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In response to what Nike says are performance problems posed by traditional hijabs worn in athletic settings, the company has collaborated with top female Muslim athletes to design what it calls the Pro Hijab: a breathable, lightweight and stretchy covering that promises to stay in place.

Nike worked with Amna Al Haddad, a 27-year-old Olympic weightlifter, and Zahra Lari, a 22-year-old Olympic hopeful figure skater, both from the United Arab Emirates, to develop the line. The company also tested it with various “everyday athletes” from the Middle East and consulted with local communities to ensure the hijab design would meet various cultural requirements.

The Nike Pro Hijab is constructed from “durable single-layer Nike Pro power mesh” – a lightweight, ultra-breathable and soft polyester. It’s a stretchy material, and combined with elastic binding, makes for a fit that can be perfectly customized to the wearer. Textured threads at the neck protect against chafing, and the back of the hijab is elongated, to prevent it from coming untucked.

When the Nike hijab hits stores early next year, it will be available in black, grey and a deep blue, with the signature Nike swoosh above the left ear, at the request, the company says, of Al Haddad and Lari.

Nike+ Run Club coach Manal Rostom, an Egyptian athlete, wears the Nike Pro Hijab in these campaign images.

In a press release, the company said: “By providing Muslim athletes with the most groundbreaking products, like the Nike Pro Hijab, Nike aims to serve today’s pioneers as well as inspire even more women and girls in the region who still face barriers and limited access to sport.”

The Nike hijab isn’t the first “modest wear” offering by a major manufacturer. Japanese apparel brand Uniqlo recently brought its line of hijabs and abayas, by designer Hana Tajima, to Canada. DKNY produced a similar line last year. Tommy Hilfiger released limited-edition collections of Ramadan apparel in 2015 and 2016, as did Mango.

Models don hijabs and other pieces from Uniqlo and Hana Tajima spring/summer 2017 line.

Proponents of these lines say it’s high-time that the mainstream fashion world recognize the large population of Muslim women seeking ways to express personal style without betraying their commitment to modest dress. Following the announcement of the Nike hijab, many were quick to praise the company for catering to Muslim women. “Thank you Nike for creating a way for athletes to compete and respect their faith,” wrote a Facebook commenter. “The Pro Hijab is a great idea! Thank you Nike for promoting inclusiveness. Always the leader!” reads another comment. Nike’s move has been called praiseworthy, game-changing and trailblazing.

Nike+ Run Club coach Manal Rostom, an Egyptian athlete, is one of the faces of the campaign and took to Instagram to share her pride at being included: “Nike caters for all Hijabi athletes worldwide to simply Just Do It, in Hijab. So, so proud and honoured to be the face of this campaign as it kicks off worldwide, breaking barriers and paving the way for young Arab girls to show them what they are capable of, regardless of how they look, Or what they wear.”

But criticism has been just as swift. The company’s Instagram video, announcing the line, was met with over 6,300 comments (and counting), including many that denounce the branded hijab as normalizing female oppression. “Nike is condoning a culture of oppressed women,” reads one comment. “Oppression never looked so fashionable,” reads another.

Others said the announcement video, which shows a woman donning a hijab as she jogs through her neighbourhood, depicted a scenario unrealistic for many Muslim women: “I can’t do any of that. I’m a Saudi woman who’s not allowed to go out for jogging or skating in the streets. Life is unfair :(” said one Twitter user. Most disheartening of all the feedback is the number of racist comments left on Nike’s various social media platforms, which seem to outnumber any positive or analytical notes.

Figure skater Zahra Lari models the Nike Pro Hijab.

Some of the controversy isn’t about the politics of a Nike-designed hijab, but about the economics, with critics saying that the sportswear giant is simply cashing in.

On MuslimahMediaWatch.org, writer Shireen Ahmed wondered “While pushing forward and challenging antiquated notions of what athleticism is for Arab and Muslim women, are we being deceived by capitalist agendas and savvy media that excludes much of the female population?”

Sidrah Khatoon, a university student and graphic designer in Toronto, posted to Facebook: “Yes this is exciting, but I probably won’t be buying over-expensive hijabs when I’ve ran for years in my ‘traditional’ hijab and I’m doing just fine. I’m not about Uniqlo and Nike taking advantage by selling overpriced hijabs when I can continue supporting the lady at Hijab Fashions or the shop beside Abu Bakr Masjid.”

Amidst the criticism, Al Haddad defended Nike’s hijab and her role in the design on her Facebook page last week, writing:

“With the Nike Pro Hijab Launch, I do realize there is a lot of mixed reactions as to why Nike decided to create such a product ‘now.’ From my perspective as a former athlete who competed in hijab, in the past, the big brands didn’t see the need or market for it as it was not ‘popular’ and it was unheard of to see women train, exercise and compete in hijab. It is a recent phenomenon where more women have expressed a need for it and more professional athletes have fought for rights to compete with a headscarf, and have an equal playing field. We made it big in the news, we couldn’t be ignored … I support Muslim women with or without hijab, and how they dress is their choice.”

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