My walk of life

Known on social media as The Hillwalking Hijabi, Zahrah is an accountant, mum and the new president of Ramblers Scotland

Words: Elyssa Campbell-Barr

My first foray into walking

Around eight years ago, I was studying for chartered accountancy exams and finding them difficult. Two friends suggested we go up Ben Lomond for my birthday. I imagined scaling a mountain, but they said it’s ‘just walking’. I thought, ‘OK, walking – how hard can that be?’ I struggled the whole way! So I joined a gym and started doing local walks, and the following year I did the 26-mile Kiltwalk to raise money for charity. 

A few months later, I was going through another difficult time, and we did a hike up a smaller hill. I realised I hadn’t thought about anything that was stressing me the whole way – I just enjoyed the views and focused on putting one foot in front of the other. It felt great. That’s when I fell in love with hillwalking. 

The outdoors is for everyone

I began sharing my walks on social media. My sisters suggested I could connect with like-minded people, and my older sister came up with the name. I told her that walking was wonderful, but sometimes I felt self-conscious. She said, ‘Lean into it – you’re the Hillwalking Hijabi.’ I thought, ‘Cool name; I’ll use that.’ 

The name sparked interest and helped me find others who share my passion. I was quite unusual in the walking community, but now there are groups like Muslim Hikers, Boots & Beards/Bonny Boots, and Black Girls Hike, which is amazing. By creating safe, comfortable spaces where people can feel they belong and build confidence, they’re making the outdoors accessible to everyone.

The impact walking has had on my life

Walking has had a huge impact on my life. I used to think people went hillwalking for physical fitness, but I’ve realised that’s a bonus. It’s the feeling of strength I enjoy, especially now I’m carrying my son Harris on walks. It gives me a huge sense of achievement. But the mental aspect is why I kept returning to hillwalking. It allowed me to switch off and reset, and that feeling became quite addictive.

The spiritual aspect clicked later. I was walking to a rock formation called the Bunnet Stane [in Fife]. I went into a cave and just sat, taking in my surroundings. Muslims believe the Prophet Muhammad had his first revelation when he escaped the bustle of the city in a mountain cave. I realised, ‘Oh my goodness, I’m doing the same.’ Following the practices of the Prophet Muhammad took on a new meaning.

Zahrah and son in buggy at top of hill


Pregnancy, motherhood and walking

I’d hoped that I’d still be up mountains while I was pregnant. I imagined myself ethereal and glowing. But that wasn’t me! I had extreme sickness, throwing up several times a day. Then a difficult labour, emergency C-section and complications afterwards. When I started to recover, about three months later, it was like beginning all over again – which took a toll on my mental health.

I’ve had to adjust my expectations, relearn the joy of the outdoors. These days it’s not just about mountains, but smaller hills and smaller days. Harris is 17 months old now. When he’s in the carrier, he tries to touch the leaves and heather, or he’ll point and say ‘tree’, ‘bird’. All the things you take for granted on a walk – it’s amazing to see them anew through his eyes.

We live near Pollok Country Park in Glasgow. It was my saviour in lockdown, and I love to take Harris for a walk there after work. Another favourite place is Perthshire. It’s so beautiful, with forests, countryside and mountains. I’ve walked in so many amazing places: Glencoe, Arran – I’ve climbed Goatfell a couple of times, including with Harris – and south Scotland, which has spectacular hills but is underrated.

My new role as President of Ramblers Scotland

It’s an honour to be asked to be president of Ramblers Scotland. I’ve volunteered since I was a teenager, and I’m looking forward to seeing where my interests and Ramblers Scotland’s work align. There are so many great initiatives. The Out There Award for young people sounds brilliant, and I want to get involved in Ramblers walks with refugees and asylum seekers.

I hope having someone like me in this role will show people that the outdoors is for everyone. Whatever your background, whatever you look like, I hope you can connect to what I’m saying – and that a bit of my joy in the outdoors resonates with you.

Follow Zahrah on Instagram @the_hillwalking_hijabi