Sports hijabs are easier than ever to find — but there’s a glaring gap in the market

Muslim athletes in combat sports share what they actually need.

Lais Borges/Mic; Getty Images
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After the birth of her second child, Zenab was at one of the lowest points of her life. She was struggling with PTSD following a traumatic birthing experience and felt disconnected from herself. Then, at four months postpartum, her husband encouraged her to try Brazilian jiujitsu. Growing up in a Pakistani household in Canada, Zenab says, “Sports [were] not something that were seen as necessary. It was more like a nuisance.” But with her husband already involved in jiujitsu himself, Zenab decided to give it a shot. It was a life-changer, and Zenab — who requested Mic not share her last name — is now an accomplished competitor and gym owner in Calgary, Canada. But her athletic career nearly ended before it began because of one thing: her hijab.

As a woman who wears a hijab, taking up a sport based on grappling, a type of hand-to-hand combat where you grab your opponent, and ground fighting came with a significant obstacle: “One of my biggest concerns when I started jiujitsu was, ‘How am I supposed to keep the hijab on my head?’” Zenab, who now co-owns Affinity Academy of Martial Arts with her husband, says.

At first, Zenab avoided the issue by training with only women in her basement. Eventually, she reached a point where she was ready to level up, and she needed a hijab she could wear while grappling in public. Regular hijabs made out of cotton, chiffon, or similar fabrics wouldn’t cut it, in part because the fabrics hold onto sweat too easily. Zenab needed a sports hijab designed specifically to be worn during physical activity. She ordered one from a Canadian company that she says “wasn’t the best,” but she couldn’t be picky given the lack of options. “Sports hijabs were still unheard of at the time. This was 2013. They weren’t as common,” she says.

“I don’t want my sport to challenge what I think is normal in my faith.” - Serene, martial arts practitioner

That’s not to say hijabs designed for fitness were completely nonexistent. Athletic hijabs have been around, to some extent, for decades. Early players in the industry included Capsters, a Dutch company founded in 2001 that claims to be the maker of “the original sports hijab,” as well as brands based in Muslim-majority countries, like the Malaysian label TudungPeople which launched in 2011. But options beyond those were slim.

With limited access, many Muslims made do with what was already available to them. Hala Iqbal, a former college and club rugby player in the United States, initially wore their usual tarhas, or rectangular hijabs, under their rugby scrum cap when they began playing in college in 2004. Then, a friend suggested they switch to two-piece amira hijabs, which consist of a tube underscarf cap and a hood to pull over it, providing a snugger fit. The ensemble worked “incredibly well,” Iqbal tells Mic via email, although it had the downside of being “hot and kind of bulky during summer seasons.”

Things changed in 2017, when Nike — likely with an eye on the burgeoning global Islamic clothing market, expected to reach $88.35 billion by 2025announced its “Pro Hijab,” ushering sports hijabs into the mainstream. Major athletic brands like Under Armour, Puma, and Lululemon eventually followed suit, and today, sports hijabs are actually pretty widely available. But while a large gap in the market has been filled, the products that filled it leave much to be desired.

“The Nike hijab was really disappointing. I felt like it was just slapped together,” Zenab says. “There was no thought put into it. It felt like they just took fabric, cut a hole into it, and called it a sports hijab.” And each of the people Mic spoke with for this article noted that sports hijabs are generally unflattering. It might seem like a trivial complaint, but the dreaded egg-head effect is frustrating. “I don’t need something to make me look gorgeous,” says Serene, a martial arts practitioner who requested Mic withhold her last name. “I’m obviously working out. But I would like something that at least looks decent and [not] awkward.”

Athletic hijabs for lower-intensity activities are great, but Muslims deserve to have access to gear that enables them to fully participate in all sports.

Beyond general complaints, major athletic brands’ forays into modest fashion exposed companies’ limited imaginations of what a Muslim athlete can be and do. Most sport hijabs by big brands are designed for low-intensity activities like cycling or running; despite being in the game for years, no major company sells hijabs specifically for grappling or high-contact sports, which have unique needs. You wouldn’t wear running shoes for baseball; yet sports hijabs are expected to be suitable for running, boxing, muay thai, and more.

For example, “You need something that stays in place — even if you get shoved in the head, pushed, or choked,” Serine says of martial arts hijabs. “It needs to be slippery enough for your opponent's boxing glove or arm to slip over, but it needs to have enough [of] a hold on your head that it doesn’t slip.”

That’s hard to find when most brands take the one-size-fits-all approach or offer small, medium, and large options at best. And it’s not just a comfort thing. The inability to customize can make a sports hijab more likely to move around. That’s annoying enough when you’re jogging; if you’re a muay thai competitor, it can be downright dangerous.

Brands also often fail to include anything to help secure their hijabs, as is the case with Adidas’ Future Icons Hijab and Under Armour’s sport hijab. While Nike’s Pro Hijab 2.0 has an internal headband, it also has a lot of excess fabric, which was one of many issues with its initial design that still hasn’t been remedied. Extra fabric is often meant to accommodate a bun, but in grappling sports, Zenab notes, it can cause a partner to get caught when they go to grab you. Plus, there are plenty of Muslims with short hair. “I’d never wear [a Nike hijab] for rugby without a scrum cap on top — because it would be too loose in the back without the bun that I’m assumed to have,” Iqbal says.

In many ways, it feels like these brands’ forays into sports hijabs are more about shallow representation than actually being practical for Muslim athletes. Athletic hijabs for lower-intensity activities are great, but Muslims deserve to have access to gear that enables them to fully participate in all sports.

“Having an item catered to you to make it easier to participate is one less source of anxiety when you’re already trying to branch out.” - Serene

Of course, major brands aren’t all that exist; overall, sports hijabs are much easier to find now than in decades past. As the market for sports hijabs grew in North America, Muslim-owned companies entered the space, too. For example, in 2016, both Fatimah Hussein and Arshiya Kherani launched Kickstarters for their startups: Minneapolis-based ASIYA and New York City-based Sukoon, respectively. “They seem to have a little more of an understanding of the different kinds of hijab that women need,” Serine says of Muslim-owned sports hijab brands, adding that they’re also more accommodating of various modesty levels by offering multiple cuts for their sport hijabs.

Unfortunately, independent brands also tend to have limited options when it comes to varying sports needs, because it’s more difficult for small businesses to create new designs and launch them at scale. Take it from Zenab, who has been working on launching her own sports hijab for jiujitsu. “I haven’t pulled the trigger on [my design] because I want it to be perfect,” she says. “There’s a lot of communication with manufacturers, a lot of communication overseas. The exact thing you want, the exact fabric, dimensions, pricing, all of that. It’s very tedious and it’s very complicated.”

“When I started training, I started feeling a little bit better about myself. Like, ‘OK, I can get through this.’” Zenab says. “And then I never looked back. [My husband and I] opened our own gym. Fast forward to now, [we’re] opening our second location, we have two kids that also train [in] jiujitsu.” In 2020, Zenab also started her own YouTube channel, where she once reviewed sports hijabs for jiujitsu. With her business and social media ventures, Zenab’s ultimate focus is on getting more Muslim women to take up combat sports.

But for that to happen, Muslim athletes need better gear options. Getting involved with high-contact and grappling sports can be intimidating enough. “Having an item catered to you to make it easier to participate is one less source of anxiety when you’re already trying to branch out,” Serene says. Fundamentally, she adds, “I don’t want my sport to challenge what I think is normal in my faith.”

Mic has not received responses to our requests for comment from Adidas, Nike, and Under Armour.