In March 2017, Nike became the first major brand to launch its own hijab for female athletes. Two years on and the Nike Pro Hijab has changed the lives of many Muslim women, opening up opportunities for participation that once seemed out of reach.
It may be a small piece of performance clothing, but the Nike Pro Hijab has made major waves across the world since its inception. Manal Rostom, an Egyptian marathon runner and founder of the ‘Surviving Hijab’ movement, was one of the first to get her hands on a prototype.
Rostom’s background made her an ideal candidate to become one of the faces of the product in its inaugural advertising campaign.
“I launched the Surviving Hijab Facebook group in 2014 because I wanted to help empower Muslim hijabi women around the world,” Rostom tells Sport Industry insider. “I wanted to prevent discrimination. I thought to myself, why should hijabi women stay in the dark? Why should they not be allowed to swim in a pool or lie on a beach?
“Why should they have to deal with LinkedIn job posts saying ‘strictly no hijabs’? This is what we saw and we still see. Are you saying that a woman is only good enough if she shows off her beauty in order to be able to perform at the workplace? That should offend non-hijabi women as much as hijabi women.”
The group became a place where hijabi women could share their stories and discuss how they could change perceptions. It began to grow from a forum into a movement and the release of the Nike Pro Hijab was met with delight as a sporting and social game changer.
“We may not have played a role in the design but I like to think that our voices were heard and that led Nike to develop the product. We sparked the conversation about the inclusivity of Muslim women and to have a global multinational company like Nike to develop a product for hijabi women was a huge moment.
“I’ve always loved sport but even growing up in this region I was presented with the image of a girl doing exercise wearing tiny shorts and an exercise bra, jumping around with her ponytail,” Rostom recalls. “Obviously this didn’t fit with my own image but I didn’t see anyone wearing modest clothing doing exercise.
“Then in 2017, Roy Nasrallah [then-marketing director of Nike Middle East] – called me and said, ‘I need to show you something that will potentially change your life’. I went to the Nike office and when he pulled out the hijab I got so emotional.”
The Nike Pro Hijab was welcomed with open arms by sports-loving Muslim women and Rostom believes that the product has had a positive impact on participation.
“There was a meme that came out right after it hit the market of this girl saying, ‘This is horrible – I’ve been using the hijab as an excuse not to exercise for years and now they made this’. It was funny but perhaps there was an element of truth – some women may have been deterred.
“Previously if you did sport you just had to try to make it work. Before the Nike Pro Hijab came out, I completed a couple of marathons. At one point I ran in a three-piece hijab – which feels like you’re suffocating.
“Now, you can put on the Nike Pro Hijab in less than six seconds and then you’re ready to go and play basketball, play soccer or run. It might not always look great – you do look like a penguin sometimes – but it has saved so many people’s lives because now there is no excuse; you are ready to go.”
Rostom’s personal profile has grown substantially over the past few years and she continues to play a major role in changing perceptions with a string of remarkable achievements.
She was the first Arab athlete to have her story told on the Nike+ Run Club app, the first Egyptian woman to summit Mont Blanc, and earlier this year led an expedition of 14 women to Everest Base Camp under the banner of Surviving Hijab. Rostom has also spoken at the global headquarters of both Nike and Facebook, receiving personal support for her efforts from Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg.
Among her many endeavours, Rostom is currently on the road to becoming the first Egyptian to run all of the world’s major marathons. For her, the concept of role models is vital to help instill confidence and belief in young Muslim women.
“Initially my focus was on representing Nike in the hijab but I quickly realised it was way bigger than that. I knew I had to run these marathons. We all know the Beyonce song but for me to have come from that Arabic conservative family and be able to say ‘I’m literally running the world’ – this is a metaphor that means a lot.
“But the story is not about me. It is what I stand for. It’s about encouraging young Muslim women to break the mould and achieve their goals. Whether it is being an athlete or a rocket scientist. I didn’t have an iconic Muslim figure to point to or admire growing up but now young girls have more and more people to look up to. People like [US Olympic fencer] Ibtihaj Muhammad and [German boxer] Zeina Nassar are inspirational.”
Both Nassar and Muhammad are Nike athletes but the sportswear giant is no longer alone in producing clothing for Muslim women. The likes of H&M and Gap are among other global brands to release modest fashion lines recently, while adidas is currently working on its own sports line for female Muslim athletes.
“Whatever happens, we should be grateful that Nike took the first step,” Rostom says. “Since then it has been a domino effect but it needs one brave person to stand up and say, ‘look, we need change’. We want to get to the stage that it is a comfortable part of society that isn’t even newsworthy.
“I would love to reach a point when I will not be invited to speak anymore because it is no longer worthy of comment that I’m doing everything in the hijab. It’s changing, of course, but we still have a long road ahead.”