New Athletic Wear For Muslim Girls Promotes Gender Equality In Sports

Recently, I was honored to take part in a project that has the potential to profoundly change gender equality in sports for Muslim women. This project started with my love and passion for sports. It has taken me through childhood, to playing softball at St. Olaf College in Northfield, MN, to a Ph.D. in kinesiology with an emphasis in sports and exercise psychology here at the College of Education and Human Development at the University of Minnesota.

My research has shown me how powerful sports can be in the lives of girls and women—and the importance of gender equality in sports across cultures and social groups. The power of sports to have a positive impact on the social, psychological, and physical wellbeing of girls is profound. I want to make sure that women from all cultures and economic background have the same access to sports that I’ve had.

A Breakthrough For Gender Equality

For the past two years, I’ve been involved in an inspiring project to create athletic apparel for Muslim girls. In partnership with our own CEHD School of Kinesiology, the University of Minnesota College of Design, the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, and above all members of the Girls Initiative in Recreation and Leisurely Sports (GIRLS) program—an all-girls community-based physical activity program tailored to the specific interests and needs of East African girls based at the Brian Coyle Community Center in the Cedar-Riverside area of Minneapolis—we’ve created practical sportswear for Muslim girls and women that allows them to participate in sports while maintaining their religious and cultural values of modesty.

It started—like so many important innovations—by simply listening to the needs of the community. Over the seven years that I’ve been involved with the GIRLS program, we’ve often heard from Muslim girls that the flowing headscarves and dresses they traditionally wear are a barrier to participating in sports and fitness activities. The girls find themselves spending more time trying to hold their skirts or scarves in place than they do actually playing. So we looked at what was on the market for Muslim girls’ athletic wear, and didn’t find much. Most of the limited selection of clothing that did exist was geared toward adult women, not teenage girls. And we couldn’t find any sport uniforms on the market. This got me thinking, “What if we could work with the girls to co-design athletic wear and uniforms that provided freedom of movement while allowing them to remain covered up?” After conversations about the idea with Fatimah Hussein (founder of the GIRLS program), Salma Hussein (leader in the GIRLS program), and Jennifer Weber and Muna Mohamed (coaches of the GIRLS program), we had our vision.

Together we felt this concept had the potential to spark a remarkable change in girls youth sports within the Muslim community, but didn’t know much about designing. So we reached out to Dr. Elizabeth (Missy) Bye of the College of Design. She was enthusiastic about the idea, and helped us receive a grant of more than $120,000 from the Minnesota Agricultural Experiment Station. From there, we were off and running, drawing on the School of Kinesiology’s and the Tucker Center’s (particularly Dr. Nicole LaVoi’s and Torrie Hazelwood’s) expertise in physical activity and sports, the College of Design’s (especially Bye’s, Kira Erickson’s, Robin Carufel’s and Mee Jekal’s) knowledge of clothing, and—most importantly—the opinions and insight of the East African girls (most of whom are practicing Muslims), their coaches and community members from the GIRLS program.

A Community Effort

We started by taking the girls to women’s sporting events, allowing them to see confident and highly competent female athletes as role models and take notes on their uniforms. They made observations on what they liked and didn’t like, and how conventional sportswear could be adapted to respect their cultural and religious norms.

Once we entered the production phase, we were adamant this project would be rooted in community involvement at all levels. The girls sat down with students from the College of Design, who helped translate their ideas into practical designs. We then held a community gallery walk event where the girls, their parents and community members could provide feedback about the concept designs and vote for their favorites.

Prototype athletic outfits of the top four designs were created. All featured long sleeves, athletic pants, knee-length skirts and a more form-fitting version of the hijab headscarves worn by Muslim women. Once again, we showed the prototypes to the community, taking in their feedback. The girls in the program voted on their favorite to determine the winning design. From there, Fosiyo Mohamud—a parent of two GIRLS participants and the community liaison for the project—helped us recruit and hire members to sew the final athletic outfit.

The girls were thrilled with the results – so much so that we decided to extend the project. Their coaches, Weber and Mohamed, pointed out that Muslim girls often don’t participate in organized youth sports like basketball because the uniforms aren’t in line with their cultural and religious practices. We’ve addressed this problem by making a uniform version of the outfit, one that can be adapted to use team-appropriate colors, logos and design elements.

Ushering In Gender Equality In Sports For Muslims

We recently unveiled our athletic clothing at a fashion show, where the girls themselves were the models. The response was overwhelming. The girls were thrilled to see their hard work come to life, and I saw many parents crying tears of pride seeing their girls model the clothes.

We’re already getting inquiries about the clothing from around the state—and while we won’t be able to fully research the impact of this project until it’s been available for a longer period of time, I believe this has the potential to drastically impact the physical and psychosocial health of Muslim girls in Minnesota and around the world.

This past Tuesday, I got to see the impact of this project firsthand. The girls’ basketball team got to play in their new uniforms for the first time. The freedom and joy they exhibited while playing unencumbered was moving; for the first time, these girls were playing to their full potential. They didn’t need to compromise movement or culture—they could have both and simply play. This summer, the Lady Warriors will become the first travelling women’s youth basketball team from the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood, and they’ll be wearing the uniforms they helped create.

Lessons On Promoting Gender Equality In Sports

Participating in this project was a huge honor for me, and I learned some valuable lessons that are applicable to any educator or youth coach trying to improve equal access to sports.

Promote a supportive, inclusive, culturally sensitive environment. Start by asking questions: Are there youth sports programs available? Do those programs have accessibility? What are the costs? Where are they located? Can all youth in communities access them equally? Can all youth play to their full potential in them, or are there barriers to doing so? If there are barriers, what strategies do youth themselves, their parents and community members have for overcoming them? Thinking about those pieces—support, inclusivity, and cultural sensitivity—can make a big difference.

Ask youth what they want, what they need and their ideas for making it happen. What sports do your youth want? What do they need? What would help them be able to do this? By asking the youth themselves questions, you’ll empower them and ensure that your activities and programs meet their needs and interests—all increasing the likelihood for their enjoyment and continued participation.

Related Articles

Associated Press:
New sports uniforms level the playing field for Muslim girls


Chelsey Thul, Ph.D.

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Chelsey Thul, Ph.D.

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