Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 February 2020

As a Muslim woman, I find the praise lavished upon Nike's modest swimsuit patronising

Is Nike’s modest collection a step towards better representation? Most definitely. Should we go overboard with praise for this bare minimum of inclusions? I don’t think so

Sarah Afaneh, right, sees the Nike Victory modest swimwear collection as a small step in the right direction: but she resents that it's being lauded as a game changer 
Sarah Afaneh, right, sees the Nike Victory modest swimwear collection as a small step in the right direction: but she resents that it's being lauded as a game changer 

Growing up as a Muslim in the United States, dressing modestly wasn’t always easy. I witnessed my mum struggle with the clothing norms of a new country, and because I felt insecure in my own fashion choices as a teenager, shopping for modest clothes, which come with their own stigma, was a dreaded task.

With the recent release of its Victory Swim collection, Nike has added new options to the market for women who choose to cover up. This is a great step, but I resent how Nike is being praised as if they’re the only player in the game (and the brand that should represent me).

While Nike’s new collection has contributed to the conversation, in reality, a $600 swimsuit will have little impact for many ordinary Muslim women

Martha Moore, the collection’s designer, says her team found “a problem to solve” for Muslim women and that it is “enabling their participation in sports”. Athlete Manal Rostam, the first veiled ambassador to be featured in a Nike Middle East campaign back in 2015, says the company is “making history” and “changing everything through [its] embrace of diversity and inclusivity”. She said the collection is groundbreaking, and said she had been waiting 18 years for this.

But, you know what, we don’t need a big American company to represent us, and remember, Nike is not the first brand to make modest options accessible.

Yes, Nike’s Pro Hijab and new swimwear collection provide Muslim athletes with specialised attire to participate in sports. Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari, who reviewed the line, thanked the company for supporting Muslim athletes, while sports activist and writer Shireen Ahmed agrees that Nike is expanding the normalised idea of what swimwear is to include modestwear.

And yes, it is empowering to witness further representation of a marginalised community in the fashion industry and in athletics (swimming, in particular, is regarded as a barrier for Muslim women due to clothing restrictions). However, the over-the-top praise lavished upon this one collection is something I personally find offensive.

Nike claims to be catering to the needs and demands of the Muslim community. “Opening the door to female athletes worldwide” states the marketing copy that comes with the suit. That’s quite the overstatement, when the fact is, Nike is likely just another major company looking to stamp its brand as diverse and inclusive.

A western company declaring that it has solved the problems I face as a Muslim woman who chooses to veil, and the expectation that I should do nothing but applaud it, is patronising. Muslim-owned brands such as Ahiida, Raqtive and Asiya Active made athletic gear to fit the needs of a modest community long before Nike launched the Pro Hijab.

Rostom didn’t really have to wait 18 years for this release; she could have found it 15 years ago when Ahiida launched in 2004 as a full sportswear brand, and became the originator of the modest swimwear solution. It also created the “hijood”, a hijab and a hood, which was worn by Ruqaya Al Ghasara, Bahrain’s Olympic short distance running champion, in 2006. Nike is most definitely not the saviour Muslim women have been waiting for, nor should it be treated as such.

We also cannot ignore that the growing modest market is another means to rake in profits. The Washington Post projects that the modest fashion industry will be worth $373 billion (Dh1.37bn) by 2022. Despite Moore’s claim that “this is not an elite performance suit”, the premium version of it costs up to $650 (Dh2,387) and the second version, sold as separate pieces, adds up to $188. Compared to the Dh100 modest swimsuits my mum buys, these numbers are mind-boggling. It certainly cannot be branded as “accessible”, especially when compared to Nike’s own non-­modest performance swimsuits, which are about $100, and much less from many other brands.

Brands too often use religious beliefs as a capitalist means for profit and marketing, they are praised for “introducing” modest options, but I see it as a tokenistic effort. I know that modest options have been available for a long time, because I’ve been buying them. The company’s claim of opening doors for Muslim athletes – by creating a product and highly profiting by doing so – is far from a game changer. Conversation has been sparked globally, normalising the presence of Muslim athletes in a sporting context, and of modest clothing in general. I see that this is a positive step. While Nike’s new collection has contributed to the conversation, in reality, a $600 swimsuit will have little impact for many ordinary Muslim women.

As a Muslim woman myself, I choose to opt out when my friends go to the beach, a list of excuses ready at my disposal. When they understand why, they encourage me to wear a burkini. I refuse nonetheless. Throughout my childhood, I watched my mum and her friends sit on the sidelines, dipping their feet into the pool as their children played around, but never getting in.

Branding a costume with the Nike swoosh will not, in itself, change the discriminatory reality that Muslim women, both athletes and otherwise, face on a daily basis

This isn’t because we don’t have access to modest swimwear, I guarantee they are folded in drawers in our closets. Why? Well, remember 16-year-old Noor Abukaram, who was disqualified from a cross-country race for wearing a hijab in Ohio? And remember, women who wear burkinis in France are at times harassed and even fined.

A recent report in The Huffington Post revealed that women who swim in a hijab are mocked, humiliated and discriminated against in many parts of the United States. Branding a costume with the Nike swoosh will not, in itself, change the discriminatory reality that Muslim women, both athletes and otherwise, face on a daily basis.

Is Nike’s modest collection a step towards better representation? Most definitely. Should we go overboard with praise for this bare minimum of inclusions? I don’t think so.

Updated: December 23, 2019 09:55 AM

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