(RNS) Sportswear giant Nike is developing a high-performance hijab for Muslim women athletes, the latest move to fold the Muslim clothing industry into the mainstream.
The Nike Pro Hijab, which will be available in stores in spring 2018, is the result of "an ongoing cultural shift that has seen more women than ever embracing sport,” Nike said in a statement. “This movement first permeated international consciousness in 2012, when a hijabi runner took the global stage in London."
That runner was Saudi Arabia's Sarah Attar, who along with Emirati weightlifting Olympian Amna Al Haddad helped inspire the product.
Al Haddad spoke to Nike extensively about issues she had with existing athletic hijabs: She had difficulty finding performance-grade head coverings — she only owned one, and had to hand-wash it every night during competitions — and its weight, movement and lack of breathability made it difficult to focus.
Nike's goal, therefore, was to create a lightweight hijab that was "inconspicuous, almost like a second skin," the company said. Its design is now being used by select Muslim women in the Persian Gulf region's competitive sports scene.
Outside the world of sportswear, too, the mainstream apparel industry is capitalizing on the booming market for modest clothing.
A report from Thomson Reuters last year found that Muslim consumers spent about $243 billion on clothing in 2015. That was about 11 percent of the total international spending on apparel.
Last month, international casual clothing company Uniqlo launched its fourth collection in collaboration with British designer Hana Tajima, a hijab-wearing Muslim whose work is marked by flowing dresses and long tunics.
Debenhams recently announced a partnership with modest fashion brand Aab, making it the first major U.K. department store to sell hijabs. Last January, high-end design label Dolce & Gabbana launched a line of hijabs and full-length abayas.
And since DKNY produced a Ramadan collection in 2014, brands such as Mango, Tommy Hilfiger, Zara, Monique Lhuillier, Net-a-Porter and Oscar de la Renta have all followed suit.
Such moves haven't come without criticism from some Muslims, who feel their spirituality is being commodified.
Functional athletic wear, though, may be an area without controversy — particularly in the Middle East, where temperatures can push 130 degrees Fahrenheit.
"It's not just about making a product available for Muslim and Arab women but it is also giving a chance to those women who are putting off the idea of wearing the veil completely in order to compete,” Egyptian runner and mountaineer Manal Rostom told Al Arabiya English.
Nike's new pull-on head covering is designed with a single layer of durable mesh, which features small holes to increase airflow while remaining opaque enough for Muslim women's needs. The back of the hijab is slightly longer, so it doesn’t come untucked to uncover the neck.
Al Haddad and a number of elite hijab-wearing athletes, including Rostom and Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari, have been testing these features in Nike's prototypes since early 2016.
“I was really hesitant when I first saw it,” Lari said, according to a statement. “ ... I’ve tried so many different hijabs for performance, and with how fast I spin on the ice and in training, so few of them actually work for me. But once I put it on and took it for a spin on the ice, I was blown away by the fit and the light weight.”
The announcement follows Nike Middle East’s viral ad campaign "What Will They Say About You," which was touted for featuring Muslim women athletes such as Lari, Tunisian fencer Inès Boubakri and Jordanian boxer Arifa Bseiso. But many on social media and in the Arab world criticized it for, among other things, portraying Arab women's lives unrealistically and patronizing athletes by suggesting Nike empowered them.
"It means the world to have the leading sport brand in the world come up with a product like this," Rostom said. "It’s not just speaking to athletes, but speaking to the whole word that Nike supports all athletes to literally go out there and Just Do It."