At a cross country race in middle school — one or two years after senior Salma Sheriff began wearing the hijab — a boy from another school approached Sheriff and asked her a question.
“How can you even walk around like this, much less run?”
Sheriff, who was wearing long sleeves, leggings and a headscarf in the hot weather, told the boy that that was just how she dressed.
“I wasn’t very good with strangers so as soon as he came up to me I got a little defensive,” Sheriff said. “And I was kind of suspicious of him like why is he asking me this? Does he have any ill intentions, other motives, Islamophobia?”
Experiences like this are not uncommon for Sheriff. As a Muslim athlete who competes wearing a hijab, she is used to standing out. At cross country races, adults sometimes approach Sheriff and ask her if it’s difficult to wear a headscarf or tell her they’re amazed she can keep up with the other runners with a headscarf on.
But this may change after Nike’s March 7 announcement of its new product, the Nike Pro Hijab, which will be released in early 2018. Although athletic hijabs are nothing new — smaller brands have been making them for years — Nike made waves in the news and on social media with its Pro Hijab because it’s the first time a global manufacturer is making clothing tailored specifically for Muslim athletes.
To freshman softball player Sundus Dwidar, Nike’s new product represents a meaningful gesture to the Muslim community.
“I think it’s great that a huge, nationwide brand is developing something that is very … inclusive to all religions and all athletes,” Dwidar said. “When a big brand does something like that, it means something to people.”
But reactions to the Pro Hijab haven’t all been positive. Although MVHS athletes such as Dwidar and Sheriff back the cause, Nike has received backlash on social media for supporting patriarchy and capitalizing on the oppression of women. Because women are forced to wear the hijab in some areas of the world, some people see the hijab as something which suppresses women and Nike’s decision to make a hijab product as a sign of acceptance of this oppression. Some have even vowed to never buy Nike products again after the announcement of the Pro Hijab.
However, Sheriff believes the Pro Hijab is beneficial for countries where women are limited by patriarchy because of the opportunities the product gives for women to pursue sports.
“That a major brand is making hijabs is like first, women can be athletes and second, Muslim women can be athletes,” Sheriff said.
Muslim girls typically start wearing the hijab around the age of puberty, according to sophomore field hockey player Hira Ali. For Ali, this was in 7th grade. At the time, she played one sport outside of school and putting on the hijab took time to get used to both in her athletic and personal life.
“It was definitely a difficult adjustment. Not just because of sports, but just in general, like, how people reacted to it,” Ali said. “And definitely when I was playing sports, there’s a lot of questions about like ‘oh how do you handle wearing a scarf and playing sports.’ But honestly, it isn’t that difficult. It’s just a matter of getting used to it.”
Sheriff faced a similar experience when she began wearing the hijab in sixth grade. She didn’t tell anyone besides her parents about her decision. Sheriff simply showed up to middle school orientation with the hijab on, but didn’t say anything about it because she was worried about others’ reactions.
“I was kind of scared of criticism because even though they were my friends I didn’t really talk about religion much with them,” Sheriff said. “So I decided to just put it on and not ask anyone about it first. I didn’t want anything negative because otherwise I might second guess my choice.”
Maintaining both the religious aspect and the athletic aspect can be challenging at times. For Ali, sometimes the scarf gets in the way of seeing the ball or it’s a hassle when the weather is extremely hot, but according to her, the hijab doesn’t really affect her actual athletic ability.
“I try not to make excuses in the sense that just because I’m wearing more clothing and if I’m more hot or sweating more doesn’t mean that I’m not as capable as other athletes,” Ali said. “And so the main thing is not making excuses and if other people are doing conditioning, then you should be doing conditioning too no matter what you’re wearing.”
Ali and Sheriff aren’t sure if they’ll buy the Pro Hijab yet; for them, it depends on improvements in the design such as having it longer in the front to provide more coverage or having it stay on without being too tight. Ali normally wears scarves that dangle and has to use her field hockey goggle strap to keep her scarf in place. Since the Pro Hijab is one piece, Ali thinks it wouldn’t get in the way of moving around as much and the breathable fabric would control temperature while exercising. Dwidar, however, plans to buy the Pro Hijab more for the cause it represents than for the impact on her athletic performance.
“It’s important that when you see something that’s right, to support the cause so people know that it’s not going to waste, the idea isn’t a waste,” Dwidar said.
Dwidar and Ali hope that Nike’s new product will normalize the sight of athletes competing with the hijab on. Ali has encountered people who think that those who wear the hijab don’t have a place in sports, despite their recent participation in global arenas like the 2016 Olympic Games.
“There obviously have been instances where people think you shouldn’t be able to play a sport [because]the scarf isn’t part of the uniform,” Ali said. “Because if you get injured and they can’t take off your scarf or something like that, a lot of officials make that as an excuse. But I haven’t dealt with that too much recently in terms of field hockey or weight training. But other sports do make that a big deal even though I don’t think it is a big deal.”
To Ali, the Pro Hijab represents a big step in opening up athletics to Muslim athletes like herself. She knows some people who wear the hijab who are hesitant to go into athletics, but hopes this will change and encourage Muslims to be more confident about wearing a scarf. Similarly, Sheriff sees the Pro Hijab as something which makes a bold statement about accepting Islamic culture.
“I feel like it’s bringing together something that’s really popular, Nike, and something that is often very controversial…Islam, and bringing it together,” Sheriff said. “And if someone were to go out and wear the Nike Pro Hijab, I think [it’s just] like the picture of the woman wearing the American flag as a hijab.”
Additional reporting by Akshara Majjiga.