“The Nike Pro Hijab has been a year in the making but its impetus can be traced much further back to Nike’s founding mission, to serve athletes, with the signature addendum: If you have a body, you’re an athlete.” — Nike statement
Depending on who you ask, Nike’s move to release its new Pro Hijab Collection, a performance-wear hijab for Muslim athletes, is either boldly inspiring and empowering or opportunistic and oppressive. Either way, the sports apparel giant has knowingly waded into this conversation with the announcement of the lightweight mesh product just in time for International Women’s Day.
While the initiative is certainly not the first by a sportswear company, Nike’s global brand recognition helps carry its message of inclusion much more widely — both to professional athletes and those aspiring to be one, especially women and girls in the Middle East.
Increasingly, there are more girls and women embracing sports in Muslim-majority countries. The launch has been met with jubilance by many Muslim athletes, including Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari, who has tested the hijab during its development stages over the past year.
“The Nike Pro Hijab was designed as a direct result of our athletes telling us they needed this product to perform better, and we hope that it will help athletes around the world do just that,” — Global Nike Spokeswoman Megan Saalfeld in a statement to Al Arabiya English.
Lari, among other female Muslim athletes, has previously complained about the difficulties of competing in a hijab not designed for sports performance. Most are cumbersome, not secured adequately to stay attached during rigorous activity, and not well suited to the heat that goes with physical exertion in the Middle East. Nike has designed its product with all these features in mind.
Predictably however, in the days after Nike’s announcement many reacted negatively on social media, calling for the boycott of the company. The criticism has come from both sides: the anticipated anti-Muslim backlash, but also from the other direction from those who claim any promotion of head coverings is contributing to the oppression of Muslim women.
Is the hijab really a symbol of oppression? The West is guilty of depicting women who wear a hijab as weak, in need of rescuing by modernity, subjugated to the wills of their male counterparts. In contrast, Muslim women have been vocal on what the hijab means for them, especially after xenophobic rhetoric elevated in the post 9/11 era.
…instead of being judged and accepted by society on their ability or lack of ability to fit a female cookie cutter stereotype, they are able to have people know them based on what their minds have to offer and what their talents are. The hijab gives these women a fresh sense of identity. The hijab also allows women to decide what the world sees when they view them and how the world gets to perceive them. — Ami Sanghvi, 2014.
The operative word in whether to use a hijab or not is choice. And being able to choose is in itself liberating. Is telling a woman she can’t wear a hijab really any less oppressive than telling them they have to?
The debate of headgear in competition is not new. The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) has been under fire for restricting athletes from wearing headscarves during international competitions. In 2014, FIBA demanded two Indian Sikh basketball players remove their headgear in violation of their rule stating: Players shall not wear equipment (objects) that may cause injury to other players.
Similar restrictions nearly obstructed the participation of Saudi Arabia’s first female athlete from a judo competition in the 2012 Olympics, as regulators debated whether Wojdan Shahrkhani’s hijab would pose a threat due to the fact the sport involved ‘strangleholds and chokeholds’.
Sports leagues need regulations to ensure players’ safety, that goes without saying. However, if the real issue is safety, the development of performance hijabs like Nike’s and other companies’ should be encouraged, as athletic gear is being developed with the game and the athletes’ performance and safety in mind.
Any apparel will therefore be constructed under the same strict guidelines other sportswear is manufactured, ensuring factors like breathability of fabrics used are met. As for Nike’s Pro Hijab, the lightweight polyester design features an elongated back to keep it tucked under the uniform during performance and apertures through out the fabric; a sigh of relief for athletes who practice and compete in extreme heat.
Nike already has a presence in the Middle East, but it is growing. The Pro Hijab is not their first foray into aggressively marketing to Middle Eastern women. Their Nike+ Training Club App was translated into Arabic last year, and last month they released the wildly successful “What Will They Say About You Campaign”, paying homage to young female Middle Eastern athletes.
“ It delivers the region’s spirit and millennial outlook on what it is to be a Nike woman in the Middle East circa now.” — Vogue Arabia
There is an obvious market for female athletic clothing that is not being serviced. Nike is simply responding to that customer demand. It is not up to an apparel company to dictate religious dogma, nor how a woman should or shouldn’t worship. Nike is in the business of creating comfortable, breathable, performance-ready sports gear for athletes, regardless of gender, race, or religion.
Calls to boycott a company for making a bold and positive statement about representation, an American company standing up for American values and universal human rights, says more about America in 2017 than it does about Nike. The ideas that everyone should have the right to excel in life, that everyone deserves to be treated fairly, and equally, and the notion that everyone should have the freedom to worship as they please are at the very core of what we stand for.
Companies like Nike should be celebrated not chastised for taking steps to ensure all athletes, regardless of religion, feel represented — while having access to sportswear that respects their needs and diversity.