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How Nike’s hijab sports gear is taking on Islamophobia and patriarchy

Egyptian athlete Manal Rostom wearing the Nike Pro Hijab. Nike

How Nike’s hijab sports gear is taking on Islamophobia and patriarchy

In March, when sports manufacturer Nike launched its “Nike Pro Hijab”, it made obvious business sense. What Nike - perhaps inadvertently ̶ has done, is to legitimise the hijab across two very different narratives.

One is in response to hostile liberal democracies that are adamant in modernising Muslim women by stripping them of their hijab. The other is in response to some interpretations of Islam, which consider the traditional dress and role of Muslim women as irreconcilable with the modern arena of sport.

Nike has countered the position of liberal democracies because, implicit in its action is that if Muslim women are supported in wearing the hijab while participating in sport, then what can be so wrong about it being worn in other contexts? By introducing the “Pro hijab”, Nike is legitimising the wearing of the hijab by Muslim women in sport, and it’s also legitimising the wearing of the hijab in a public space.

The preoccupation of liberal democracies to curtail and regulate the dress code of Muslim women, such as banning the hijab in public spaces, has added to the vulnerability of Muslim women. What liberal democracies demand of them is to de-veil so that they become publicly acceptable.

In these countries, the hijab is designated as a symbol and image of oppression and backwardness. Sports sociologist Jennifer Hargreaves writes in her book Heroines of sport: The politics of difference and identity (2000),

The veil is a symbol of cultural difference. For non-Muslims it conveys the idea that Western women are liberated, and Muslim women, by comparison, are oppressed. The veil represents the ‘Otherness’ of Islam and is condemned in the West as a constricting mode of dress, a form of social control, and a religious sanctioning of women’s invisibility and subordinate sociopolitical status.

Secondly, what Nike has done is to counter the Muslim patriarchal view that justifies the relegation of Muslim women to the private space. They do this on the basis that women’s participation in the public domain necessarily compromises their modesty and values. In recognising Muslim women’s participation in sport, the “Nike Pro Hijab” has symbolically placed the role of the Muslim female body in the public sphere.

But sport transcends the boundaries of geographical and political spaces. It has both the means – and the end – of bringing together different ways of thinking, being and competing. Sport also cuts across culture, religion and language like no other industry.

Muslim women and the public discourse

High end designer names, such as Oscar de la Renta, Dolce & Gabbana, Versace and DKNY already tap into a formerly untraversed market of Muslim money, epitomised by the wealth found in the Gulf region. In this sense Nike’s latest clothing attire has been dismissed as nothing else but opportunistic.

Nike’s “Nike Pro Hijab” has been welcomed by some – mostly Muslim women. But it’s also been criticised harshly for endorsing the oppression of women. Criticism on social media have promoted tweets of dissent with the hashtag #BoycottNike.

But lost in this discontent are three significant facts and factors. Firstly, the participation of Muslim women in sport is not new. Secondly, Muslim women, who participate in sport, and who wish to maintain an Islamic dress code – as in wearing the hijab – have already done so. Thirdly, the impression that Nike is the first to promote a hijab, specifically geared at athletes, is misplaced.

Nike released the new ‘Pro Hijab’ in March 2017.

The first person to design and market an “athletic hijab” was Dutch designer, Cindy van den Bremen, who did so in 1999. Today, smaller companies, like Van den Bremen’s “Capsters”, Canadian-based “ResportOn”, as well as a range of Muslim-owned companies, have been selling sports hijāb all over the world. In fact, a specific hijab design by “ResportOn” was one of the reasons that the International Taekwondo Federation allowed Muslim women to compete in recognised tournaments.

Both “Capster” and “ResportOn” submitted prototypes that formally overturned the football umbrella body, Fédération Internationale de Football Association’s (Fifa) hijab ban in 2014. These companies carved out a space for Muslim women when their participation was challenged. Nike’s introduction of the “Pro hijab”, therefore, is not a groundbreaking endeavour – regardless of what their campaign might infer.

But what Nike has achieved in promoting its “Pro hijab”, is that a globally recognised brand has mainstreamed what is generally considered as an oppressive and marginalised garment. Within a context of intensifying levels of Islamophobia increasingly directed at Muslim women, it’s inconceivable that Nike would not have expected the inevitable political and social backlash. Indeed, the ensuing controversy might very well be the best marketing for the latest Nike product.