Indulge in Palestinian food, fitness activities and networking sessions at women-only space Marookha KL

Women-only spaces fulfill a collective need for safety, ease, understanding, communication and support.

Marookha offers a safe space for women to mingle and engage in physical activities comfortably (All photos: Aireena Azni/The Edge)

It is not easy finding a communal space that allows you to be yourself. That was what drove Zara Ahmad Riza to establish a women-only clubhouse. As a Muslimah conscious of the way she dresses and how she carries herself in public, Zara could not find places that allowed her to do what she loved most — work out, host gatherings and dress up with friends — without having to compromise her religious values.

The 36-year-old was inspired to build women-only spaces in Malaysia similar to those she saw in the Middle East during her visits many years ago. “There are beaches and swimming pools for females, with no cameras or men. We also have those here but there are allocated time slots, so you’re still limited by something.”

Zara was living off her savings for a few months as her advertising company shuttered during the pandemic. She used the time at home to plan for her dream project. Established at end-2021, Marookha — derived from the colloquial Spanish word maruja which implies someone who fits the role of a traditional housewife — is situated in the affluent neighbourhood of Taman Tun Dr Ismail, Kuala Lumpur, a stone’s throw from Bukit Kiara Federal Park.

The facade of the two-storey building is rather unassuming, save for a bright fuchsia painting that makes it easy to spot. “I went to Morocco and fell in love with its architecture. Most of the buildings have a very plain exterior, but when you go inside, it’s like you’re in heaven. There are beautiful mosaics and even fountains.” Marookha’s interior is vibrant. The walls are painted bright orange and fuchsia, and yellow tiles and a large floral artwork by mural artist Manje add a distinctive character to the space.


Founder Zara Ahmad Riza wants to establish a women-only clubhouse

The clubhouse offers a wide range of experiences for women, including a restaurant section that serves Palestinian cuisine, coffee and desserts; a fitness zone for physical activities such as Pilates,
Muay Thai and kickboxing; and a small salon for manicures and pedicures. Occasionally, there are networking sessions, self-development classes and pop-up vendors.

“We’re not exclusively for Muslims; as long as you are a woman, you are welcome. But, of course, our primary target audience is Muslimah who don’t want to compromise their religious beliefs. Marookha provides a safe place for them to work out and socialise in an environment where they can be truly free to express themselves.”

Women-only spaces fulfill a collective need for safety, ease, understanding, communication and support. Zara’s ultimate goal is to build a healthy and non-toxic community. As such, employees, trainers and event organisers are thoughtfully selected to ensure a comfortable environment for everyone involved.

“I don’t like working with those who come to train and then leave. The trainers must want to socialise with their students and get to know them because people come for different reasons. Once you get to the root of their issues, then only can you really help them.”

There is a children’s corner — for girls and boys below 10 — equipped with toys and games to keep them occupied while their mothers enjoy a coffee break. “We’ve been lucky to attract supportive, nice and level-headed people. Mums also need a place to chill out for a while, and no one here is going to judge them if their kids scream. We are okay with them running and playing around. But, of course, there’s a limit. If not, Aunty Zara will come and scold somebody,” she jokes.


There is a fitness zone for physical activities such as Pilates, Muay Thai and kickboxing as well as small salon for manicures and pedicures

After two years, Zara can see that Marookha has provided a platform for people to communicate with one another without prejudice. “Everyone’s laughing, joking and having fun. You’ll catch strangers talking to each other whereas in a normal setting, you will never see that because people are too shy, especially Malaysians. If you say good morning to someone in the lifts, the other person may question, ‘Do we know each other?’ So this place is really about cultivating a sense of togetherness and educating people about the importance of community.”

For the convenience and comfort of Muslimah who choose to take off their hijab while eating or doing fitness activities, photography is not allowed on the premises. “The rule is in place to protect those who have chosen to cover up. But they can take photos of the food, of course. They just need to be considerate of others.”

On the topic of food, the cafe offers a variety of Palestinian dishes such as  Maqluba,  Marookha, Eggplant Mutabbal, Muhammara, Falafel and Shawarma. Most of the recipes come from Zara’s mother-in-law, who hails from the region. “My husband, Ahmad Hallalo, is Palestinian, and I also dream of opening a Palestinian restaurant one day. So this is sort of like R&D for that. We will be opening the eatery downstairs and moving the current kitchen there, hopefully in the next few months.” There are also options for desserts such as cakes, brownies and pavlovas, with a selection of drinks. 


Palestinian flavours to savour

The plan next is to expand the fitness area to accommodate a bigger crowd as more people have shown interest in physical classes, which they can subscribe to on ClassPass or Vibefam.

Zara credits the people around her for being helpful and encouraging while she navigates uncharted waters.

“It’s a lot of trial and error because I did not have any mentor. My accountant husband is a great help, though I am terrible with money but very good at ‘fun’. We always fight because being ‘fun’ is expensive.

“I’m lucky to have my parents supporting me financially throughout these two years. I also have friends willing to take a smaller fee than usual to help boost our social media presence. Some business owners may make it seem like they do and grow everything by themselves, but the truth is, there is always something or someone backing them up.”

The enterprising mother of two aims to establish as many Marookha branches as possible, each catering to different age groups. Her space has served as a sanctuary for many and Zara hopes to extend this service to more people in the near future.

Marookha, Level 1, 7, Lorong Datuk Sulaiman 7, Taman Tun Dr Ismail, KL. (017) 204 0355. Tue-Sun, 10am-5pm. 

This article first appeared on Mar 4, 2024 in The Edge Malaysia.


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