Ask any athlete in any sport what they want first and foremost out of their athletic gear, and 95 percent of the time they’ll have the same answer:
Whether it’s basketball shoes, baseball pants, hockey jerseys, football helmets or anything else in between, the best thing an athlete can say about his or her gear is that they don’t have to think about it while it’s on. Looking good is cool, but feeling good is the key to peak performance.
For Muslim girls and women who choose to dress modestly according to Islamic principles in their everyday lives and would like to maintain that modesty during athletic competition, it’s not easy to find gear that is physically comfortable without making them spiritually uncomfortable, or vice versa.
SLAM magazine writer Habeeba Husain recently profiled a group of Somali-American young ladies in the G.I.R.L.S. program (Girls Initiative in Recreation and Leisurely Sports) in Minnesota who have designed basketball uniforms that fit their needs as athletes and their needs as young Muslim women:
“Myself and the coaches and the founder of the program, Fatimah Hussein, heard the girls talking about how the traditional clothing presented a major challenge for them to play basketball and be active in the way they wanted,” said Dr. Chelsey Thul, a School of Kinesiology lecturer at the University of Minnesota and a volunteer research consultant at G.I.R.L.S. since its inception in 2008.
G.I.R.L.S. itself runs like an afterschool program that offers all-female physical activities for East African girls in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, home to a very densely populated Muslim Somali community. The girls’ traditional clothing, often consisting of long skirts and flowy hijabs, made it difficult to complete a crossover and run around the court without something coming undone.
After learning of this challenge over two years ago, Dr. Thul connected with Dr. Elizabeth Bye, a department head in the College of Design at the University of Minnesota. “I thought it sounded like a great project,” Dr. Bye said. “And we went from there.”
With Dr. Bye’s undergraduate apparel design students on board and money received from a grant, the collaboration began to create a brand new basketball uniform to fit the young ladies’ needs.
And it truly was a collaboration in every sense of the word.
“The most exciting and powerful part of the journey for me was the true collaboration that we had with the community,” Dr. Thul said. “The community, the girls, their parents were involved in every step of the way.”
The girls sat in on leadership meetings, helped design the uniforms, and debuted the finished garments at a fashion show in June. Their parents served as community liaisons and took part in several gallery walks and feedback events. Dr. Bye’s students helped to sketch the original and final designs. The greater Cedar-Riverside community sewed the actual garments. Everyone attended the fashion show — even Minnesota Senator Kari Dziedic, who’s doing what she can to license the clothing and potentially make it something the community manufactures and produces for other athletes.
The behind-the-scenes team chemistry can now be seen on the court in the form of the red Lady Warrior uniforms as well as the striped athletic wear.
In addition to outfitting athletes in the Cedar-Riverside community, the G.I.R.L.S. team is already getting requests from youth and adult Muslim females around the country.
Their work is also adding to a global conversation about how Muslim women dress, one that includes U.S. Olympic fencer and fashion designer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who has her own clothing line, and a recent polarizing piece in Marie Claire magazine about Muslim women “shattering stereotypes” with their clothing.