene the delicate rhetoric of female modesty equaling family honor and respect, (Carr et al, 1993; Floyd et al, 1993; Rai et al, 1997; Tirone et al, 2000). Conveying her disapproval, an Indian female stated, “… they think they are white wearing mini skirts and dancing with white men. Where is the sense of respect, and honor? Youngsters these days have become too free” (IFG).

Fear of racial discrimination

Fear of racial discrimination was a key contributory factor in breeding negative attitudes towards physical activity. For example, it was apparent that while, for some women, such apprehensions stemmed from previous experiences of racial discrimination in other aspects of their life (education and work), others emotionally confessed of how negative attitudes from service providers and a failure to accommodate their religious and cultural beliefs served to confirm their suspicions that Asians were not welcome in Western forms of physical activity.

No perceived value

There was a dominant perception that physical activity could offer no real value to these women, (Porter, 2001; Figueroa, 1993; Fleming, 1994). As a result, compared to other aspects of their life, engaging in physical activity was given a low priority. A Muslim female stated that the Prophet (SAW) stipulated the need for both males and females to seek education and knowledge and avoid engagement in frivolous activities “that would contribute nothing of value to their lives” (BFG).

Low socio-economic status

The latter perceptions in conjunction with low socio-economic status appeared to also establish ‘avoidant’ behaviors. One woman explained, “we barely have any money for the essentials, how can we throw away money on leisure as well? ” (BFG).

Additional and alternative factors that were responsible for cultivating negative attitudes to
physical activity specifically among the younger generations of South Asian females (14-29 years) were subcategorized under the following labels of home, school and media.


Findings revealed that parental influence was a key factor in breeding negative attitudes towards physical activity. Many young females reported that parents, particularly fathers, brothers and other respected elders, exercised strict control over female involvement in physical activity. With regards to Muslim females, while some males completely denied females the opportunity to take part in physical education at school, others tolerated it until the child reached puberty. A Muslim female explained the need for instilling such measures, “In Islam, when a woman reaches puberty, she should not reveal any part of her body to men. She must also avoid behaviors that would excite men as Allah will punish her for it” (PSG). It was also evident that parents had instilled in their daughters a prevailing belief that sports in particular were for ‘Western people’ and that “an Asian woman’s place was not on the pitch… but at home with her husband and her children” (IFG).

Family commitments

There was strong evidence that for some, although experiences of physical education and attitudes towards physical activity during their formative school years had been positive, married life had phased out the possibility of leisure. Many were now full time wives and mothers and subsequently placed domestic, childcare, and/or work-related responsibilities ahead of their own pursuits, “I grew up knowing I’d be a housewife one day… when you get married… everything else, your work, education hobbies come second or third best to these responsibilities” (BSG).

For some, the decision to leave physical activity was often influenced by their husbands’ disapproval of women in physical activity. In this way, there was a strong sense of perception that marriage legitimized men’s control over women, (Walseth et al, 2003), “It’s the whole ‘sports are for men’ issue. If your husband says you can’t participate, as his wife, you just have to accept it” (PSG).

Fear of losing family

Fear of losing the support from families, friends and religious authorities was a dominant contributor to the widespread negative perceptions of physical activity. Many felt that since their involvement in physical activity was culturally inappropriate, there was a grave risk that their involvement would be misinterpreted as leading astray other Asian girls and subsequently threatening the Asian identity and heritage that their parents and ancestors struggled to preserve in the host’s country.


Physical education

There was a general agreement that the way in which physical education was taught and managed raised conflicts for females. Of enormous concern was the anxiety faced by girls when changing in front of classmates, i.e. having changing rooms with no single units. Muslim females expressed the overwhelming sense of shame and embarrassment in having to undress and expose their bodies in front of others in the changing rooms.

Negative attitudes from teachers

Some anguish was also revealed surrounding the attitudes of teachers towards females who were either unable to participate or uncomfortable doing PE. One female explained how, as a consequence of parental disapproval towards PE, she was required to bring a note for the teacher every week and the teacher would ask “So what excuse have you got in store for me today? Don’t tell me, your dog’s eaten your kit!”

On another occasion, the same female described how the PE teacher’s negative attitude and failure to acknowledge the underlying cultural differences regarding the concept of sharum – modesty and self-respect – forced her best friend (an Indian girl) to ‘quit PE’.

There was also evidence that negative experiences of friends were cultivating reluctant attitudes to physical activity involvement amongst the younger generation of females. In response to a question enquiring about her concerns regarding PE, an Indian girl explained, “My friends are Muslim and can’t do swimming. I try to support them by missing swimming too but the teachers don’t let me… It makes me really cross. I hate going swimming now” (ITG).

As a result of such experiences, many South Asian females seem to have developed coping strategies that debilitated their involvement in PE in school: e.g. feigning sickness, pretending they could not play, sitting on the sidelines and missing lessons altogether.

Many viewed the evasion of Asian females of physical activity to be the norm. It was apparent that for most, the widespread abstinence of sport amongst the Asian community legitimized and justified avoidant attitudes and behaviors. As one Indian woman simply stated “Asian women don’t do physical activity” (IFG).


Upon examination of the factors that influence South Asian female involvement in physical activity, a range of differential constraints and barriers were identified. Many of these barriers were operating simultaneously across the different generations of women, during different stages of their life. For the older generation of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian females, negative attitudes towards physical activity were breeding a collective consciousness in which female physical activity participation was incompatible with other important aspects of their life, such as religion and culture. For many, these perceptions stemmed from fear that participation in physical activity would mean operating within rules defined by the dominant Western culture.

For the younger generations of Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Indian females, negative attitudes were largely instilled from parents, transmitting to their daughters that sport and femininity were incompatible. Common restrictions stemmed from concerns of the shame which would befall upon the family and community should their daughter continue to cavort with men in bare legs and the belief that they would no doubt ruin the possibility of becoming a good Asian wife by engaging in a frivolous sport that offered no real benefit. Men as the head of the family were largely responsible for ensuring that its female members remained within the specific cultural norms and standards by discouraging and/or punishing behaviors that would otherwise endanger the social prestige of the family within the community.

Meanwhile, negative school experiences of physical education coupled with lack of media portrayal of Asians in British sport seem to have been internalized as confirmation that South Asian female participation is not the norm. Personal concerns meant that avoidance of physical activity at school was seen to alleviate the likelihood of public scrutiny and humiliation on the basis of self and body image. An important finding was that parental disapproval of their daughters’ involvement in physical activity was breeding conflict for the younger generations who favored physical activity.

Samaya Farooq is a PhD student at the University of Warwick

Gerald Griggs is a Senior Lecturer in PE & Sports Studies at the University of Wolverhampton

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