On December 1, the Nike Pro Hijab landed in the sports section at Macy’s. It can now also be found on Nike’s website and at other retail outlets. The release of the Nike hijab—the first sports hijab sold by a global brand—could be viewed as the culmination of an ad-hoc, grassroots movement inspired by Muslim women.
Three years ago, FIFA, the international federation for soccer, responded to an outcry from women’s organizations, as well as pressure from the United Nations, to lift its ban on head coverings. This past May, FIBA, the international federation for basketball, followed suit after Indira Kaljo launched a social media campaign that generated more than 130,000 signatures. Last year an American athlete competed on the Olympic stage wearing a hijab for the first time. Ibtihaj Muhammad took bronze in team saber.
“Anyone who has paid attention to the news would know the importance of having a Muslim woman on Team USA,” she told Time. “It’s challenging those misconceptions that people have about who the Muslim woman is.”
Nike has trumpeted the release of the light, stretchy, breathable headscarf with trendy black-and-white ads showcasing female Muslim sports stars. It has also released a video showing five female Muslim athletes who have achieved international success. The video is entitled “What Will They Say About You?”
It’s a legitimate question, and there’s no clear answer.
On social media, the response to Nike’s hijab has been mixed. The issue is not one of quality or style, but, rather, of cultural significance. Depending upon who’s doing the viewing, it becomes a symbol of empowerment, or of oppression. Or both.
Right or wrong, throughout the world, women and men take issue with Islamic dress. In the Islamic countries of Iran and Saudi Arabia, women are forced to cover their heads and bodies in public. But in France, a fiercely secular country, face coverings are banned—and the government continues to debate the use of hijabs, or headscarves. In New York City, six Indonesian designers presented headscarves and full-length abayas as part of their collections at Fashion Week in September. One of them, Vivi Zubedi delivered a message to the U.S. president.
“Mr. President,” the designer said in response to Trump’s attempts at restricting immigration from certain Muslim countries, “We are all the same, it’s about humanity.”
Competitive figure skater Zahra Lari, a practicing Muslim from the United Arab Emirates, views the Nike hijab as a step toward inclusion. One of Nike’s product testers and top endorsers, she is the first skater from the UAE to compete on the international circuit—and the first to wear the hijab on that grand stage. But, for Lari, the road to free expression hasn’t been entirely smooth. In 2012, at the European Cup, held in Canazei, Italy, she lost points because her headscarf failed to meet the approved dress code. She later met with officials of the International Skating Union and convinced them to allow the headscarf. Now Lari takes to the ice in a Nike hijab.
“[Nike] is a world class sports brand and to have them support Muslim women in sports is fantastic,” she wrote via email. “I cannot speak for anybody else’s opinion, I can only say that there are women that suffer from many forms of oppression all over the world, regardless of religion. I feel that the Nike Pro Hijab is about sport and athletics, and it is my honor to work with them.”
Lari, it should be noted, chose to wear the hijab at the age of eight. In Iran and Saudi Arabia, women who choose otherwise do so at the risk of beatings and imprisonment—a fact that forms the basis for some critics of Nike’s hijab.
Shenila Khoja-Moolji, a visiting scholar at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote in Al Jazeera that Nike, among other companies marketing these kinds of products, is selling “an imagined feeling of inclusivity to Muslim girls who often do not experience it in their daily lives.” She warned that this type of “tokenistic inclusion” could distract from serious conversations about social reform and reduce Muslims to a target market.
Iranian journalist and human rights activist Masih Alinejad was born in Iran and now lives in the United States. She’s the creator of the #MyStealthyFreedom and #WhiteWednesday campaigns in which Iranian women dare to upload images of themselves, sans hijab. Alinejad applauds Lari and Nike for helping the Muslim minority in America—but she also believes it could normalize oppressive behavior by regimes such as the one in Iran.
“If you want Islamophobia to disappear, you have to condemn any oppression that’s happening in the name of Islam,” she said. “[The Islamic Republic of Iran] is not only forcing women in Iran to wear hijab, they’re also forcing all international athletes to do it when they compete in my country. So it’s a global issue. That’s why I think you have to recognize the other side, the people who are forced to wear it. The government of Iran is saying, look, even Americans do it. [Nike] is normalizing hijab, and now [Mattel] is releasing a Hijab Barbie. Don’t they know that our government uses this dress code to oppress its own women?”
The laws are spelled out in Iran’s Islamic penal code. Article 638 dictates that “any one in public places and roads who openly commits a [sinful act], in addition to the punishment provided for the act, shall be sentenced to two months’ imprisonment or up to 74 lashes….Women who appear in public places and roads without wearing an Islamic hijab shall be sentenced to ten days to two months’ imprisonment…. Any vehicles carrying women without a hijab…will also be impounded and held in judicial parking lots.”
Alinejad said she believes that athletes who choose to wear the hijab should acknowledge that simply being able to make the choice is a privilege. “[I’d like to hear them say] that while they can choose to wear hijab, they know that millions of their sisters in some Muslim countries are forced to wear it,” she said. “Iranian women are getting punched in the face, put into prison, and getting lashes just because they say no to hijab. Those athletes should make it explicit that they stand for freedom of choice.”
Kulsoom Abdullah, a Pakistani-American weightlifter who grew up in the United States, chooses to wear the headscarf for what she calls “personal spiritual reasons.” Like Lari, she has had her struggles gaining acceptance. In 2010, she was prohibited from participating at the American Open while wearing Islamic dress. Only after she launched a social media campaign, which gained worldwide attention and received support from the Council on American-Islamic Relations, did USA weightlifting modify its policy on athletic attire. In 2011, Abdullah represented Pakistan at the World Weightlifting Championships, and became the first woman to compete wearing a hijab. She continues to participate while wearing a headscarf, long-sleeve shirt, and pants.
“Not to disagree with [Alinejad], but I don’t think Nike is normalizing headscarves, only because they’re seen in other places,” Abdullah said. Before the Nike hijab became available, athletes could buy headscarves from small, Muslim-owned companies such as Asiya, Friniggi, and Capster.
“Other women in positions of authority wear it. It’s something that’s already out there.” But Abdullah was quick to point out that she hasn’t gone through what Alinejad and other women in Islamic countries have experienced. “I grew up here [in America],” she said. “I was raised Muslim, but I was never forced to wear the headscarf.
“It’s not fair to make a woman wear it,” she added. But in marketing a sports hijab, she does not believe Nike is condoning mandatory headscarves.
All Nike is doing, after all, is fulfilling its own mission. It’s making money. Determining the cultural significance of its products is up to the rest of us.