photo by Ackerman & Gruber
photo by Ackerman & Gruber

As a basketball coach for young Muslim girls at a community center, I saw a determination to enjoy sports, to win, to gain confidence through physical activity. I also noticed that some girls were taking off their hijab. so that it would not interfere with their playing. The hijab tended to fall off, or make them feel too hot during games.

Girls told me that taking off the hijab gave them one less thing to worry about. They could concentrate on making the shot. Yet I noticed that some of them did not invite family members to see them play, since it was an important faith tradition to cover the hair.

Some girls were not comfortable taking off the hijab, and were leaving the sport instead.

I knew these girls loved playing, and wanted to do so with no barriers. The entire idea behind having this private gym time was to feel confidence in who they are — in their identity as Muslim girls.

I didn’t want them to choose between their confidence as an athlete and their identity as women.

Yet I understood. It is socially important for everyone to find a way to fit in, while also learning that nothing can stop me.

I was born in Mogadishu, Somalia, where I lived until I was six. My family came to the U.S. to flee civil war. I have worn a hijab most of my life, including as a jogger. The thought of leaving the house without my hijab is as inconceivable as not wearing my eyeliner.

Together, the girls and I co-created a hijab made of sweat-wicking fabric that can breathe and stay on during play.

As someone with no business experience, I partnered in 2016 with Jamie Glover, a Carlson School of Management student at the University of Minnesota. State senator Kari Dziedzic supported our efforts. Business visionary Monica Nassif was a mentor. Crowdfunding and grants helped us raised more than $100,000. We launched Asiya Modest Active Wear on International Women’s Day in 2017.

Since then, Nike and others have introduced a line of hijabs. I see that as a positive thing— it shows Muslim women’s place in the sports market and builds awareness of our needs as runners, weightlifters, swimmers, martial artists, soccer players, and more. It was only a few years ago that a Saudi Arabian judo Olympian was banned from competing while wearing a hijab. It wasn’t until 2017 that the International Basketball Federation overturned its ban on head coverings.

Now the Asiya brand of headwear is sold in 25 countries, throughout the U.S., to schools and recreation programs and individuals, for all sports needs.The goal is for it to be as important to the team as any equipment. Asiya was created not to make money, but to solve a problem. We partner with non-profits, and offer opportunities to sponsor an athlete.

There is no reason you should lose your culture or your religion in order to feel confident as an athlete. We are all stronger when we are free to share our real identity.