Pretty Little Thing, a Mancunian fast-fashion e-tailer owned by Boohoo, launched its dedicated Middle East website over the summer. Nestled among the bandage dresses, off-the-shoulder bodysuits, bikinis and a range of trending tie-dye loungewear, the site has a modest wear category, featuring two hijabs for athletics.
Created by Egyptian designer Yasmin Sobeih's brand Under-Rapt, these hijabs are sustainable, ethically made and, upon first sight, seem an unexpected product range to have a home on PLT. "I got in contact with PLT as I saw that the company was expanding into the UAE and did not offer a branded modest product to suit this demographic," Sobeih tells The National.
Athletic hijabs are hot-ticket fashion items at present, thanks to the global modest fashion boom – the value of this retail category is placed at about $368 billion (Dh1.351 trillion). In the same way burkinis helped widen opportunities for Muslim women seeking to enjoy public pools, beaches and waterparks, athletic hijabs are helping to facilitate participation in sports, in casual and professional capacities.
"Previously, women of Muslim faith have perhaps felt they should have to choose between their religious values and participation in physical activity, especially within multicultural environments," Sobeih says.
Nike made headlines worldwide when it launched its highly anticipated Pro Hijab at the end of 2017 with a star-studded roster of Arab athletes, including Emirati figure skater Zahra Lari and US Olympic fencer Ibtihaj Muhammad.
Other major retailers quickly followed in its footsteps: adidas started selling its hijab last year, while US sports brand Under Armour is the latest to enter the sports hijab market – the brand's chief executive, Patrik Frisk, announced the launch on Twitter last month, saying that hijab-wearing athletes, including Saman Munir (the Canadian-Pakistani personal trainer and face of the campaign), helped to develop the product.
Although these new creations are stamped with global brand names, headscarves specifically designed for sports have been in existence for decades. Back in 1999, Dutch designer Cindy van den Bremen made one for a girl who had been kicked out of her gym class in the Netherlands. Her design was so popular it led to the birth of a brand – Capsters – in 2001, which claims to be the maker of "the original sports hijabs".
In 2012, the brand worked with Jordan's Prince Ali bin Al Hussein to lift Fifa's hijab ban in football, and Capsters also designed the first Fifa-approved sports hijab.
In 2016 Sobeih conceptualised her sports hijab as a student at the London College of Fashion, where she created a business plan for her brand Under-Rapt as part of her fashion-buying and merchandising course.
"I combined the concept of fashion-led modest athleisure with sustainability and realised the huge potential and gap in the market for a trend-focused, ethically sourced modest sportswear brand," she says.
Her sports hijabs took two forms – a hooded base layer top, and a separate sports hijab (the style now available on PLT), crafted from sweat and water-resistant, sustainably sourced Tencel and modal fabrics from Austria.
Also in 2016, American brand Asiya launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise funds for its modest activewear, initially aimed at Muslim women seeking basketball uniforms that would comply with their dress code. The Minneapolis label launched with three different athletic hijabs – a bonnet style, a fitted hood and a longer veil.
Many Muslim designers have incorporated revolutionary elements into their sports hijabs over the years – Malaysian label TudungPeople manufactured a pullover hijab top hybrid that has a racerback design, and pieces by Singaporean brand Adlina Anis are integrated with caps for sun protection and openings for headphones.
Some non-Muslim independent labels are also experimenting with athletic hijabs, such as Bind London, which designs fitness hair accessories – including durags and hijabs.
"A sports hijab is nothing I haven't seen before," writes modest fashion blogger Dina Torkia in her book, Modestly. "I saw sportswear for Muslim women in Egyptian markets everywhere while growing up, but it's not 'cool' until it has a mainstream label on it."
When Nike announced its Pro Hijab, it wasn't the world's first athletic hijab – but it was still revolutionary for the modest fashion industry and Muslim women. "This was the first time a giant brand sent out a message to the world about inclusivity and tolerance via a sports, performance hijab," says UAE running coach and Surviving Hijab Facebook community founder, Manal Rostom. She was one of the athletes who modelled Nike's product, and was one of the first to wear it while competing in a major sporting event that year – the New York City Marathon. "The market gap has been recognised and thankfully, brands are happily catering to us," she says.
Outside of the realm of sports, the Pro Hijab has become a popular fixture even on non-athletic modest fashion influencers, transcending its active purposes and becoming a staple in the wardrobes of trend-conscious hijab-wearing women. Donning it in place of their everyday headscarves, these women are topping off their athleisure or loungewear looks with the fitted black or white hoods emblazoned with Nike's famed Swoosh logo. Last year, it even made the list of the top 10 most-wanted items in luxury fashion.
While high fashion houses and major retail brands are entering the modesty market, some Muslim consumers prefer to support home-grown brands with faith-based foundations, instead of mainstream labels. A poll of 120 hijab-wearing women on Instagram showed that the majority of respondents – 77 per cent – preferred to buy athletic hijabs from smaller, Muslim-owned brands, rather than mainstream, global retailers. Some believe global brands may not be deeply invested in supporting the female Muslim community, and that retailers’ motivations are surface-deep, riding the hype of the modest fashion movement and targeting Muslim spending power.
Amani Al-Khatahtbeh, founder of MuslimGirl.com, who this year became the first Muslim woman in New Jersey to run for Congress, expresses this conundrum in her autobiography, Muslim Girl: A Coming of Age. "Muslim women are hot right now. The thing is, we can't be cool with society vilifying our identities while at the same time trying to profit off them," she writes.
Melanie Elturk, chief executive of American brand Haute Hijab, meanwhile, welcomes the industry's spotlight on headscarves. "I think the impact of mainstream brands coming into the hijab space is incredible because it validates and acknowledges the power of our consumer base," she told The National last year. Haute Hijab will launch its range this year.
Sobeih echoes Elturk's sentiments, and even suggests that mainstream brands tapping into this niche have helped raise awareness of her own label. "The number of consumers who search keywords relatable to Under-Rapt in search engines, such as 'modest' and 'sports hijab', have risen," she says. "These mainstream brands have helped 'normalise' hijabs within sports, leading to more social inclusion and acceptance."