"Everyone was looking at us—even taking pictures, like we were weird," says Egyptian volleyball player Nada Meawad, 18, who made waves alongside partner Doaa Elghobashy at the 2016 Olympics in Rio as the first athletes to represent the country in beach volleyball.
Meawad doesn't cover her hair, but Elghobashy wears a hijab, and both women compete in long-sleeved shirts and leggings, which stands out in a sport where, for women, the typical uniform is a bikini. (For men, loose-fitting tank tops and shorts are the norm.) A photo of Elghobashy going head-to-head with Germany's (bikini-clad) Kira Walkenhorst even went viral with captions like "This is why we do the Olympics" and "When cultures collide." Meawad kept her head up. In retrospect, she says simply, "We were proud."
Nike sparked similarly breathless coverage recently after it announced the Nike Pro Hijab, the brand's first hijab for athletes and the first ever available on a mass-market scale, set to be released in early 2018. Accompanied by photos of the product's spokespeople—figure skater Zahra Lari, triathlete Manal Rostom and Olympic weightlifter Amna Al Haddad, all from the United Arab Emirates—the announcement garnered coverage everywhere from Us Weekly to the New York Times. "It shows all the world that hijabs don't stop you from playing sports," says Meawad. "Here in Egypt, it's normal."
"My reaction was, 'Oh, that's nothing new, the sports hijab has been around for decades,'" says triathlete Shirin Gerami, who made headlines last fall as the first Iranian woman to compete in the infamous Ironman World Championship. The press release bills the design as "groundbreaking," and cites how Al Haddad "had only one competition-worthy covering, so she had to hand wash it every night."
That story is reflective of the product's lack of international distribution, but it also ignores the fact that athletes have been competing in hijabs at the Olympics since 2004, when Bahrain's Ruqaya Al Ghasara competed in the 100-meter dash (she even earned a deal with Nike). "It's interesting that it's being presented as though Nike invented it, which of course is not true," adds Mara Gubuan, co-founder of the nonprofit Shirzanan, a U.S.-based group that advocates for Muslim women and girls in sports.
To pinpoint the inventor of the athletic hijab is as impossible as trying to identify the first woman ever to play a sport while wearing one, but the first person to design and market a performance-oriented hijab internationally was Dutch designer Cindy van den Bremen. Van den Bremen first designed hijabs for athletes in 1999 as a student at Design Academy Eindhoven after hearing about a Muslim girl who had been kicked out of gym class for wearing one. A court had determined that girls should wear a turtleneck and a swim cap instead, which they deemed to be functionally the same. "At the time, I thought it's not about the covering itself, it's about the way girls are covered," says van den Bremen. "I'm a designer, and I can bridge this gap."
The enthusiastic response to her designs prompted her to start Capsters in 2001. Today, the company sells eight styles internationally via its site, with resellers in 15 different countries.
Since then, companies all over the globe have offered options to Muslim women who want hijabs specifically designed for athletes, though the road has been far from easy.
"We stopped selling sportswear last year, because it was difficult for a small brand like ours to do global business," wrote Fatima Fakier, founder of Botswana-based Friniggi Sportswear, in an email to Bleacher Report. She founded the company in 2009 "because through sports, Muslim women can bring down barriers they face—such as hijab bans—and be represented in the wider community." Even beyond sports, Muslim veiling practices are still controversial. For instance, students in French public schools are not allowed to wear hijabs, an issue reignited by the country's controversial "burkini ban" in 2016.
Though Nike isn't the first, it is without question the biggest company to offer the garment and take on the inevitable political blowback. In a world where the legality of veiling is still debated and the United States is in the midst of a travel ban that many believe singles out Muslims, Nike surely understood its product would receive at least some level of scrutiny.
"Why now? Why did it take them this long? It's 2017—kind of sad that it took them so long to acknowledge us," says marathoner Rahaf Khatib, a 33-year-old from Farmington Hills, Michigan, who became the first hijabi woman to cover a U.S. fitness magazine last fall. "Some of my friends are angry, because they feel like Nike is trying to capitalize on this demographic and the political atmosphere." (It's accountable for 11 percent of global apparel sales in 2015, according to Thomson Reuters.) "They feel like it's really cool right now to have advertising about equality and diversity.
"Part of me thinks they're just trying to cash in."
In fact, van den Bremen says she brought her prototypes to Nike and other international brands after the initial buzz around her designs in the late '90s. "I had designed the hijabs to fit in the collections of leading brands in the first place, so I thought with all the publicity I got when I first started that I should go to them," she says. "But they told me to do it myself—they never gave me a reason, but I assume it was the sensitivity of the topic."
Now that Nike has joined the market, though, Muslim athletes hope the power of their money forces innovations in the world of what's called "modest activewear."
"Nike has the potential to use really high-tech fabrics, which could make a big difference," says Gerami. Meanwhile, Khatib wants more choices, both in hijabs and in conservative, performance-oriented clothing in general. "I mean, I don't wear the same hijab everyday, just like I don't wear the same underwear every day," she says. "I want to walk into a store and find selection of athletic hijabs in front of me, to have the option of trying them on, instead of just buying them online."
Currently, Gerami custom-designs her gear, and Khatib supplements the available athletic hijabs with makeshift alternatives: "I'll run in hoodies or anything that has some coverage...in winter, I run in balaclavas."
More broadly, the announcement could (and already has, to some extent) lend Muslim women exponentially more visibility as athletes. "The thing that Nike brings is huge marketing that the smaller companies already tackling this problem don't have," adds Gerami. Van den Bremen tries to negotiate de facto endorsements, but capital is an issue. "We've been talking to all the athletes that are involved with Nike now," she says, "but the only thing we can offer them is free hijabs—we can't offer them contracts."
Spokesmodels and glossy advertising can help to create a more nuanced understanding of Muslim culture as a whole, something that, even though it's inevitably about money, has rarely felt more timely. "If they sell their hijab properly, we should be seeing Muslim females splashed all over mainstream media," says Gubuan, who cites Nike's recent viral "What will they say about you?" ad as an example of how effectively the brand showed the diversity among Muslim women. (Nike confirmed to Ismaeel Naar of Al Arabiya that the clip was a preliminary part of the Pro Hijab campaign.)
"The hijab makes people visibly Muslim, so it's easy. But it's also wrong," Gubuan adds. "People need to understand that not all Muslim women cover. Nike's recent ad showed that, and it's important." Fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad garnered significant attention at the Rio Olympics as the first woman to compete for the United States in a hijab, while fellow Muslim-American Dalilah Muhammad's gold medal in the 400-meter hurdles (the first ever for a U.S. woman) got next to no press. Dalilah doesn't wear a hijab. "It disturbs me," says Gubuan. "I believe there was too much of a focus on [Ibtihaj's] hijab, and not on her athleticism."
Nike's most concrete impact, though, could come via the most mundane of means: The brand can't offer endorsement deals to athletes who have no place to play, which is still a reality for many Muslim women who compete in sports in which hijabs are banned. FIFA lifted its ban in 2014, and now Gubuan and her colleagues at Shirzanan are campaigning FIBA (the International Basketball Federation) to lift its ban on what it terms "headgear."
"I don't think these were deliberately discriminatory rules—many of them are decades old," says Gubuan. "They may have thought that women would never be weightlifting or playing basketball, period." Most recently, Shirzanan and Athlete's Ally published an open letter to FIBA demanding the ban be lifted, signed by everyone from Breanna Stewart to Billie Jean King.
Interestingly, Nike announced a partnership with FIBA in late February, including becoming "the official FIBA product partner spanning apparel, footwear and equipment."
"The fact that Nike and FIBA are in partnership is a signal to us that FIBA is very serious about including Muslim female athletes, that they're going to be opening up the game to include Muslim women," says Gubuan. The federation is slated to present a proposal from its Technical Commission about lifting the ban in May, though a vote on the same subject has already been postponed twice. The next Women's Basketball World Cup will be held in September 2018—a few months after the Pro Hijab is slated to hit stores.
Ironically, the mainstreaming of Muslim women in sports has taken a leap forward in the same moment when many of those very women face threats to their travel and traditional way of life.
"With the new administration, people are looking at this as a signal of inclusion, and that's what we need," says Gubuan. Van den Bremen adds, "Muslim women in sports still face barriers, but ultimately they're role models. Eventually, the hijab will not be as remarkable as it is right now."
For young Muslim athletes like Nada Meawad, though, the most important thing isn't what they're wearing, but what they're doing while they're wearing it. "I'm young now, so I'm probably going to continue playing until I'm like 60," she says, laughing. "It's very hard to get to the Olympics, but I hope I'll be back."