Muslim girls design 'modest' sportswear keeping tradition intact
Girls in stylish athletic wear walk the runway as the sounds of Taylor Swift and Katy Perry blare from speakers. The crowd claps and cheers as the young models strike poses with basketballs, lacrosse sticks and boxing gloves. Finally, the big reveal: the Lady Warriors community traveling basketball team takes the stage in their cardinal red uniforms.
This is no ordinary fashion show. The models are East African, primarily Muslim girls living in Minnesota who designed their own culturally sensitive sportswear that lets them move freely without worrying about tripping on a long, flowing dress or having a head scarf come undone at a crucial point.
"The girls for years have been telling us, 'We would like clothing. We would like clothing,'" said Chelsey Thul, a lecturer in kinesiology at the University of Minnesota who helped lead the two-year project.
The uniforms' roots stretch back further, to the day in 2008 when then-college student Fatimah Hussein founded a girls-only sports program that now includes the Lady Warriors and began claiming gym time at a community center in the heart of Minneapolis' Somali neighborhood.
The girls quickly learned that traditional dress and basketball don't mix well, said Thul, who was a volunteer research consultant to the program.
The answer, Thul said, was a functional yet modest uniform "so they could do that between-the-legs dribble, make that three-pointer, and not have clothing be a barrier."
She worked with Hussein, girls from her sports league, the University of Minnesota's College of Design, the Tucker Center for Research on Girls & Women in Sport at the university, coaches and community members on the project.
Sertac Sehlikoglu, a social anthropologist working on leisure, sports and the Muslim communities at the University of Cambridge, noted that Iran has been developing culturally appropriate female sportswear for years. She agreed with the Minnesota project's organizers that the girls' designs could catch on in other cities with large Muslim populations.
The US "has been an important actor in triggering global trends, if not leading them, and thus I believe that would have a positive impact," Sehlikoglu said in an email.
Starting in 2013, the girls attended female sporting events to see how uniforms worked. University designers helped the girls get their ideas on paper. The project culminated in the fashion show this June at the university.
The girls came up with two designs. One teal-and-black uniform with stripes — good for all sports including swimming — features leggings and a knee-length tunic. Both the everyday active wear and the basketball team's bright red outfit include a tight black headpiece. Arms, legs, hair and neck are all covered.
Style was important, said Amira Ali, 12, who helped with the design.
"I want to look good," she said.
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