By Tala Hadavi, VOA, Montreal
Olympic hopeful, 17-year-old Zeinab Hammoud
Female Muslim athletes who observe a strict Islamic dress code sometimes face the question of whether they will be allowed to participate in major competitions -- with their heads and most of their bodies covered. Now, one Iranian-Canadian woman is marketing a product to change that. It complies with the requirements of many major sports, and it’s fashionable, safe and comfortable -- while still meeting Islamic requirements.
An Olympic hopeful faces a small obstacle
Seventeen-year-old Zeinab Hammoud has a brown belt in Taekwondo, and dreams of one day making it to the Olympics. But unlike her sister, Rana, Zeinab chooses to wear the Islamic headscarf, or hijab.
This became a problem four years ago. The team’s hard work, passion and hopes were dashed when the Taekwondo Federation of Quebec expelled them from a tournament in 2007. The reason: their hijabs were considered unsafe. “I was really disappointed because I trained really hard for that tournament. When I found out we were expelled I lost all my motivation to continue,” Hammoud said.
Civil rights supporters and sports enthusiasts around the world were enraged. Elham Seyed Javad was one of them. “In my opinion every individual, no matter their religion, should have the same rights as anyone else in society," he stated. "I mean, sports was made to re-unite people."
Javad was an industrial design student at the time, so she decided to take on the problem as one of her school projects. "At the time, in 2008, when I decided to take on this project, the international federation of Taekwondo didn’t allow its athletes to wear anything under the helmet. So my professor didn’t think there was a point of pursuing it. But my point was, the rule is there because nothing has been invented that is appropriate," she explained.
Javad spent countless hours with the Hammoud sisters’ taekwondo team and with pattern maker Latifa Boukenda, to make the best product possible. “This was a very exciting project for me. I’ve worked in fashion for many years but this was special because it was beyond fashion," she said. "It had a more human and social aspect to it. helping young women blossom and follow their athletic dreams."
Ultimately, they hit upon a design that worked, and a fabric that was stretchy, breathable, and dried quickly. Called a “ResportOn,” the garment was an immediate hit.
Even Zeinab’s sister Rana, who chooses not to wear the hijab, was impressed. “I just tried the Resport hijab and the hair was inside so it doesn’t come out and it’s very comfortable so you can play without trying to put your hair inside all the time,” she noted.
Rules reconsidered, changed
Javad’s invention came at an opportune time. A year later, in response to pressure from the taekwondo community, the World Taekwondo Federation changed its rules to allow for head-coverings.
The Montreal Muslim Taekwondo team was able to compete again.
“I was in the stands and got teary-eyed because since the very beginning my goal was to be able to see the girls on the mats again. When it happened it was like someone gave me the world," Javad stated.
Javad thought she was just helping Zeinab and her teammates. But when an investor approached her about marketing the product, things changed dramatically. In January, her sports hijab became available to athletes all over the world. She has been busy ever since. “My days start at 2am when my phone goes off with an email from an athlete from the other side of the world. I turn it on and read the email, get happy and go back to sleep," she said.
While there are other sports hijabs on the market, Javad believes hers has some advantages. Those include a built-in t-shirt that keeps it from pulling loose, and an opening at the back that allows easy access for wearers to adjust their hair.
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