Nike unveils athletic hijab: Social statement or business savvy?

The athletic company has drawn praise from Muslim athletes who say they have too long been ignored by sportswear makers. But not everyone is as impressed by the company's latest product line.

Figure skater Zahra Lari model wears Nike's new hijab for Muslim female athletes. The company says the hijab will be available for sale next year.

Nike rolled out its first professional sports hijab on Tuesday, featuring a single-layer pull-on design made of light, stretchy fabric. Named the “Nike Pro Hijab,” the head cover includes tiny holes for breathability and an elongated back that is designed to stay tucked in.

The hijab, which the company says will come in three colors and two sizes, is set to hit stores next spring and has already been tested by some athletes. While many applaud Nike’s efforts to empower Muslim women athletes by providing what they see as a much-needed design, some say the company is simply using the hijab as just a way for the brand to tap into an emerging global market.

"The Nike Pro Hijab has been a year in the making but its impetus can be traced much further back to Nike's founding mission, to serve athletes, with the signature addendum: If you have a body, you're an athlete," the company said in an emailed statement to CNBC.

Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari, a hopeful for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea, was among those who first tried on the new hijab. 

"I was thrilled and a bit emotional to see Nike prototyping a Hijab," Ms. Lari said in a statement. "I've tried so many different hijabs for performance, and ... 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.”

Other have also welcomed the latest addition form the sportswear company, saying the gear could be a "game changer", underscoring the larger progress of the inclusion of women from all faith backgrounds in sports.

“Nike's entire campaign and product launch serves to give greater visibility and voice to a burgeoning group of Muslim women, who have long been kept off the court and out of the gym and who are silent no more,” ESPN columnist Kavitha Davidson concluded. 

But some seem less impressed. While appreciating Nike for emphasizing diversity in sports, soccer player and sports activist Shireen Ahmed pointed out that Beaverton, Ore.-based company is far from the first mainstream sports brand to recognize the needs of some Muslim women. 

“In an era where xenophobia seems to ring out as a norm, highlighting the intensity and passion of veiled Muslim athletes speaks volumes,” she wrote in a column for the Guardian on Wednesday. “But the modest sportswear industry is not a new one, and although the move is exciting, it’s hardly groundbreaking.”

Some question the motive behind the launch, saying that rather than empowering Muslim women athletes, the product is merely another revenue stream for the sportswear company. 

“Muslim women wear a hijab in the name of modesty. But it feels to me that the second Nike added its logo, it instantly turned the hijab into a status symbol,” sports uniform commentator Alex Hider wrote. “They have just found a way to turn a religious garment into a designer accessory.”

The announcement comes two weeks after the release of a Nike ad broadcast in several Middle Eastern countries that drew criticism for its pointed depiction of Arab women practicing sports in public.

Yet the release of the new gear, according to Ms. Davidson, signals “a clear eye toward an expanding market for female Muslim athletes” for Nike. Last month, citing concerns over public health and not women’s empowerment, Saudi officials said they would soon provide female gyms with licenses in a country where female athleticism is deemed un-Islamic.

“It should be noted that Nike's moves are likely not totally socially motivated. They're a business, and their decisions reflect demand,” Davidson wrote. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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