Three years ago, Tasnim, Eren and I wrote reviews of “Do Muslim Women Need Saving?” by Columbia University Anthropologist, Dr. Lila Abu-Lughod. After reading the book, we all felt it was an intelligent and necessary analysis of how Western societies often perceive Muslim women, not only in the Global South but in the West, too. At the centre of Dr. Abu-Lughod’s analysis are the discourses, often cited by politicians, organizations, governments, institutions and private companies, claiming to “help” and/or “save” Muslim women from their cultures and religion, as well as the men in their communities. These discourses, however, often fail to fully understand the obstacles Muslim women encounter in different settings.
In her excellent book, Abu-Lughod also explains how understanding systems of oppression – including sexism, racism and gendered Islamophobia – is crucial in finding solutions to problems faced by Muslim women. At the heart of this, is the need for allies to amplify and listen to Muslim women’s voices.
Very regularly, I write about solidarity and the voices of Muslim women in the context of sports.
I have often opined and reflected on so-called “allies,” who feel as if their words and actions are helpful when, in fact, they only contribute to a cycle that ignores the voices of Muslim women – which absolutely includes mainstream media. This is fairly common in the world of sports because most major federations and governing bodies of sport do not have any representation of Muslim women, whatsoever. As far as mainstream media goes, there are a handful of Muslim women working in the sports media world. We are here and often pushing ourselves forward. I risk being called naive when I hope for a time when Muslim women will be contacted or consulted on sports stories that are about Muslim women. Specifically when certain media outlets are ill-equipped to write about us.
Last week, for instance, Nike revealed that it’s Pro Hijab was released worldwide. Mainstream sports media was elated with excitement and hope. Now, according to them, Muslim women could actually play sports! Muslim women could actually participate in active, healthy living! And most inaccurately, Nike has self-proclaimed to have created “the first” sports hijab for women. Wait … what?
On the sidelines, Muslim women are actually saying “um, no,” but are being spoken over as boisterous headlines declared this new product from Nike as a huge win Just be quiet, Muslim women. Nike has a hijab for you. So we will report that you can now play sports.
I am an unadulterated fan of any article of clothing that helps women gain access to sport. Anything that helps women feel comfortable, if they choose to wear it. In my experience researching Muslim women’s clothing and the world of sports, I can say that after cost limitations and unjust policies that don’t allow for clothing accommodation, lack of modest equipment and clothing is a factor that prevents women from engaging in sports.
But I am also a huge fan of the Muslim women who *have* been competing in hijab for a long time. And yes, long before Nike burst onto the scene.
Nike explained, in a media release, that the company was in the process of designing a sports hijab, and that they were consulting with such incredible women including American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, Egyptian runner and fitness guru Manal Rostom, and Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari. Of course, the response was very positive because having Muslim women athletes’ input is crucial and necessary for a the product to meet the needs and be worn by Muslim women engaged in different sports.
However, the problem is Nike’s erasure of the past and the fact that Muslim women have actually been working on this for two decades and, before that, they came up with their own ideas for sports hijabs when these were not easily available. Luckily, The Guardian gave me a place to write about this, and I could share my research and knowledge on the topic. I have also spent time doing interviews about the history of sports hijabs with women journalists at media outlets in the Middle East, to highlight Muslim women’s leadership in addressing their own barriers in their own settings.
The idea that Nike is responsible for providing women an opportunity to participate in sports is ridiculous. Muslim women have been at the forefront of the battle for access forever. The Muslim Women’s Sports Foundation in the UK, for example, has been working on providing Muslim women opportunities and access to sports events, coaching, training and various activities since 2001.
The media is presenting the release of the Pro Hijab as some type of brilliant solution to a problem mainstream media outlets might not actually fully grasp. The lack of inclusive policies is still a huge issue for women in boxing. Earlier this year, I interviewed American Muslim boxer Amaiya Zafar, who is still not allowed to compete widely because of a hijab ban in boxing. A Nike Pro Hijab will not be helpful to Zafar if she can’t even compete in the sport she loves. If she is so blatantly excluded, what she wears is, frankly, irrelevant. The International Boxing Association (AIBA) does not permit women to fight with hijab. And this is an ongoing battle.
The irony is that, in releasing the Pro Hijab, Nike featured German Muslim boxer Zeina Nassar as a model for the product. Nassar, a Nike Athlete, lists her accomplishments as a three-time boxchampion of Berlin and a bronze medallist of Germany. Zafar is still not allowed to fight but, in the meantime, Nike (who have yet to release ANY statement on the exclusion of Muslim women from boxing) are featuring a hijab-clad boxer.
INTRODUCING THE NIKE PRO HIJAB!!
Sport is for everyone!! Nike NikeWomen #prohijab #revolution ♥👊
Posted by Zeina Nassar on Monday, December 4, 2017
As one of the most influential sports brand in the world, it might be helpful for Nike to advocate for Muslim women in a way that goes beyond them profiting from a hijab that starts at $40 CAD. The product is cost prohibitive for many, but the attraction will also be for the name brand: the swoosh.
The validation that comes from a company like Nike, undoubtedly a powerhouse in global sportswear, featuring Muslim athletes is important. But the narratives of Muslim women cannot be separated from their challenges, which still include exclusion in sports, racism and misogyny.
It is also important to look at the ways that Nike is severely problematic. Previously, I wrote a piece for MMW about the lack of Black Muslim women in a recent Nike commercial . It featured Middle Eastern athletes doing really cool things. Of course, Nike’s marketing budget is astronomical and the imagery was powerful. But it was also lacking any representation of Afro-Arabs. If Muslims want to embrace a major sports brand, let’s at least make sure it encapsulates the women it is supposed to represent. Yes, Nike has Ibtihaj Muhammad as an ambassador of the new Pro Hijab, but Black Muslim women athletes don’t only exist in the USA. They are located around the world and should be seen as such.
Nike announced that they would be selling the Pro Hijab worldwide as of December 1, 2017. This is ahead of the originally scheduled Spring 2018 release that was supposed to happen in the Middle East only. It seems as though interest has peaked for many people, and while I applaud the attention and focus on marginalized and racialized women in sports, their needs as a community must be addressed: inclusion, funding and access to sport still remain a huge hurdle. Some, I hope, after Nike is finished selling hijabs, might try to delve into if they truly consider themselves “allies” to Muslim women.
As Dr. Abu Lughod wrote, “This book is about what lies behind such deceptively simple responses to problems we think we already understand or believe that we should act on even before we understand.” Hence, from my perspective, the solution to systemic sexism is not to create a brand name product; but rather, it is to listen to Muslim women and support them in their quest for justice in sports – with or without a swoosh.