Katherine Donnelly | 08.17.2018

As part of Outdoor Project's Women In the Wild series this summer, I have had the honor of working with outdoor women from all over the industry to dig a bit deeper into who they are, how they got to where they are now, how they approach the outdoors, and more. These women are all rad in their own right, regardless of where they come from, what they look like, or how "badass" they might be. Whether they're mothers, daughters, sisters, professional athletes, beginners, weekend warriors, "instafamous," or anywhere in-between, their unique stories, journeys, opinions, and perspectives are incredibly valuable and insightful as Outdoor Project - and the industry as a whole - progresses and evolves to become more inclusive to every type of outdoors person. 

Through in-depth and often thought-provoking interviews, I hope to highlight these women's stories, their work, their adventures, and so much more with an eye toward giving them their well-deserved share of the spotlight while inspiring and empowering even more women to get outside!

In this feature we talk to Bushra Malik.

While the future isn't yet set for this Woman In The Wild, I have a very good feeling that big things are to come. Her deep love for exploring nature combined with her research work around minorities in the outdoors has led her on a mission to make the outdoors a more inclusive and accessible place for people of color - and we couldn't be more excited to follow along on her journey. Get the full scoop below.

OP: Give us the skinny on who Bushra Malik is.

Bushra Malik: I’m an animal-adoring first-generation Pakistani American and water sports enthusiast. I’m also a young professional exploring career paths. Inspired by my personal experiences, I’m on a mission to address the barriers that keep people of color from the outdoors and make the outdoors accessible to traditionally underrepresented groups – especially to women of color like myself.

OP: When did you first know that you were going to spend your life in the outdoors?

Bushra Malik: However unconventional, I can’t say I had a “love at first hike” experience or a genuine appreciation for nature as a young kid, despite the privilege of growing up in a middle-class household with parents that, often enough, took my siblings and I out to see different local and national parks. I always loved the beach and being around water though, and I discovered kayaking in high school. Slowly but surely, by the time I reached college, being outdoors and on the water is all I wanted to do. And despite whatever I was doing or how busy life got, I always managed to make time for it.

Sure enough, one of my most memorable and rewarding parts of college was my participation in Cal Adventures, a program that granted students and local community members access to all kinds of watersports classes – basic/intermediate sailing, sea kayaking, windsurfing, paddleboarding – and free rentals for the academic year. However, I consistently found myself to be one of the only people of color out on the water and in every class I took, which felt very isolating and (at times) intimidating. I also found that, despite being a water sports enthusiast, I usually had the least amount of background knowledge and experience compared to my other classmates, the majority of whom were white males. This was most obvious when I took basic and intermediate sailing – I not only knew the least about sailing and its terminology, but I had the most trouble keeping up and performing. Not to mention a fascination that one of my instructors had with my ethnic background, prior sailing experience (none of course), and what brought me to the class. However innocent, this fascination made me feel like more of an imposter who didn’t belong. These interactions didn’t help, as I noticed I was only one of three women in basic sailing and one of two women and minorities in intermediate sailing. I was also the youngest, with most participants being past their 30s.

Sailing was so challenging for me that I usually went to sleep the night before class with knots in my stomach, nervous about being the sole person constantly capsizing the boat and holding the rest of the class back. This specific experience, combined with my past experiences of being among the only minority women every time I went outdoors, inspired me to write my 20-page senior thesis paper on the different barriers minority women face in outdoor recreation. The research I found – though limited – was fascinating, and I’ve never looked at outdoor recreation the same since. In turn, it also sparked a passion to use the knowledge to find an effective, practical way to get people and women of color outdoors.

OP: What does it mean to you to be a woman in the outdoor industry?

Bushra Malik: To me, being a woman in the outdoor industry means being exceptionally courageous, persevering, and unapologetically myself. Because let’s face it – aside from the challenges I face as a woman day-to-day, it’s never easy being an outlier in a predominantly male industry. Adding some more factors to the mix – like being a person of color, having limited financial means, and having extra pressure to succeed, including unique family responsibilities as a first-generation American – tests my willingness to struggle that much harder to survive (nonetheless thrive) in the outdoors that I love.

OP: Who has inspired you along the way?

Bushra Malik: Being California-born-and-bred, I remember being curious about the man who was depicted on our state’s quarter as a kid. In eighth grade I ended up doing a project on him for my U.S. History class and have been fascinated with John Muir ever since. His and Teddy Roosevelt’s efforts to protect America’s wilderness at a time when countless people didn’t see conservation’s value have been awe-inspiring. The fact that John Muir also protected the land we call Yosemite National Park (my favorite place on Earth) makes him even more of a hero in my eyes.

OP: How have you managed to align your career with your passion for the outdoors? And do you have any advice for someone who is looking to do the same?

Bushra Malik: I haven’t yet managed to align my career with my passion for the outdoors, but I think there are plenty of ways for me to fulfill my passions outside of work. I also believe it’s problematic when we use a person’s career as the main factor to define them, since I’ve seen firsthand that not everybody can afford to pursue their dream careers – my own mom included. I’ve known a lot people, especially immigrants and first-generation children, who end up having to work a job that most sufficiently makes ends meet, or find themselves in situations where they can’t take time off to go to school because of family responsibilities.

I’m fortunately privileged enough to have graduated from college and to have the time to explore career fields, but my focus is finding work that will be both fulfilling and allow me to provide for my family financially. Though I’d like to eventually have my career and passion for the outdoors at least overlap if not align, I think that having the two somewhat separate (intentional or not) can make pursuing my passion for the outdoors that much more satisfying. I have to admit, though, that if I got paid to travel and kayak year round, I don’t think I’d complain at all!

OP: Let’s talk gear - what are your thoughts on women-specific gear? Love it, hate it? Are there any companies out there doing it right? And how so? When does it matter to you most to have gear specific to women versus unisex products?

Bushra Malik: Personally, the first thing that comes to my mind when I think of women-specific gear is the lack of sports hijabs (headscarves) for Muslim women – it’s a segment of the population that is pretty ignored when it comes especially to sportswear.

When looking for sports hijabs, I had to creatively scour the internet (and even Google images) to find the type of sports hijab I needed – one that could be used in water, was long enough to cover my entire chest while not looking frumpy, was relatively stylish and wouldn’t make me look like an alien.... and it wasn’t easy. I ended up finding a decent one from an Indonesian company but had to do my best to estimate my size and pay for international shipping, knowing it wouldn’t be worth the money to return if the style or fit wasn’t right. It’s also important to realize that, like many kinds of clothing, hijabs are very personal and not a one-size-fits-all garment. Nike came out with a sports hijab only last year, which was monumental news for the Muslim community; nonetheless the fact that they only sell one type of hijab is proof of how much opportunity there is to address the needs of hijab-wearing Muslim women and the gear/sportswear needs for all kinds of populations in general.

OP: In a world seemingly run by online personas, how do you approach social media and how does it play into your lifestyle - both work and play?

Bushra Malik: Social media was never a big part of my lifestyle, and I never really bothered to fully invest myself into it. Over the past few months, however, I’ve witnessed its power at spreading information and awareness, helping others connect with like-minded people and communities, and creating positive, productive change. I see it as a tool that can be used both responsibly and irresponsibly, with the ability to bring about positive and negative effects. I also see it as a reality of today’s society – so focusing on mitigating the negative and responsibly utilizing it for the positive, while thinking critically about everything I see, is most important to me.

With that said, seeing the positive power of social media has inspired me to create an Instagram page where (in the coming months) I’ll be able to post content aimed at inspiring and preparing underrepresented communities to get outdoors.

OP: Have you faced discrimination in the outdoors due to your beliefs, religion, appearance, or gender? And how has this shaped the way you approach your outdoor adventures?

Bushra Malik: Definitely. For people of color, discrimination is a sad reality that has profound visible, and invisible, effects on their lives – and so it’s naturally something I’ve never been able to escape, even when outdoors. Discrimination in the outdoors comes in many different shapes and forms, from larger issues of access to our public lands (like which kinds of people have access and why) to everyday interactions between the people who maintain and visit our public lands, outdoor recreation sites, and more.

I’ve received both direct and indirect comments (read: insults) about my ethnicity, nationality, gender, and more from staff members and other visitors while at national parks and private recreation sites. A classic question is: “No, where are you really from?’’ Microaggressions are also very real and tangible when I’m in the outdoors – it is unmistakable when I’m being treated differently compared to others, given dirty looks, talked down to, treated as if I know nothing, or politely interrogated by people who think I don’t belong – and it’s not only exhausting, but it begins to take a deep psychological toll over time. Wearing a hijab (headscarf) also makes me unmistakably Muslim, which can be especially challenging when navigating through the Trump era and meeting someone who has a very limited or negative view of what Muslims are like. 

For all these reasons, when approaching my adventures outdoors, I not only have to take extra measures to ensure my safety (carrying extra items like pepper spray or avoiding hiking alone), but I also feel unreasonable pressure to be exceptional at everything I attempt to do so it doesn’t cause others to stereotype me or people who look like me. This fear of not being good enough or making mistakes (like something as simple as falling off a paddleboard) is not only unhealthy, it discourages growth and is something I actively fight with.

Ironically enough, though, the discrimination I’ve faced while outdoors is another major inspiration behind my goal to not only get more people/women of color outdoors but to holistically understand the root causes and barriers – including discrimination – that prevent them from getting outdoors in the first place. I strongly believe that simply urging people, especially minorities, to “just get outside and go hiking” (or kayaking, camping, etc.) is not enough. While these messages and calls to action are great for increasing visibility and inspiring nontraditional populations to get outdoors, I often find they don’t always equip these people with the information necessary to do so. This information can be as simple as knowing what equipment to rent or buy to something deeper like how to prepare yourself for going backpacking for the first time or deal with imposter syndrome outdoors. This is why my aim is to not only break down the obvious when approaching the sometimes overwhelming outdoor industry but to also provide tips and strategies to overcoming deeper issues that prevent minorities from exploring outdoors.

OP: What’s next for you in the coming months and years?

Bushra Malik: In the coming months, I’m hoping to launch my passion project: an Instagram page (which is live but still a work in progress) and eventual website dedicated to both inspiring and preparing minorities and nontraditional hikers to overcome the various barriers that prevent them from venturing outdoors. It’s a project that I’ve been brainstorming for a while, and is something that I’m excited to share – stay tuned! 

In the coming years I’m hoping to discover and work toward my ideal career path. With my passion for the outdoors being a constant in my life, I also plan to continue learning about the deeper factors that affect minority participation in outdoor recreation, which may even turn into a career in and of itself. Either way, as a woman dedicated to the wild, I fully intend to play my own personal part in helping all kinds of communities express their individual love and care for our beautiful, natural, and wild places.

Learn more about Bushra by following her on Instagram, and definitely make sure to keep an eye out for her upcoming passion project here!


Have updates, photos, alerts, or just want to leave a comment?
Sign In and share them.