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Nike's new athletic hijab makes a political statement, whether it wants to or not

The Pro Hijab shows solidarity with Muslim athletes.

Zahra Lari wears Nike’s black hijab while skating on a rink.
United Arab Emirates figure skater Zahra Lari models Nike’s new hijab.
VIVIENNE BALLA / NIKE

Religious female Muslim athletes trying to find a way of dressing modestly while still competing in high-level sporting events like the Olympics are getting a new and surprising ally: Nike.

The American sportswear giant has just announced the “Pro Hijab,” a head covering made of lightweight, stretchy polyester that the company says will allow hijab-wearing Muslim women to compete without headscarves that sometimes hurt their performances. The hijabs will go on sale next spring and are expected to cost around $35.

The announcement only escalates Nike’s ongoing expansion into Middle Eastern markets and boosts a broader push for inclusion and representation in athletics. Its release also comes at a politically-sensitive for many US companies, where products and ads featuring Muslims are seen as political statements directed against the Trump administration, even if they don’t mention politics.

Amazon, for example, aired a commercial in November last year featuring two old friends sharing tea: a Muslim imam and Christian priest. While many people praised the ad, it also drew criticism and anti-Muslim hate from right-wing websites and viewers, including Infowars which called the ad “Islamic propaganda.”

Some people have similarly responded to Nike’s announcement about the Pro Hijab. One commenter named “Blue Pizza” posted in response to an article on Heat Street, saying, “I wish western companies would not cooperate with sharia by making such products. Is the future of western civilization worth the minor percentage of Nike's profits these products represent?”

Like Amazon and other companies, Nike didn’t frame its announcement of the new hijab in any political terms. Still, many commentators are calling it a game-changer for directing attention and giving voices to Muslim women who have been kept out of sports because of social stigmas and regulations against wearing a hijab while competing.

ESPN columnist Kavitha A. Davidson said, “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.”

The hijab has already been tested by several athletes, including Zahra Lari, a figure skater from the United Arab Emirates and Olympic hopeful.

"I was thrilled and a bit emotional to see Nike prototyping a hijab," said Lari in a statement reported by The Christian Science Monitor. "I've tried so many different hijabs for performance, and... so few of them actually work for me. But once I put it on and took it for a spin on the ice, I was blown away by the fit and the light weight.”

Nike-sponsored Olympic weight lifter Amna Al Haddad from the United Arab Emirates helped inspire the company to develop the hijab after she had difficulty finding a head covering that was comfortable and would adhere to competition standards, according to the New York Times. Haddad appeared in a Nike advertisement in April 2016, wearing a hijab without a logo. Now Nike’s signature swoosh is displayed prominently on the side of the Pro Hijab.

Nike’s announcement pushes the conversation on representation in sports and what it called in a statement a “cultural shift that has seen more women than ever embracing sport” and an increased acceptance of the inclusion of all women in sports.

In February, Nike celebrated Muslim athletes in a campaign video called “What Will They Say About You,” featuring women breaking stereotypes. The video went viral and was the first step in Nike’s expansion into the Middle East.

But while it is important for Nike to finally recognize hijab-wearing athletes, Davidson pointed out that there are still many hurdles to overcome in leveling the playing field for Muslim women athletes.

It wasn’t until 2014 that FIFA, the international soccer organization, lifted the ban on athletes wearing religious head covers. FIBA, the world’s basketball governing body, still bans religious head covers, including hijabs and turbans.

“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,” wrote Davidson.

Nike is not the first company to release a line of hijab sportswear. As The Guardian’s Shireen Ahmed noted, smaller sports companies have been designing hijabs for decades, including Oregon-based Oiselle and Capsters, which has sold sports hijabs since 2001.

But Nike’s announcement is still important as the global company pushes the conversation on inclusion. “I don’t expect Nike to become a savior for Muslim women, who can certainly defend themselves, but solidarity and support is important,” wrote Ahmed.

Many Muslim women continued this conversation on inclusivity in sports on Twitter, with one woman tweeting:

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