Amal Elmi suits up for basketball practice at her elementary school in Minneapolis. For the bespectacled 12-year-old girl, this process entails more than donning the standard t-shirt, shorts, socks, and sneakers ensemble. Elmi and her Muslim teammates, who account for about half the team, also wrap long headscarves around their heads and secure them with pins.
Some also wear long sleeves and leggings, but it’s the traditional Muslim headscarf that doesn’t stand up well to the rigors of the sport. It comes undone, gets sweaty, and, sometimes, the pin pokes the player’s head.
That’s why Elmi is relieved every time she plays at her local community center, where she and her friends are testers for a revolutionary new piece of sportswear: the athletic hijab.
Developed by a local startup called Asiya, Elmi proudly sports her prototype of the new headscarf when she plays at a local community center gym where Asiya co-founder Fatimah Hussein has been testing out the products.
“They feel amazing. They keep me cool. They don’t make me sweat as much as I used to. It’s comfortable and it covers my whole neck,” Elmi says.
Uniform rules regarding hijabs vary across state athletic high school leagues. In Minnesota, exceptions to uniform rules need to be requested in writing. In other words, every coach with hijab and headscarf-wearing athletes must write to the high school league to request an exemption on behalf of each athlete. While the requests seem to be universally approved, it’s a long process, Hussein says.
To help expedite the process, Asiya met with the league to showcase the new hijabs, and they were given blanket permission for girls to wear them in any sport—no pre-approval necessary. “They were happy to see this need being addressed, and were impressed with the work that we had done to ensure that the sports hijabs were not only comfortable for the athlete, but also adhered to the safety and uniform requirements set by the high school rule books,” she says.
Finding long-sleeve athletic tops and leggings to wear under uniforms is relatively easy, Hussein says. It’s the headscarves that are hard to find. The company, which will ship pre-orders in early 2017, is one of the only U.S.-based companies making athletic headscarves for young girls, though Sukoon and Veil produce somewhat similar products.
Instead of wrapping around, Asiya headscarves slip over the head using built-in headbands to stay in place. The scarf come in three styles: Lite, a simple cap that covers the ears; Sport, a headpiece that covers the neck and slips under a uniform top; and Fit, a full-length scarf that flows over a uniform.
“We tried over 80 different sorts of material,” Hussein says, settling on a stretchy, wicking, breathable fabric.
Hussein and her colleagues may be onto something huge. The mega-sports brands aren’t in the market, even in Muslim-dominant countries. An Adidas spokesperson confirmed the company does not make athletic headscarves, and Nike doesn’t currently doesn’t have plans to develop them, although a spokesman tells GOOD, “We’re committed to creating the best product innovations for athletes everywhere.”
Still, the Asiya co-founders aren’t planning on quitting their day jobs. (Hussein is a social worker and co-founder Jamie Glover is a full-time MBA student.) They’re just passionate about girls playing sports.
“I grew up playing sports, played volleyball and softball through college, and realized that as I began working my way up in my career, that many of the leadership skills that I was leveraging were built on the court or on the field in my youth,” Glover says. “So I am passionate about helping girls, regardless of religion, have the opportunity to participate in sports and develop invaluable skills that will translate to future success.”
Part of that passion also comes from Hussein’s own history with having to drop out of sports because of the simple barrier of fabric. In the mid 2000s, she says, there weren’t any hijab-wearing girls playing varsity basketball at her Minneapolis high school. Looking back, she wonders if there were subtle barriers that kept her from continuing her basketball career, including the lack of an athletic hijab.
“I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time,” she says, referring to the long, rectangular hijab that she kept in place with pins. “But now I can see why I lost interest. It didn’t match exactly the uniform. It didn’t feel sporty. It was designed to look pretty and cover your head.”
A 2011 study published in Qualitative Research in Sport, Exercise and Health on East African immigrant girls playing sports confirmed that Hussein was not alone. Girls told researchers at the University of Minnesota that they wanted culturally specific uniforms, and that the need to be fully covered “made it difficult to be physically active.”
One study respondent said, “Sometimes the coaches, you know, they get tired of us because of our culture, because of the way we play, because we can’t take our hijab off, so they’re like, ‘This is so stupid, you’re not even trying’ and then they start yelling.”
While it’s not known exactly how many Muslim girls play sports, one study from England showed that Muslim women have the lowest participation rates (18 percent) of any religion.
Anecdotally, there’s been only one Division 1 basketball player—former University of Memphis and Indiana State guard Bilqis Abdul-Qaadir—to play in a hijab, Glover points out, and only one American Olympian to wear a hijab. Recently, 16-year-old Amaiya Zafar wasn’t allowed to compete at the Sugar Bert Boxing National Championships in Kissimmee, Florida, because she was wearing a hijab—a uniform violation of the International Boxing Association. Her opponent shared the victory belt with the girl, saying she didn’t feel the decision was fair.
“Our mission is that all girls feel comfortable when playing sports,” Hussein says. “They should not be worrying about what they’re wearing; they should be worrying about the game. Clothes should be the last thing they think about. Growing up, I know the important skills I gained in sports were teamwork and confidence.”
For Elmi, it’s a little simpler. “It’s fun,” she says. “I just like playing my sport.”