Nike generated plenty of buzz this week with its announcement that it would release a high-performance hijab for female Muslim athletes next year.
Although there are plenty of boutique athletic outfitters, including Capsters, as well as online stores such as Nashata, that design hijabs for women who wish to exercise yet adhere to Muslim norms of modesty, this is a bold step for Nike. Skeptics were quick to point out that Nike is hardly the first to make a performance head covering. But Nike is credited as the first global athletic brand to design and market an athletic hijab, which is significant considering the head covering is worn in various forms from Southeast Asia and the Middle East to Eastern Europe.
Nike’s athletic hijab makes its appearance a few weeks after the company sparked a social media sensation with a video campaign targeted to the Middle East that highlighted Muslim women participating in various outdoor activities. According to the pan-Arab news outlet Al Arabiya, that video was the precursor to the hijab’s launch, expected to hit store shelves a year from now.
The video generally scored favorable reviews, including from the demographic it targeted, Muslim women. Some observers, however, gave the video a thumbs-down for either showing women without a hijab, or reviving the debate over whether such dress is really required by the Quran in the first place. In an emailed statement sent to journalists, Nike made it clear that several female Muslim athletes were involved in giving feedback, designing and testing the hijab.
While the hijab is accepted and expected in many Muslim nations, it can be a nuisance when it comes to exercise and participating in athletic events, from obstructing vision to just being too hot and uncomfortable to wear. To that end, Nike said that several Muslim athletes, including weightlifter Amna Al Haddad from the United Arab Emirates, helped design its take on the hijab.
The company has featured Al Haddad within its news feed and blog, though as of press time her biography as a sponsored athlete has been removed from its corporate site. The company also claims that another Emirati athlete, figure skater Zahra Lari, is already wearing its hijab.
Nike’s attempt to appeal to a population approaching 1 billion women (2010 estimates suggested 1.6 million Muslims live worldwide) wins on several levels. First, the design is practical, especially during those Middle Eastern and Northern African summers where the mercury can hit 120 degrees Fahrenheit (50 degrees Celsius). And despite the Western stereotype of Muslim women as voiceless and oppressed, anyone who has lived or worked extensively in the Middle East and other societies where Islam is the dominant religion knows those assumptions are too often made in haste.
From a business perspective, this is a demographic that has disposable income, is often steadfastly loyal to brands, and will reward inclusion. Furthermore, a design like Nike’s can help silence critics, including some within FIFA, who in the past have said that the hijab has no place in women’s sports. FIFA lifted its ban on hijab in 2014; and having an apparel company such as Nike designing for these woman can only inspire more of their peers to pursue athletics, which can only be a plus for global sport.
And the challenges women face in athletics is hardly relegated to the Middle East or other Muslim-dominated regions. Nike estimates that only 1 in 7 girls worldwide participate regularly in local sporting activities.
Image credit: NikeWomen/YouTube