Brown women fiercely running, jumping and giving championship level side-eye. All of this is set to intense music and certainly an effective method of drawing in viewers- particularly from a corporate giant like Nike. The Nike brand has reached all corners of the earth and the Middle East and North African (MENA) region is no exception.
Promoting the idea of women from the MENA region as tenacious athletes has not often been easy. Dominant depictions of Muslim women as subservient and oppressed women are an erasure of their efforts in those regions. There is a strong history of women in MENA and some of their recent athletic achievements are formidable. But there have also been very real challenges for some women in Muslim-majority spaces not only in playing and competing in sports but also in even accessing sports as a spectator.
But while pushing forward and challenging antiquated notions of what athleticism is for Arab and Muslim women, are we being deceived by capitalist agendas and savvy media that excludes much of the female population?
Major sports companies are starting to realize that there is a huge market in Muslim-majority countries and that Muslim women who are part of over 1 billion people on earth and hold a huge potential as consumers of their products. Hummel recently featured a specialized hijab as part of their design for Afghanistan’s football kits. Emirati weightlifter Amna Al Haddad modeled Nike gear while working out in a short films on sport and Egyptian Manal Rostom is a Nike Ambassador and running coach living in the Gulf region.
Adidas has also featured British-Muslim boxer Ruqsana Begum as part short documentary series called “Creativity”. Begum’s ad explains how she was the only woman in a men’s gym and how she created a space for other Muslim women to join her. She has recently launched a line of modest sportswear for Muslim women.
A couple weeks ago, the internet exploded when Nike Middle East released a new video featuring Arab women training and fiercely engaging in sports. In less than two days, the video was shared more than 75 000 times on Twitter and now has garnered over 1.5 million views on YouTube from the Nike Women channel. The athletes featured are from various parts of MENA including Jordan, UAE and Tunisia. The ad is incredibly well done. It is captivating, powerful and the brown-skinned athletes are performing a variety of feats including high level parkour athletes, intense boxing, riding a skateboard and showing off incredible ball-handling skills on a soccer pitch. There is also a woman dressed in traditional Saudi Arabian clothes riding a horse in a desert scene. And they are beautifully sweaty and seem to be able-bodied.
But not everyone was thrilled with Nike’s new sporty empowerment advertisement.There was resistance to the ad and criticism from people who argued that the premise of the ad didn’t make sense.
In ads featuring women in sport in the MENA region, there are seldom women featured who are disabled. This ad is no different, which is unfortunate considering there are formidable female Paralympians from the MENA region. They have been competing in international mega events since 1972. There are there brilliant stories of women from the Middle East including Iranian Paralympian archer Zahra Nemati, or the record breaking Egytpian powerlifter Fatma Omar. Nor were there any athletes eligible for the the Special Olympics from the Arab world featured in the campaign. Extremely bizarre since the next Special Olympic Games will be held in 2019 in the United Arab Emirates, exact same country where the Nike spot was filmed.
Another glaring omission from the ad was any representation of Black Arabs in the selection of the cast. Although the spot was to focus on Arab women from the entire region, there was not a single Black Arab women among them. The exclusion of Afro-Arab women is extremely problematic.
Asma Elbadawi is a basketball player, coach, activist and poet from Sudan. Elbadawi grew up in the United Kingdom but I reached her in Khartoum. She was disappointed to see no representation of Black Arabs from the region in the Nike ad. She pointed out that there is a strong presence of sports in Sudan, a country full of Black Muslims.
“It goes to show they [Nike] don’t have an understanding of race,” she said over the phone. “If it’s another campaign, then they need to include women of all Arab races, Sudanese women, Libyan, Kuwaitis, Qataris, Jordanians- basically everything- or at least different shades, different people… with different colour skin. And with different hijab styles to kind of show that basically the MENA region is very diverse.”
In a conversation with Ad Week from Egypt, Malaka Refai pointed out that the ad was positive and reflected well the realities of hijab-wearing women and also those who do not choose to cover. I have written about media biases toward hijab-wearing athletes before. However, Refai noted that the women featured in the ad probably came from a “high socio-economic status” and did not face as many financial challenges as other women in the MENA region. “The runner is [relatable] to all women because running is accessible and cheap—but few alleys in the Arab world would be as empty as the one in the ad,” she said.
“In terms of class, some of it is how wealthy you are,” Elbadawi added. “In Sudan, you get kids in International schools because of curriculum is from England or America. But normal local schools, sports is considered a waste of time. People can not afford extra curricular activities outside of school. So they try to invest in kids education and work toward academics instead of sports or arts etc.”
In an attempt to reach out to Arab women and inspire them in sports, it is important to recognize that the lives of women are globally intertwined. The struggles of women in the MENA region to access sports or to get support from many levels is very real. But while companies like Nike are telling their stories, it is crucial to look at the company critically. Nike has been accused of Human Rights abuses against factory employees, many of them women in developing countries in Asia. There were reports of workers in Indonesia (another Muslim-majority nation) earning as little as 14 cents an hour and allegations of Nike paying military to intimidate workers into accepting less than minimum wage.
While promoting the freedom and mobility of Arab sportswomen is very important, it might be important to consider the type of company one is promoting and what those ethics are. Does amplifying the message of Arab women’s empowerment have to be a burden for poor Muslim factory workers to carry? It could be argued that Nike has cleaned up their image and business practices considerably and now publishes a report on the condition of its factories in order to maintain accountability and transparency.
But there needs to be progress on many levels. Understanding the complexities of the lives of Arab women is crucial when marketing to them. A clear absence of Black Arabs is definitely not going represent the region properly.
One of the very first ads in mainstream sports featuring identifiable Muslim women (Egyptian soccer players were the athletes) was from Nike and I must say that it completely excited me. Representation matters and I had not seen a hijab in a ad spot ever.
That being said, now that there are prominent Arab athletes getting global attention, it is time to shine a light on so many different athletes from that region. Not just those aiming for the big leagues but also exemplifying the differences in age, ability and race. The most recent ad from “This Girl Can“ campaign that I had previously been critical of for its lack of diversity did an excellent job in showcasing different races, ages and abilities.
“There are so many heroes in the communities that take place in sports that no one knows about and these are the people that should be, I think, in campaigns,” Edbadawi emphasizes. “The focus shouldn’t be on the people who have made it professionally or made it to such a high level. Because as Muslim women we might hope to aspire to that there are other people who will never be able to play professionally so they need someone they can relate to, someone who plays locally and just for fun, they can see themselves in that. So many people think it’s ‘all or nothing’ but there is another way and it can be a hobby you enjoy. That would be a good campaign- for us.”
The Nike ad certainly gets our feelings pumped as we are excited to see vibrant and powerful images of Arab women on screen. But the sensation is dampened when we realize the classist, racist and ableist ways the message can be interpreted. Is Nike only trying to sell gear or also amplify the stories of Arab women in sport? If it is the latter then there needs to be a reassessment of who the athletes are in that region. Because from the response, we know that these short features are extremely effective in drawing attention to women in sport. But perhaps in the future, Nike Middle East can “Just do it” – better.