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Female athlete wearing the Nike Pro Hijab. Photo courtesy Nike

Muslim female athletes wear hijabs. Until now, no major athletic company made them.

Nike unveiled a new piece of performance gear this week: the first athletic hijab produced by a major athletic apparel company.

The Nike Pro Hijab, in development for a year, was designed using feedback from Muslim athletes who wear the headscarf.

Nike has increased outreach to women in the Middle East recently. The company last month put out an advertisement featuring women from different parts of the Arab world. Some women in the ad wore hijabs.

For female Muslim athletes, donning a headscarf can present various challenges. Amna Al Haddad, a weightlifter from the United Arab Emirates who met with designers at Nike World Headquarters, described the difficulty she experienced managing the weight and shiftiness of the hijab, according to the company. Moreover, she would lose her focus if the hijab fabric was not breathable enough. Because of those factors, she had found only one hijab suitable for competition.

Some women must still choose between their sport and their religious observance. Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer, was the first American hijab-wearing athlete to compete at the Olympics this past summer. But had she chosen a career in basketball, she would not have had that option in Rio, as the International Basketball Federation, also known as FIBA, prohibits headgear like hijabs on the grounds that they “may cause injury to other players.” The international governing body of basketball has been under pressure from the Council on American-Islamic Relations and others to permanently allow players to wear hijabs and other religious headgear at all levels of competition.

Up until 2014, the International Federation of Association Football, more commonly referred to as FIFA, banned headcoverings for soccer players. On various occasions, Muslim women and Sikh men, who also cover their hair, had to sit out of games. Following widespread backlash, FIFA launched a trial in 2012 and rescinded the ban two years later.

Ibtihaj Muhammad (USA) of USA celebrates winning her match.

American fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad celebrates winning her match at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Photo by REUTERS/Lucy Nicholson

To create a distinctly athletic hijab, Nike recruited both elite sports players and everyday exercisers from the Middle East to test various prototypes. The final product is a pull-on, lightweight but opaque headscarf.

The new piece of gear will be widely available starting early next year. Figure skater Zahra Lari, also from the U.A.E., is one pro athlete who already uses the Nike hijab.

But the impact goes beyond the pro-sports world, by offering everyday female Muslim consumers greater choice and visibility.

Rowaida Abdelaziz was born in Egypt and grew up running and playing basketball. When she moved to the United States, she joined track and field and basketball teams. But American uniforms did not meet the conservative requirements of her faith. As a result, she had to wear pants under running shorts and long sleeve shirts under tank tops.

Abdelaziz, who grew up in the early 2000s, told the NewsHour the situation today is a bit better than when she was participating in sports, as some new small businesses have started filling these needs.

“Though the Nike Pro hijab line is super exciting, it’s not something new. Even before this line, it’s a little bit easier to be a Muslim athlete because of the resources that are available.

“We used to use insider tips for one another, but it’s definitely exciting to see such a huge corporation like Nike cater to the Muslim community,” Abdelaziz said.

Women’s athletic wear has always been a step behind, according to Deborah Slaner Larkin, chief advocacy officer at the Women in Sports Foundation.

“Women used to wear men’s soccer shoes, basketball shoes. They didn’t design shoes for women. They just sized down men’s shoes,” she said. “They sized down men’s golf clubs for women.”

Had men been the ones affected by the lack of available sporting hijabs, she added, “then I would imagine that would have been settled” already.

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