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‘We couldn’t be ignored’: Muslim weightlifter defends Nike’s hijab launch

Sarah Attar enters the stadium during Opening Ceremonies of the London 2012 Olympics. (Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)
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One of the female athletes who inspired Nike to create a specially designed hijab has defended both the product and timing of its launch after the athletic-wear company faced criticism last week.

“With the Nike Pro Hijab Launch, I do realize there is a lot of mixed reactions as to why Nike decided to create such a product ‘now,’ ” United Arab Emirates athlete Amna Al Haddad wrote on Instagram. Al Haddad was slated to compete in the Rio Olympics last summer, but had to sit out due to injury.

“From my perspective as a former athlete who competed in Hijab, in the past, the big brands didn’t see the need or market for it as it was not ‘popular’ and it was unheard of to see women train, exercise and compete in hijab,” she continued. “It is a recent phenomenon where more women have expressed a need for it and more professional athletes have fought for rights to compete with a headscarf, and have an equal playing field. We made it big in the news, we couldn’t be ignored.”

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Nike saw that underserved market in the growing number of Muslim women who work out and compete in sports and announced plans last week to launch a specially-designed hijab in spring 2018.

The “Nike Pro Hajib” was inspired, the company says, by Al Haddad, as well as Sarah Attar, a runner from Saudi Arabia who competed in the London Olympics 800-meter race while wearing a hijab.

“We worked with Amna and a variety of other athletes to see what they needed and wanted in a performance hijab,” a spokeswoman told Al Arabiya English. “What we heard was that women were looking for a lightweight and breathable solution that would stay in place without concern of shifting.”

Muslim women are determined to compete while covered

In addition to covering Muslim athletes, the garments feature an elongated back so that the tops do not become untucked during competition.

The reaction to the gear has been mixed, with some Muslim women questioning the placement of the omnipresent swoosh on the headgear.

The latest criticism came in the wake of a controversial ad Nike released late last month in the Middle East that shows Muslim women partaking in sports and asks “what will they say about you.” One of those shown is a Muslim woman running in a hijab as an older woman and man look on. The ad was a viral sensation, with more than 2 million views.

Among those featured is Zahra Lari, a figure skater from the United Arab Emirates who is part of Nike’s ad campaign.

“People may think or tell you that you can’t do certain things, but I’m going to show them you absolutely can,” Lari told Vogue Arabia. “I am covered, I am Muslim, I am from a desert country, and I’m doing a winter sport.”

Tunisian fencer and Olympics medalist Ines Boubakri, Emirati Parkour trainer Amal Mourad, Saudi singer Balqees Fathi and Jordanian boxer Arifa Bseiso are also featured in the ad.

The commercial and hijab launch are a timely combination of empowerment and merchandising as more Muslim women than ever pursue athletics. In addition, Nike wields a great deal of influence in sports, which is important at a time when not all sports allow women to compete in hijabs.

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“There are a lot of … women and girls who are breaking barriers,” Nike+ Run Club Coach Manal Rostom told Vogue Arabia. “For me growing up, though, I never had these women to look up to. I had to break these barriers for myself.”

Now Nike is helping normalize hijab-wearing athletes, weightlifter Al Haddad insinuated in her Instagram.

“They know that we are here to stay and decided to join the party,” she said of Nike. “As an innovative company, they will create products and they will meet market needs — whatever they may be.”

This article was updated to correct Amna Al Haddad’s role in the Rio Olympics. Al Haddad helped organize the team, but could not compete due to injury.