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Nur Syahariah Jusoh (right) with fellow athletes at the 2019 Ironman Triathlon race wearing a sports hijab.

Sports hijabs pushing Muslim women athletes to new heights by merging tech with tradition

  • Sports hijabs today, such as those from Singaporean brand Glowco, use tech that makes them airy, lightweight, sweat-wicking and so that they don’t come untucked
  • The market is also extending beyond sportswear with labels like Malaysia’s Duck and Hana Tajima’s collaboration with Uniqlo

When you have to swim 3.8km (2.4 miles), cycle 180km and run a full marathon – all in succession – you dress as lightly as you can.

Many elite athletes wear triathlon suits and very little else for races like the Ironman Triathlon. But for Nur Syahariah Jusoh, known as Nursya, her Muslim beliefs require her to wear a hijab. So that’s what she did when she entered the race last year, which lasted 14 hours in searing hot weather in Langkawi, Malaysia.

It was no problem for the 43-year-old mother, who not only crossed the finish line, but was crowned the fastest Malaysian female participant in the race.

Her success is at least partly down to the new generation of sports hijabs that make activities like triathlons considerably more comfortable affairs than traditional versions of the garment do.

Nursya Jusoh was the fastest Malaysian female at the 2019 Ironman Triathlon in Langkawi.

When Nursya first started running in 2013, aside from her usual running clothes she wore only a scarf to cover her hair. She kept her neck and chest uncovered, for fear of overheating. It was only in 2018, with better options available, that she switched to a full hijab covering her head, neck and chest.

“With the selection of suitable fabrics, I began to feel comfortable and continue to improve my performance in sports, especially triathlon. I won several triathlon events while wearing the hijab,” she says.

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Nursya is aware of the power of the right apparel on the right person. “I think I have inspired other Muslims because after I finished [the Ironman Triathlon] I received many messages from women wearing hijab saying I inspired them,” she says.

The first sports hijab debuted in 2001 after a Dutch court ruling in the case of a Dutch Muslim girl who was expelled from gym class in 1999 for her supposedly unsafe hijab. The court’s solution – that girls should wear a polo neck with a swim cap instead, as they would cover the same areas – was not popular among Muslims.

Sports-friendly hijabs from Singaporean brand Glowco.

The sports hijab has come a long way since then. Today they incorporate technology that makes them airy, soft, lightweight, sweat-wicking and so that they don’t come untucked. Looks-wise, they’re pretty sleek too.

The latest design from Glowco, a Singaporean brand specialising in modest activewear, even ticks the sustainable box. Its Glowco Exclusive sports hijab is primarily made from recycled polyester, “which delivers identical technical performance while causing a smaller environmental footprint,” Nawal Alhaddad, the company’s founder, says.

Sports-friendly hijabs from Glowco.

“The double-knit fabric also allows it to be firmer, while also offering freshness, stain protection and extended product life,” she adds. “Lastly, in order to be moisture-wicking, the hydrophilic finishing keeps the body cool and dry, transporting moisture away from the skin to the surface of the fabric.”

The item is a long way from the constricting mode of dress that some accuse the hijab of being, while not submitting to the fundamental Islamists’ argument that by taking part in sports, Muslim women are compromising their modesty and values.

A look from Glowco.

The growing prominence of hijabs featuring cutting-edge material technology reflects how businesses are tapping into what’s pegged to be a US$402 billion modestwear market by 2024, according to the latest State of the Global Islamic Economy report by Thomson Reuters and DinarStandard. It also feels like somewhat of an indictment on patriarchal religious figures and businesses like sporting goods retailer Decathlon, which last year pulled sports hijabs for female joggers in France after Islamophobic furore in the country.

Glowco was established in 2018, when Nawal first starting wearing the hijab. A fitness instructor at the time, she saw how her hijab-wearing clients were being held back – their traditional hijabs wouldn’t stay in place, while their outfits would ride up uncomfortably, exposing some areas of their body, and left them hot, uncomfortable and drenched in sweat.

A look from Glowco.

“There was a gap in the market for modest activewear, and I thought that there’s no better way to solve the problem than to be the solution,” Nawal says. “We wanted to be the answer – without compromising their modesty.”

Now, the online marketplace in Southeast Asia for comfortable and cool hijabs extends beyond the sportswear scene. Want a silky Instagram influencer look? Check out Malaysian brand Duck, known for its crinkle-free “Matte Satin Silk” range. Prefer the Japanese minimalist look? There’s Hana Tajima’s collaboration with Uniqlo, which uses Airism fabric, one of Uniqlo’s foremost fabric innovations.
Siti Nurhaidah is a fan of functional hijabs that marry comfort and technology.

Siti Nurhaidah, an administrative executive in Singapore, says she does not have any trouble battling the heat and humidity thanks to the growing number of hijab options from online retailers like Lazada and Tokopedia, and with the progress of material technology.

“We have an ocean of choices really. Businesses are now coming out with not only different designs, but materials too,” she says.

“There are cotton hijab, satin, silk, chiffon, georgette, viscose – the list goes on. They are light and airy and make hijabs really comfortable to wear. We have an abundance of choices when it comes to choosing a hijab for different comfort levels and occasions.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: The crowning glory for female athletes