Walking in mega shopping malls around the Arab world is often a journey among the world’s number one commercial campaigns. From ethnic models to Caucasian women and men that equally fail to relate to Middle Eastern beauty aesthetics, shop windows and flashy ads often display an obvious neglect of many countries and ethnicities.
Manal Rostom is an Egyptian pharmacist and athlete that refused to stay unrepresented in her favourite brand’s campaigns. After years of growing up in a world that stereotyped her nation and women she could relate to, Rostom wanted to change what she considered unacceptable.
In 2014, the successful long-distance runner became the first hijabi woman to step into Nike HQ to be featured in the brand’s global campaign. Today she is part of a campaign taking the fitness and fashion industries by storm—the world’s first pro-sport hijab by a world-class brand.
Even though many Arab-based brands already have a wide range of alternatives, this particular move from Nike is widely celebrated as a gesture of acceptance and tolerance.
Daily News Egypt talked with Rostom to discuss her courageous endeavour, her struggle as a hijabi athlete, and the importance of the Pro Hijab.
What encouraged you to contact Nike for the first time back in 2014?
The first time I contacted Nike was in November 2014; after I founded my support group on Facebook for women surviving hijab. It was basically founded to reach out to women in Egypt and other Arab countries, which are dealing with having to take off their hijab or not being comfortable with it.
For many reasons, I did not want to be one of these women that were going to take off their hijab, so I decided to create this group. It grew so rapidly that we reached 40,000 women in the time between August and November.
I thought that it was a great opportunity to contact Nike and introduce myself through the Facebook group and the fact that I was an athlete that took part in several triathlons. I simply told them that I wanted to see Arab Muslim women running in their campaigns because as a hijabi runner, I wanted to see somebody that represents me.
What was the main message that you hoped to communicate through your first collaboration with Nike?
The main message that I wanted to communicate was that we are here and that we do exist in this context: we are active; we run; we are neither confined nor oppressed. I wanted to let people know that we are not limited to raising kids and spending our days in the kitchen like the media portrays us.
I wanted to let everyone know that we are interesting, at least some of us are. Generally speaking, no one should judge a woman based on how she looks or what she chooses to wear to display her faith.
I was the first Arab hijabi athlete to be invited to Nike’s HQ in July 2015 to attend their trainer summit. They recognised me as a sportsperson that lives in the Arab world and they wanted me to represent Arab women.
My images were all over the stores here in the UAE. Meanwhile, I am also the first hijabi Nike run-club coach in the world and the first hijabi trainer in the world as well.
How would you evaluate the impact and importance of launching the Nike Pro Hijab now amid all the political tension and increasing Islamophobia?
The product is crucial for me and my sport as well. I want any woman, who is already veiled, to feel confident that she now has got the product that will support her sport; whatever it is. I want women, who are thinking about wearing the hijab, to not be reluctant or confused.
I was born to Egyptian parents and I grew up in Kuwait. I was always confused about the hijab because I wanted to wear it, but the rest of the world was never supportive. However, as a kid, if I had me or any other successful hijab-wearing athlete to look up to, I would have never hesitated about my decision.
It is actually the perfect timing to launch such a product to the world. For the world’s number one sports brand to support Muslim women is going to change Islamophobia and the way people perceive us. It is going to make people more tolerant and less judgmental regarding hijab-wearing women.
I am a certified pharmacist and sports instructor. I have an Egyptian passport, but then also multiple US visas due to my work in the pharmaceutical industry. Nonetheless, last time, when I was there earlier this year, they stopped me and I was held for three hours in a room full of Arab and Chinese travellers—I missed my connecting flight just because I wore hijab.
For you as an athlete, what are the main positive features that the new Pro Hijab offers to veiled women?
I am an athlete that trains mostly outdoors; I run very long distances in brutal weather. I live in the Gulf area—in one of the hottest countries in the world. When you train for a triathlon or marathon, you train mostly outdoors with limited opportunity to train indoors. The reason why most hijabi women find it difficult to train outside is the heat.
Some women have very sensitive skin so the area around the neck gets agitated and develops a severe rash. The material with those athletes choose to cover their head is quite essential.
The Nike Pro Hijab is coming with dry-fit material that is used in running gear. It is going to impact long-distance training outdoors and heat tolerance. It is going to improve the performance of hijab-wearing athletes drastically.
What are the main characteristics that you would like to promote regarding Middle Eastern women in general and hijabi women in particular?
First of all, Middle Eastern women are not confined to setting up families and catering to domestic life or even raising 5 or 10 kids. Sadly, this is a stereotype that we grew up being scared of. We have many examples of hijab-wearing Middle Eastern women that excel in many fields.