In Sudan, where my family is from, December and January is wedding season. It’s when ex-pats living abroad in countries like the U.S., the U.K., and Canada get breaks from school or work, and can return home for extended vacations. For my mom and other women relatives, this often means having to have multiple wedding-appropriate looks on deck — stylish, sure, but also modest enough to be culturally appropriate. Sudan is a predominantly Muslim country, where even those who choose not to wear hijab tend to dress fairly conservatively. It’s the same in much of the Muslim world, which includes regions as geographically diverse as parts of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. In such places, even international retailers like H&M or Mango and department stores such as Saks and Marks & Spencer stock clothing and accessories that can be interpreted as modest, and that they might not have available elsewhere. In the same way that you might more easily find a parka in Denver than in Miami, like good capitalists, they all carry products that local consumers will buy.
I thought of that this week when Nike announced plans to venture into the modest apparel market, with a sport-friendly head covering for Muslim women athletes called the Pro Hijab. The hijab features a simple pull-on design, made out of a lightweight fabric engineered to be breathable, comfortable, and to stay in place during training and competition. According to the company, the move was inspired by feedback from athletes around the world who said it was difficult to find hijabs designed for high-performance athletics. “This movement first permeated international consciousness in 2012, when a hijabi runner [Sarah Attar of Saudi Arabia] took the global stage in London,” Nike wrote in a statement, according to CNBC. “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 timing is apt. Amid the Trump administration’s anti-Muslim travel ban and a cultural climate that feels increasingly hostile to Muslims, Nike is being widely celebrated for the decision by potential consumers and by members of the press. Just last month, the fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad, who was the first Muslim woman to earn an Olympic medal for the U.S. and the first American to compete wearing a hijab, attributed an unexplained two-hour detainment by U.S. Customs to her faith. (At the 2016 Olympics in Rio, Muhammad competed wearing a fencing suit made by the British company Allstar, but elsewhere wore Nike’s Team USA uniform with a hijab of her own.) The Pro Hijab, which will be available for purchase for $35 next year, reads like a rare corporate acknowledgement of an underserved demographic. Muslim women are people, too and people we want to market to, the company seems to be saying. An ESPN contributor credited the Hijab Pro with “[giving] important validation to Muslim women athletes,” and the sentiment was echoed elsewhere across social media.
Nike is not the first company to manufacture and sell an athletic hijab, but it’s certainly the biggest, giving it a competitive advantage in a relatively new market. It’s been doing business in the Middle East and elsewhere in the Muslim world for years, but it seems to be more explicitly picking up steam. Last month, Nike released an Arabic-language ad online, featuring Muslim women athletes, presumably as a precursor to this week’s announcement. The minute-long spot drew some controversy, criticized by some as being an inaccurate depiction of cultural norms in the region and by others as being patronizing to Arab women. “I see this as a colonial vision of Arab women. You only show us as being oppressed which is not correct,” wrote Rajin Alqallih in a YouTube comment.
And so it feels overly generous to characterize the Pro Hijab as a decision driven largely by morals, as some commenters have suggested and as Nike’s language has itself intimated. (“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 company said in the statement announcing its release.) In recent years, brands such as Uniqlo and Dolce & Gabbana have gone a step beyond simply carrying clothing that could be interpreted as modest, and moved into designing and selling items that are specifically intended for Muslim women. The global Muslim apparel market is significant, and growing. Muslims spent $251 billion, or 11 percent of total global expenditure, on fashion in 2015; $44 billion alone was spent by women purchasing modest apparel (excluding footwear), according to one report. In the U.S., consumers spent $406 billion on apparel during the same period. By 2021, total fashion consumption by Muslims around the world is expected to grow by over 7 percent, to $368 billion. “The clothing may be modest, its success is anything but,” wrote the report’s authors.
Nike has been a “woke brand” for a while now. After being dragged in the ’90s for its labor practices, it reversed course, amping up social responsibility programs and inclusive messaging. According to a 2015 internal report, more than half of its U.S. employees identify as non-white. It’s a staggering statistic for a company with more than 60,000 employees, and that’s worth applauding. Diversity is, plainly put, a money-maker, concluded a recent McKinsey study. Companies with ethnic diversity were found to outperform non-diverse competitors by 35 percent, while companies with gender diversity did better by 15 percent. (Meanwhile, competitor Under Armour is battling the PR fallout of its CEO’s February proclamation that Donald Trump is “a real asset for the country.”)
It feels inevitable that the line between social responsibility and smart strategy will get a little blurrier.
In 2016, a year after Nike was criticized for its annual Law Enforcement Appreciation Day, chairman and CEO Mark Parker wrote a letter to employees articulating Nike’s allyship with black athletes, employees, and consumers. “Nike has a long history of supporting the marginalized and those whose voice is not always heard,” he said. “As a company, I’m proud that Nike takes a stand on issues that impact all of us, our athletes, and society as a whole. And I am proud that Nike stands against discrimination in any form. We stand against bigotry. We stand for racial justice. We firmly believe the world can improve.”
Much of its recent marketing follows that line. A new campaign featuring Nike athletes LeBron James, Serena Williams, and Gabby Douglas, among others, is called Equality. On its website, there is a $35 t-shirt — a short-sleeved black crewneck with the “EQUALITY.” printed across the chest in white letters — that “promotes diversity and inclusion and expresses Nike’s commitment to advancing those ideals.” In a culture where more than half of millennial consumers say they’re willing to pay more for brands whose values align with their own, it feels inevitable that the line between social responsibility and smart strategy will get a little blurrier.
Making a product for Muslim women is good for the world, but let’s not forget that it’s also good business for Nike.