“It’s part of our world — including people,” said Jones, who has been with the franchise for 24 years. “I like it. It says to me: ‘We include you. You’re part of this.’ ”
The Raptors unveiled their team-specific Nike Hijab Pro on Friday with a promotional video, becoming the first NBA team to license officially branded hijabs. In the days since, the headwear has inspired reaction across North America but especially among the Muslim community in greater Toronto, which numbers more than 400,000, according to the latest census data in 2011.
“People who aren’t Raptors fans or who aren’t Muslims or who aren’t female are seeing this as a step in the right direction for multiculturalism in Toronto and celebrating diversity,” said Amreen Kadwa, a founder of the Hijabi Ballers, the Muslim women’s basketball group that was founded in 2017 and plays every Sunday in Toronto.
Sports governing bodies have been slow to embrace the hijab. Until a rule change in 2017, head coverings, including the hijab and Jewish yarmulkes, were banned by the International Basketball Federation (FIBA) because of concerns that they might pose safety risks during game play. A Change.org petition, which was accompanied by the “#FIBAAllowHijab” campaign, received more than 132,000 signatures in support of Muslim women athletes. Similarly, the International Soccer Federation (FIFA) banned head coverings until 2014, a rule that restricted the Iranian women’s team from competing in multiple international tournaments.
The idea to conceive and sell the hijab was a “Raptors-led initiative,” according to an NBA spokesperson, but the league, which has focused on tolerance and diversity under Commissioner Adam Silver, expressed no reservations. Although it’s not clear whether other NBA and WNBA teams will follow suit with their own versions, executives from both leagues have prioritized creating products that appeal to their global fan bases and to their diverse player pools. The feedback from the NBA has been “very supportive and positive,” said Jerry Ferguson, senior director for marketing for Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment, the Raptors’ parent group.
In May, as the Raptors were advancing in the playoffs en route to the NBA championship, Ferguson read a newspaper feature about the Hijabi Ballers and wanted to know what the group thought of wearing a Raptors-branded hijab. The players liked it and agreed to appear in the promotional video.
“We think it’s beautiful film that shines a bright, beautiful spotlight on those young women who are playing basketball,” said Ferguson, who also asked the Hijabi Ballers to assist with some messaging through the large Muslim community, many of whom have become Raptors fans.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims praised the Hijabi Ballers for inspiring the Raptors.
“One of the beautiful things about sports is that everyone can play,” Mustafa Farooq, the council’s executive director, told the Associated Press. “We thank the Raptors for taking this step.”
Jones, the team broadcaster, is also a former elementary school principal, and he said he foresees the message of including others filtering down through schools in Canada.
“You can now have kids in grades five and six playing in their school tournaments wearing them. Why? Because Nike and the Raptors have said it’s okay,” he said. “Before, people who didn’t know or who didn’t accept would look and say, ‘Why is that kid wearing that?’ Now it’s a powerful endorsement.”
About a half-hour drive west of Toronto in the suburb of Mississauga, Heba Mousa has already seen such benefits. Her 14-year-old daughter was concerned about volleyball tryouts because she was set to wear a hijab for the first time. But she felt better after watching the video featuring the Hijabi Ballers. Her mother took her to a Nike outlet, where there was only one hijab left.
“She was really worried about wearing a hijab because she really wanted to continue to pursue playing volleyball,” Mousa said of her daughter. “It’s nice to see other role models on social media who have decided to continue to wear or start wearing a hijab.”
Shireen Ahmed, a member of the Hijabi Ballers’ advisory board and a sportswriter, activist and podcaster, said having the item sold by the massively popular, title-winning Raptors certainly helps, too.
“There are high school teams and varsity teams in the U.S. and Canada that have purchased sports hijabs to match their uniforms, but this is a pro sports teams selling merchandise,” she said. “I am not surprised it was the Raptors because this is one of the places where this will fly. But I hope it is really something that other leagues take note of. I’d really love to see the WNBA do it.”
The WNBA has not had a player request to wear a hijab during games, but the league would allow it, according to people familiar with the matter.
Ferguson, the Raptors marketing executive, said he wanted the team to represent more of its fans.
“This is why this thinking makes this so powerful and special,” Ferguson said.
Even though a pro basketball team is selling the product, the Nike hijab has found buyers in other sports since it first hit shelves in 2017.
When she’s sparring and in competition, Lareb Hussain, a boxer in Toronto, puts a scarf around her head with the head gear atop. In training, she wears a hat known as a toque, but she said that’s “sweaty and gross,” so she is looking forward to trying this new hijab under her head gear.
“This will open up the field of sports for women who wear the hijab,” Hussain said. “There’s a whole range of combat arts that involve Muslim women around the world. We’re part of this whole society of Muslim female fighters.”
Mehnaaz Bholat also sees possibility in the new hijab. She didn’t play basketball in high school because her parents wouldn’t allow her to wear shorts, which would go against her religious views by displaying her legs. Now a 29-year-old mother of two, she wears track pants and a hijab when playing with the Hijabi Ballers, which she joined this year.
“I wish I had a girl so she could see all this,” said Bholat, who has 4-year-old and 19-month-old boys. “But I hope when my boys grow up they will see that sports are not just meant for boys and that being Muslim doesn’t stop you from playing sports.”
Ben Golliver in Los Angeles contributed to this report.