“Women in hijab are often labeled as ‘uncool’, ‘tacky’, ‘lower class’, or ‘uneducated’ – and that’s in an Arab Muslim country,” says veiled Egyptian athlete Manal Rostom. “I felt like I was standing out for all the wrong reasons. Why I would stand out because of my veil in a Middle Eastern, Muslim nation, genuinely baffled me.”
Since 2001, when she decided to don the headscarf, the now 38-year-old has crusaded against every stereotype plastered onto hijabi women, and has arguably become the poster girl for not only hijabi athletes, but for the empowerment of all veiled women. Athletic since grade school, she’s since accomplished a myriad of firsts; last year she was one of the veiled female athletes featured as ambassadors in the campaign for the recently launched Nike Pro Hijab; right before that, she became the first hijabi woman to coach a Nike Run Club team; in 2015 she became first hijabi Arab woman to appear in a Nike ad full stop. She also happens to be the first Egyptian woman to have climbed two of the seven summits (Kilimanjaro and Elbrus), she’s ran seven marathons, and she’s got her sights set on conquering Everest. Just listing her achievements is rather exhausting.
But all this can possibly be traced back to her first statement-making accomplishment; creating the Facebook group Surviving Hijab in 2014, a cyber support group of sorts for women struggling with wearing the veil. “I wanted to create a platform open for women to share their fears, concerns, doubts and insecurities about Hijab, in the hope that it would empower them rather than make them feel bad about themselves for wearing it.” The group started with exactly 80 women. It has now racked up over half a million members.
I wanted to create a platform open for women to share their fears, concerns, doubts and insecurities about Hijab, in the hope that it would empower them rather than make them feel bad about themselves for wearing it
Rostom has donned the veil for over 16 years, but she is the first to admit that though its sanctity is now indisputable to her, the reality of wearing it in the real world is no easy feat, and she has questioned keeping it on. “It makes you feel less feminine sometimes. When you’re playing sports it gets incredibly hot. People judge you for it. Some people refuse to work with you because of the hijab…” her voice trails off as she lists the innumerable ways in which veiled women not only sometimes feel limited by it, but are also often treated as second class citizens – ironically enough, not in the West but in their own countries.
Got to meet a real-life superwoman yesterday. @manirostom has achieved so many firsts – from being the first Egyptian woman to run the Great Wall Marathon to being the first woman in a hijab in a Nike campaign after she emailed them asking to see more women like her in ads. Manal, thank you breaking down barriers and being an inspiration to us all 💪
“I nearly took it off in 2014 actually – that was right before I created Surviving Hijab,” she recounts, “A lot people I knew were removing it. There was this peer pressure to take it off as well, and I’d get these comments like ‘it's only you left now, everyone else took it off. What are you waiting for?’ Unless you have this really strong faith inside, it will be really hard to keep it on.”
But it was her unshakable faith that eventually lead her not only keep it on, but pushed her to keep proving that she would not allow a piece of fabric to imprison her or her goals within it and that no one else should either. “Yes I guess it defines me now and I’m known as ‘the first hijabi to do this’ and ‘the first hijabi to do that’ and honestly I don’t mind if it’s going to break stereotypes and remove labels for women who choose to cover,” she says. “I never grew up with an iconic hijabi figure or personality; someone who looked like me or like my family. I would have loved to see that growing up with an identity crisis.”
What is more pertinent though than her smattering of impressive individual achievements, is that they and she are part of a groundswell; one woman but a key component in a shifting global narrative where divergent beauty norms, culture, and traditions are finally not only being recognized and accepted, but embraced and catered to. “Veiled women are underrepresented but a lot of big brands are now finally taking note,” Rostom says.
Veiled women are underrepresented but a lot of big brands are now finally taking note
When Nike initially selected her as the first hijabi to appear in a Nike running Middle East ad in 2015, that was essentially a major validation of the presence of veiled women in the athletic sphere. This new sense of inclusivity has had its ups (when luxury fashion house Dolce & Gabbana released their hijab and abaya collection in 2016) and downs (lest we forget when Yves Saint Laurent Co-Founder Pierre Berge then went on to harshly criticize Dolce & Gabanna’s move saying that designers should not “collaborate with this dictatorship which imposes this abominable thing by which we hide women”) but overall, the positive impact has reverberated.
Nike’s act of creating the pro hijab line was definitely a demarcating moment; a powerhouse brand creating attire specifically for veiled women – especially when you consider that as close as the 2016 Olympics, Egyptian volleyball player Doaa El-Ghobashy had to obtain permission from the International Volleyball Federation to wear her hijab while competing at the games.
I never grew up with an iconic hijabi figure or personality; someone who looked like me or like my family. I would have loved to see that growing up with an identity crisis
And the sentiment has seeped everywhere; veiled Olympic fencer Ibtehaj Mohamed got her own Barbie; hijabi model Halima Aden was signed to the world’s biggest modelling agency IMG last year; and just two months ago model Amena Khan became the first woman to wear a hijab in a mainstream hair ad when L’Oreal featured her for their new Elvive campaign (before she promptly stepped down from her campaign after old tweets of hers criticizing Israel's war on Gaza became the center of a media frenzy and an onslaught of backlash). Of course, this all falls within a wider global narrative where diversity among women is no longer a digression, it is a positive and empowering distinction. Think the storm of positive buzz Rihanna’s Fenty beauty line caused for catering to women of every different skin tone when she launched it in 2017, or how Australian model Madeline Stuart was embraced in the fashion industry in recent years, appearing not only in NYFW in 2016 but also in Vogue.
It is, in essence, the start of a movement – hopefully. “We shouldn't judge women,” Rostom concludes, “whether they’re white or black, have short hair or long hair, choose to wear the hijab or walk around naked."
You can follow Rostom on Instagram @manirostom.