With Trump in the White House and white supremacy on the rise, queer Muslim powerlifter Lena Afridi knew her friends and family were in danger. And none of them knew how to fight.
The smell of rubber permeates everything. The sound of metal crashing to the ground leaves a constant ringing in your ears. Aside from that, the room is quiet and dark, the sound muffled by rubber mats and wooden lifting platforms. As my body tightens under the weight of over two hundred pounds, I can quiet my mind and the terror that grips it. I have a raw craving for this stillness now, it feels as necessary as eating after a long fast or gasping air after holding my breath under water. The days where I skip lifting I feel almost malnourished.
There are moments when I walk into a weight room at an unfamiliar gym and overhear snippets of jocular conversation between men. “Hey faggot” is thrown around as lightly as a crumpled up piece of paper between gym bros. The phrase makes its way back into my ears. “Hey faggot,” and then there’s a smack to the back of my head. I see a sneer and my face withdraws into a snarl and then collapses. I’ve just finished a long day at my job and I’m trying to swerve through crowds of tourists, grad students, and commuters fighting to make their way down the steps of the 34th Street-Herald Square subway station. I keep walking as the wind snaps against the spot where the hand landed and wetness starts clinging to my eyes. I clench my fists so tight that my fingernails dig into my palms and they start bleeding. This memory flits its way through my mind and passes. I add another plate and position myself under the bar, shoulders tight, feet firmly planted to the ground.
The weight is crushing but it feels good. My knees buckle. My heart seems to stops beating for a second. I’m aware of my muscle fibers and ligaments tearing, my skin stretching taut over my knees and thighs and ankles. For a second I wonder if I’m going to die, pressed between the dirty floor and hundreds of pounds of metal. I push my heels into the ground because it’s the only thing I can do; I push because if I don't fight I will most certainly collapse and if I collapse I might be killed. I brace my stomach and close my eyes and clench my teeth until it feels like they might shatter. I push and push and suddenly, to my surprise, I rise.
In the summer of 2016, I started lifting weights secretly in response to violations like the one on 34th street. I snuck into weight rooms at chain gyms after work. Usually no one was around by then so I wouldn’t have to worry about men smirking at me and my struggle to lift the 45 pound barbell or pretend to listen to unsolicited advice (which often ends up being ridiculous and dangerous). To begin, I googled a simple lifting program called Strong Lifts, that taught me to repeat the same movements five times for five sets. I learned that what I was doing was called powerlifting. It became my lifeline.
Powerlifting is incredibly technical but fundamentally primal; it consists of perfecting just three basic movements: the bench press, the deadlift, and the squat. The point of powerlifting is to simply lift as much weight as you possibly can. It seems simple, but these lifts are compound movements that exert every part of the body and are incredibly taxing. In order for the lift to be effective, each muscle needs to stay tight and ready to work.
Since I began training, I have gotten much, much stronger. Each time I lift, it’s like I exist again. My mind is completely silent and still. All I can feel is weight, the bar in my hands, a conversation with my body after years of silence between us.