The Lady Warriors had a problem. Many of their players were from Minneapolis city’s large Somali community and didn’t have attire that would allow them to maximize their potential. The long skirts and dresses their religiously conservative families required them to wear often got tangled between their legs, stepped on, ripped and snagged. The headscarves that they wore would flip up and obstruct their vision or sometimes fly off all together. The girls wanted to play, but they needed a solution.
Working with some local non-profit and design students from the university, the girls designed a basketball uniform that consisted of leggings, knee length tunics with long sleeves and a break-away hijab that was held down by velcro. Their performance improved immediately.
The design was a success and received a lot of community support. So too did the Lady Warriors.
More importantly, in my opinion, was the fact that they proved to their parents and the larger community, that they could participate fully in society without compromising their values.
This story isn’t just about Muslim girls or Islam. Women in what has been dubbed “the modesty movement” have been working hard to find ways to stay active and stay true to their roots. In an industry dominated by spandex and sports-bras, there was little out there designed specifically for women that was lightweight, breathable, and gave proper coverage. For years many women compensated by layering or simply staying home.
This gap in the market gave rise to running skirts, modest swimsuits, burkinis, and kurta-length tunics made from moisture wicking materials. Modest women were retaking our place in society and we were doing it with our values in tow.
The handful of controversies surrounding modestly dressed women in sports has done more to promote and encourage modest women to get active than to deter them. Modanisa, Europe’s largest outlet for modest fashion, reported a 400% growth in demand for modest swimsuits after the announcement of France’s Burkini Ban. From Amaiya Zafar’s fight to wear her hijab while boxing to FIBA’s decision last May to overturn its ban on hijab for female basketball players, these skirmishes have highlighted the importance of sports to all people. More significantly, they have demonstrated the necessity of inclusion in sports of all masses.
For the average Muslimah, the battle for inclusivity through sports happens in much more mundane ways. They are fought in Zumba classes, Crossfit boxes, and weight rooms all over the globe. They are won by eleven-year olds in white hijabs at Tae Kwon Do and a thirty-year-old mother teaching Muay Thai with her Capster tucked neatly into her shirt. They are won using athletic wear designed by modest fashion designers from France, Singapore, Malaysia, and even the United States.
On social media and in real life, modestly dressed women are swapping leggings and bicycle shorts for lightweight joggers and sourel (a baggy harem pant). They are donning a variety of sports hijabs and long-sleeved shirts. They are showing up for running clubs and trying out for local teams. They are walking out on the Olympic stage and bringing home medals. They are making themselves known and proving that you don’t have to leave your values at the gym door.
Every time I show up at my local pool with my family, burkini clad, I change minds and hearts. I open up an opportunity for a stranger to get to know their first Muslim friend. They ask me about stroke technique, or how long I’ve been swimming. I tell them I’ve been a lifeguard since I was 15. They ask me if I’m uncomfortable in my burkini. I tell them that it’s made of super-lightweight fabric that dries quickly in the sun. I let them touch it. And we smile.
Studies have shown that the best way to combat prejudice is to have regular encounters with the people you are prejudiced against. It’s hard to generalize and stereotype people you know and have positive interactions with on a regular basis. As more and more women in hijab show up in public spaces, as athletes or just regular gym members, the barriers of entry and the stereotypes about what Muslim women are and are not will surely crumble.
As we redefine the image of Muslim women, we make it easier for the next generation of Lady Warriors to take the field, court, or pitch and show the world what they are capable of.
Safura Salam is a freelance writer, mother, and a part-time gym hero. She studied journalism at Penn State, and went on to work for the DNC before deciding to write full-time. Her work focuses on helping others fulfill their potential, tell their stories, and encouraging diverse voices in storytelling. You can follow her on Facebook at https://www.facebook.