(Credit: Nike.com)

The sports hijab dividing opinions

In a series looking at nominations for the Beazley Designs of the Year, Emily Dawling looks at an item of clothing changing opportunities for Muslim women in sport.

Last year was a big one for the designers at sporting brand Nike. They created the exclusive Mercurial Superfly Quinto Triunfo boots for Cristiano Ronaldo, following his Ballon d’Or win in the footballing world; they brought back their classic trainers, the Royal 1s, revealed that a collaboration with Kendrick Lamar is in the near future, and, in February, the company became the first large sportswear brand to change the face of sporting for Muslim women.

Two days before International Women’s Day, Nike unveiled its new product, the Pro Hijab – a product allowing Muslim women to participate in sport while minimising the practical challenges of wearing a religious item of clothing.

Despite not being the first to release such a product, Nike are arguably the most influential sports company in the world, and the biggest named brand to announce the release of a performance hijab. The symbolism behind its product earned the item a nomination in this year’s Beazley Designs of the Year.

With the Pro Hijab, Nike collaborated with female Muslim athletes including Egyptian marathon runner Manal A. Rostom, and weightlifting athlete Amna Al Haddad, from the UAE, enlisting them to both ensure the product’s performance credentials and to act as the faces of its promotional campaign.

The one piece I had was a regular cover, similar to a hoodie and its material was cotton, not the very breathable type – Amna Al Haddad

BBC Designed spoke to these inspirational athletes about why they decided to be part of the project, what it means for them to be included, and what they hope it will achieve and mean for the wider sporting community.

Both women were pioneers in making this product a reality. Reaching out to Nike 3 years ago, Rostom said she asked them why they were lacking Hijabi representation in their campaigns? Then, by January 2015, she became “the first ever Hijabi to appear in a Nike Middle East campaign.” In 2016, Haddad took a trip to the brand’s headquarters, where a conversation sparked inspiration for the Pro Hijab. “During my career, it was difficult to find a sports hijab that looked simple yet functional. The one piece I had was a regular cover, similar to a hoodie and its material was cotton, not the very breathable type,” she says.

The social impact of Rostom’s persistence should not be underestimated. The athlete runs a Facebook page, titled Surviving Hijab, that’s liked and followed by half a million women. In her own words, it’s a group which “helps women combat every day nuisances and judgements about their hijab by providing them support, sisterhood and empowerment.”

"Being the face of something that has made history helps back up the credibility of my message,” she adds. “I feel very proud and honoured to have been a part of this ground-breaking invention, inspiring generations to come.”

We made it big in the news, we couldn't be ignored - Amna Al Haddad

Haddad agrees that the Pro Hijab goes some way to breaking down some of the practical barriers that can exist between exercise and religion. “Sports should be inclusive for everyone and one should not feel the need to decide between what they wear and pursuing a sport due to a lack of a product or solution,” she says.

Of course, the production of the hijab by such a big brand is not without its controversy. The announcement of the item received scrutiny for a number of reasons: some say the brand is gaining limelight where other companies have been pioneering for years, and some say that by catering to the market for modestwear and modest fashion, the brand is normalising, even supporting female oppression.

Sure enough, Nike stands to profit from selling the hijab. But, according to these athletes, even little steps in improving access to sports for Muslim women, and effective representation of Muslim females within such a huge industry, can only be a good thing.

"I do realise there is a lot of mixed reactions as to why Nike decided to create such a product now,” Haddad wrote in a Facebook post about the launch of the product. "It is a recent phenomenon where more women have expressed a need for it and more professional athletes have fought for rights to compete with a headscarf, and have an equal playing field. We made it big in the news, we couldn't be ignored. I support Muslim women with or without hijab, and how they dress is their choice. And with the Nike sports Hijab, it surely will encourage a new generation of athletes to pursue sports professionally.”

Discussing the product with BBC Designed, she reiterates her point.

"It is a great step that the image of women who decide to wear hijab as athletes is becoming more common.”

“I am looking forward for the day where the media stops focusing on such issues and focuses on the person's talent, willpower, and human spirit instead of their religious beliefs tied to their opportunity in sports. Sports can't tell whether you're Muslim, Jew, Christian, Arab, African-American, Atheist or one's sexual orientation. It knows talent, whether you can perform or not. This what makes sports beautiful.”

Beazley Designs of the Year runs at London’s Design Museum until 28 January 2018.

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