Veiled judgment: Mumbai sportswomen open up on Hijab debate

Misbah Sumar. Pic/Suresh Karkera

Last year, the burkini raked up a worldwide controversy when France tried to ban it. Now, a retail invention tailored for Muslim sportswomen - the Pro Hijab, by Nike, launched recently - has brought the spotlight back on the hijab.

The product, which is a pull-on hijab made of lightweight polyster and was in the making for over a year before it was tested by Muslim sportswomen, has drawn mixed reactions the world over. While some have condemned the sporting giant for reinforcing a norm that's seen as a symbol of subjugation, there are those that are commending it for creating a level playing field for women who want to balance tradition with passion.

Closer home, Mumbai doesn't boast of a large number of Muslim women actively involved in sports, and the figures are even less when it comes to sportswomen who wear some version of the hijab. However, those who do, don't see why there's a furor around a product, that at the end of the day, is useful for its target audience.

Afifa Shaikh is the first and only female boxer from her college. Pic/Pradeep Dhivar

They'll get the fit rightEighteen-year-old Colaba resident Misbah Sumar has been playing table-tennis since she was 10 and has never stepped out in public without the headscarf. In fact, the state-level player is so used to playing in it, that the few times she tried playing without the headscarf, she found it inconvenient. "I didn't like how my hair fell on my face and covered my neck. I find it a lot easier to play in the hijab," says the first-year St Xavier's College student.

She also points out that when a well-known brand creates a product like this, they get the specifications right. "Right now, I get my hijab stitched from a local tailor. At times, it's long and needs to be tucked in from the back or on the side. But, when a credible brand does it, they will get the details right. Also, it's true that there's no escaping stares when you wear the hijab. But now that it has a signature of a big brand, people are more likely to warm up to it," Sumar adds.

The Pro Hijab. Pic/Nike

Will encourage sportsTwenty-one-year-old footballer from Dharavi, Gulafsha Ansari has never worn the hijab. However, she agrees that often, Muslim parents don't let their daughters join sports because of limited headscarf options. "Now, with a product like this in the market, they won't have any reason to hold themselves back," says Ansari, who has turned mentor for slum girls after representing Maharashtra in national and international tournaments. "Most parents are particular that their daughters wear the hijab on field. While it is possible to play football in a burkha, certain skills like heading the ball need to be worked around. So, while training my girls, I concentrate on other aspects of the game such as dodging and passing," Ansari says, adding, "A sports hijab is tailored to iron out these issues. It can only increase the scope of the game in such cases, because now more women can opt for it."

Afifa Shaikh, an 18-year-old boxer, who wears a hijab over her head-guard agrees with Ansari. Shaikh, the first and only woman boxer from Maharashtra College in Mumbai Central, wears a hoodie over the T-shirt and shorts that are part of her kit. "I have seen parents in my community not allowing their daughters to venture into sports, because on the field it is not easy to dress the way we are required to."

Ultimately, it comes down to the woman's choice, Sumar points out. "Very simply, there's a market for it, so the brand made it. And, it is my own choice to wear the hijab and play my game - ignoring stares and turning a deaf ear to questions like 'don't you feel hot?'. In that case, it is more a sign of liberation, not the opposite," she says.

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