New sportswear allows Muslim girls to play sports, practice religion

U of M, local girls team up to create culturally sensitive athletic uniforms

Dr. Elizabeth Bye from the University of Minnesota’s College of Design goes through some of the prototypes designed by the G.I.R.L.S. participants in July.

WHEN MUNA MOHAMED was in middle school, she had a hard time finding a private space to play basketball.

Mohamed, now a senior at Augsburg College in Minneapolis, is Muslim and wears the hijab, a head­cover some Muslim women choose to wear in observance of their reli­gious teachings. As well as covering her hair, she covers her entire body from men who are not related to her.

For this reason, Mohamed was unable to wear typical sports cloth­ing, which usually shows legs and arms, while playing in public. Nor was she able to find a place without men so that she could wear whatever she wanted.

“I did not have an opportunity to get a space where I could feel com­fortable and respect my culture and religion,” Mohamed said.

This is no longer a problem for some local East African and Muslim girls. The girls, along with leaders of the girls’ Cedar-Riverside program, teamed up with the University of Minnesota and community members to create culturally sensitive athletic­wear that allows girls to play sports comfortably while observing their Muslim religious practices.

“We designed a uniform that allowed the girls more freedom in movement, but of course, allowed them to remain covered and uphold cultural and religious norms,” said Dr. Chelsey Thul, a kinesiology lec­turer at the University of Minnesota and one of the project leaders.

At a fashion show this spring, a pair of G.I.R.L.S. participants model the new culturally sensitive athleticwear.

While the uniform covers all but the girls’ faces and hands, it also allows for comfort, safety and flexibility while the girls remain physically active.

The project was led by Thul, the University of Minnesota College of Design, the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport, the Girls Initiative in Recreation and Leisurely Sports (G.I.R.L.S.) program and Fatimah Hussein, who started the G.I.R.L.S. program in 2008.

Creating the sportswear

The sportswear project was set in motion after the idea of girls-only gym time for local East African girls. When Hussein witnessed the lack of athletic opportunities for girls in her community, she founded the G.I.R.L.S. program, which promotes healthy physical activity in a cultur­ally appropriate environment for Muslim and East African girls in the Cedar-Riverside community, in 2008 at the Brian Coyle Center in Minneapolis.

But girls in the program still complained about the skirts and the uncomfortable, long-sleeved shirts they had to wear, according to Thul, who was a volunteer research con­sultant for the program.

At a fashion show this spring, a G.I.R.L.S. participant models the new basketball uniform the girls will wear for their traveling basketball team this fall.

“We would hear girls talking about their clothing as they were trying to do physical activity,” she said. “Their long skirts made it hard to do a behind-the-legs dribble… [Then] it hit me, ‘Oh my gosh, what if we could have the girls create their ideal vision of a culturally-sensitive physi­cal activity outfit?’”

About two years ago, Thul approached Dr. Elizabeth Bye, a pro­fessor at the College of Design, about a plan to design culturally sensitive sportswear, and Bye agreed to help with the design.

“It sounded fun,” Bye recalled. “…This [project] spoke to a lot of my students.”

Although sportswear tailored toward Muslim women already had been designed, not much was available to younger females, nor were there culturally sensitive uni­forms specific to an individual sport.

With the help of a more than $120,000 grant from the Minnesota Agriculture Experiment Station that was due just two weeks after Thul approached Bye, Bye’s graduate students and the G.I.R.L.S. team set out to design sportswear that would defy today’s conventional norms.

The entire research and design process took about two years. Instead of teaching in a classroom, Bye taught her students the design process by having them swim and try out multiple sports to observe the situation “with a little bit of a differ­ent eye,” she said.

A relationship between project leaders and the Somali community also developed. Some of the girls’ parents even volunteered their time to help develop the sportswear through community feedback events.

Although there was some concern that the sportswear would not adhere to Somali culture’s strict guidance on modesty, the overall community and parental feedback was positive, according to Thul.

“Parents in the community were very supportive,” Thul said. “They were very excited that their girls were leading the way with this project.”

After the prototypes were assembled, parents and some local community members sewed the final products in local mosques.

“You could not believe the dif­ference it made,” Bye said about the finished products.

To unveil the sportswear to the community, a fashion show was held in the spring at the Brian Coyle Center. G.I.R.L.S. participants displayed two different outfits: Some wore a black and blue striped sleeved physical outfit, which is to be used for any sport, and others showed off a red basketball uniform.

When asked about the outcome of the project, Mohamed , also a G.I.R.L.S. coach, said, “It’s about time!”

Looking toward the future

One big surprise during the project was the announcement that the girls would be wearing the basketball uniform for a new traveling basketball team that G.I.R.L.S. program leaders had put together. The Lady Warriors will now compete with neighboring Minneapolis teams.

Thul also hopes to work with the Minnesota State High School League, the governing body for the state’s high school sports, to adopt the sportswear for Muslim girls who would want to wear it while competing for their high school teams. She also is hoping to sell the two products outside of the program.

“We are looking into potential vendors to license the clothing, looking into who can manufacture the clothing,” Thul said.

Mohamed is excited about the new opportunities this sportswear will bring to her community and other girls who have shared her experiences.

“I wish I had it when I was younger,” Mohamed said, “but now that it is available for these girls, I am really, really happy.”