Nike hijab for Muslim athletes welcomed, criticised

Sunday 26/03/2017
Cultural shift. Egyptian athlete Manal Rostom jogs wearing Nike’s new hijab for Muslim female athletes. (AP)

Amman - American sportswear gi­ant Nike’s decision to launch a hijab for Mus­lim women athletes has stirred mixed feel­ings but was welcomed by sports­women from conservative Arab societies where female athletes feel constrained in their pursuit of sports without the veil.

“It is really good that finally there is a hijab made for the Mus­lim women in sports. The new hi­jab will make women indulge in sports more, especially that it can be used in any type of sports,” said Heba Sabbagh, a sports journalist at Jordan’s al-Rai newspaper.

The sports hijab has been a con­troversial issue since FIFA, the international governing body of football, banned it in 2007 and ex­tended the safety rule to include neck warmers, which were judged a threat for choking injuries to athletes. It was not until 2014 that FIFA authorised the wearing of head covers for religious purposes.

Sabbagh contended that Nike heeded the calls of Muslim ath­letes by introducing Nike Pro Hi­jab, the first product targeting the Islamic world and Muslim ath­letes.

“The controversy surrounding the hijab grew bigger when Arab athletes wearing the head cover tried to compete in international events such as the Olympics but now it is a different story and I am sure we will see more women playing professional sports,” she said.

In 2013, the Iranian women’s football team was prevented from playing an Olympics qualifying match while wearing head scarves and in the 2012 Olympics, Saudi Judoka player Wojdan Shaherkani was almost barred from competing until a compromise was reached.

Nike said the sports hijab will go on sale next spring.

“The Nike Pro Hijab may have been more than a year in the mak­ing but its impetus can be traced much further back, to an ongo­ing cultural shift that has seen more women than ever embracing sport,” the sportswear company said in a statement announcing the new product. It was referring to veiled Saudi runner Sarah Attar, who competed in the 800m races at the 2012 Olympics.

“The new product as we have read is lightweight and very com­fortable to wear and was tested by Muslim athletes, so it should appeal to many women who are looking to start or continue their sports activities,” Sabbagh said.

The Nike Pro Hijab was designed and tested by Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari and Olympic weightlift­er Amna Al Haddad, who visited Nike’s sport research lab in Oregon after complaining about the lack of options.

The new product has appealed to amateur sports women, too, with gym-goer Zain Hamayel say­ing “it is about time”.

“I always had an issue when go­ing to the gym because of my hi­jab,” Hamayel said. “We have hot weather here and making a breath­ing hijab is a good idea. When I read about this new product I thought it should be perfect to do sports.”

Lina el-Kurd, general manager of Run Jordan, the sole entity dedicated to organising marathon events in Jordan, is another sup­porter of the Nike Pro Hijab.

“We need sports companies to think of their audiences’ differ­ent needs. Taking care of athletes’ needs will encourage more people to join the sports revolution and lead a healthy life,” Kurd said.

Kurd said she remembers when the burkini, a type of swimsuit for women that covers the whole body except the face, the hands and the feet, hit the beaches and swimming pools around the world.

“The burkini, which was de­signed in Australia, was a suc­cess as it allowed many women living in conservative societies to go swimming and practise their favourite sports,” Kurd said.

“Although it created controver­sy in Europe with France banning wearing the burkini in some areas, it still found a lot of reception in other places… After all, playing sports is a right for everyone.”

Women athletes who wear the hijab during international compe­titions remain a minority in Arab countries, such as Egypt, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco, with a long history of participation in the Olympics.

Since Nike’s announcement of the Pro Hijab, people stormed social networks with some criti­cising and others commending the move. Criticism focused on the perception that the Nike company was exploiting sa­cred restrictions on women.

Egypt’s Amr Adel’s tweet asked: “What can marketers learn from Nike ‘Pro Hijab Collection’ for female Muslim Athletes?” It re­ceived a reply saying: “They can learn how to profit from keep­ing (hijab-wearing) women op­pressed?”

The hijab controversy became more visible in 2017 with an EU court ruling that businesses can ban workers from wear­ing Islamic headscarves and other religious symbols.

Critics are concerned the Nike veil will cause Muslim female ath­letes to be singled out further in international arenas.

For many athletes in conserva­tive Arab societies the advantages it offers outweigh such reserva­tions.

“Around 70% of female runners who participate in our marathons wear the hijab and I believe that with this new product more fe­males will start running,” said Kurd.