Nike Pro Hijab gives important validation to Muslim women athletes

Courtesy Nike

Nike this week announced the release of its Pro Hijab, which will be available next year.

This week, Nike announced the release of the Nike Pro Hijab, a lightweight, breathable head covering for Muslim athletes. The gear could be a game-changer for those female athletes who have long fought resistance to their participation, both from within and outside their faith.

While it shouldn't take a major global brand to "legitimize" the inclusion of women of all faiths in sports, it certainly can't hurt.

Conservative members of the Muslim religion view women's participation in athletics as antithetical to a commitment to modesty -- a belief that isn't that distant from that of 20th-century American sports writers and officials who argued that athletic women violated traditional notions of femininity. (That view, by the way, still manifests in ugly ways today.)

The 2012 London Olympics seemed to signal a turning point, when Brunei, Qatar and Saudi Arabia became the last participating countries to finally allow women to play in the Games. In the years since, hijabi women from across the Arab world have competed internationally in sports such as track and field, soccer and figure skating. Closer to home, fencer and New Jersey native Ibtihaj Muhammad last year became the first hijabi American to compete in the Olympics for the U.S.

Yet Muslim women who choose to veil have faced hurdles outside religious or national objections -- namely, official bans from international associations on religious headgear such as hijabs, turbans and kippot, or yarmulkes, on the grounds of "safety concerns." In 2014, after a two-year trial in which such garments failed to live up to their injurious reputation, FIFA lifted its ban.

But seven years after Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir became the first hijabi athlete to compete in NCAA Division I women's basketball, FIBA, the sport's international governing body, is still dragging its feet on the subject. The federation was supposed to vote on the ban in January, having postponed a vote from last September, but instead instructed its rules committee to formulate a proposal outlining the safe implementation of headgear, to be voted on in May.

The drawn-out process, which effectively keeps women like Abdul-Qaadir from turning pro, has understandably caused frustration among those like sports writer Shireen Ahmed, who has noted that FIFA already provided a framework for lifting the ban.

Like FIFA's, FIBA's ban isn't necessarily rooted in prejudice; Article 4.4.2 in the official rulebook states that "players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players," including "headgear, hair accessories and jewelry." The increasing realization that this rule discriminates against athletes of specific religions -- namely, Muslim, Sikh and Jewish athletes - can be seen as a function of those athletes having greater access to participation in global sports. Conversely, the presence of such a ban serves to limit participation, as it did in 2011, when a FIFA official denied the Iranian women's national team entry onto the pitch for an Olympic qualifier because they were wearing hijabs.

In its own way, then, the fact that we're talking about the issue of wearing of religious headgear in sports is a sign of progress. But the failure to rectify it in a timely manner shows, at the very least, "an apathy towards Muslim women in general," as Ahmed puts it. The message seems to be: If Muslim women want to play, that's fine, but they're not a priority.

Now that Nike has released this line of headgear, the hope is that FIBA, and the sports world at large, will start making Muslim woman a priority, too. In developing a performance-hijab that has been tested for endurance in hot climates as well as safety, Nike is helping to dispel concerns of headgear's risk of injury to players.

The timing is certainly interesting. Just last week, Nike announced a new partnership with FIBA, making the company "the official partner for product and marketing at FIBA's biggest competitions" -- including the FIBA Women's Basketball World Cup -- providing apparel, footwear, and equipment. Will that include its new hijab? Neither Nike nor FIBA returned requests for further comment.

It should be noted that Nike's moves are likely not totally socially motivated. They're a business, and their decisions reflect demand. Nike has signaled a clear eye toward an expanding market for female Muslim athletes.

As part of its campaign, the company has enlisted Muslim athletes, including Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari, who wears a hijab on the ice, for a viral ad celebrating Arab women breaking barriers in sports.

"For a brand like Nike to come out and say that these people exist and are inclusive of hijabis is a big deal. It not just about making a product available for Muslim and Arab women but it is also giving a chance to those women who are putting off the idea of wearing the veil completely in order to compete," Egyptian Manal Rostom -- Nike's first hijabi brand ambassador -- told Al Arabiya English.

Nike's entire campaign and product launch serves to give greater visibility and voice to a burgeoning group of Muslim women who have long been kept off the court and out of the gym and who are silent no more.

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