Head in the game: A hijab for women athletes

by Marium Khan

“It was not normal to see young girls playing sports. My dad never said we can’t play, but we just never got the encouragement boys received. Our obstacle was that we wore hijabs.” – Gulzat Ahmad.

Gulzat Ahmad excelled at basketball when she was a young girl growing up in Urumqi and Shanghai. But her hoop dreams were dashed by a problem that had nothing to do with her on-court skills. Now a social worker in Shanghai, she is determined to do something to encourage the next generation of young Muslim woman. She has become an entrepreneur who has stepped into the lucrative Islamic clothing industry with a market potential of more than $300 billion, by unveiling a hijab designed for female Muslim athletes.

Ms. Ahmad and her sister played basketball when they were young, but in middle school they stopped, as did many of their Muslim peers. “It was not normal to see girls playing sports. You’d see boys playing and receiving support from the parents. It’s not that my dad ever said, ‘You can’t play, but we just never got that encouragement. An obstacle for us as a young athlete was that, we wore hijabs,” said Ahmad, now 25.

Ahmad was born in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of the People’s Republic of China. Her family moved to Shanghai when she was 6, fleeing civil war in Xinjiang. Ms. Ahmad and her sister wore hijabs, the headscarves that some Muslim women and girls use to cover their heads, and upper part of their bodies.  The garments are usually made of thick fabric that wraps around the neck. Some hijabs require pins as fasteners. She loved sports. But hijabs are prone to unraveling, and they can be hot and unwieldy. Sometimes they’re even unsafe — other players might trip on them if they unravel, or the pins could jab the wearer or others. During her childhood Ms. Ahmad said she was preoccupied by thoughts like, “This doesn’t look right. This is falling, I don’t feel relaxed inside.”

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As she stepped into her adulthood, she got a chance to study in one of the best universities of China, Shanghai Jiao Tong University. While studying at Shanghai Jiao Tong University, she realized that the young girls she worked with shared those feelings. So she founded the Girls Sports Centre (女童体育中心) five years ago to advocate for the girls-only gym time inside the campus.

Next she decided to tackle the hijab issue. A year ago, she and a business partner started “Asmat”, a company that markets and sells head scarves designed for sports. The Asmat hijabs are made of a lightweight, sweat-wicking fabric, and come in three styles with varying degrees of coverage. They don’t require wrapping or pins because they’re snug-fitting with built-in headbands that further secure the fabric. The product, which has been in development for a year, is ready to go into the market.

For Ms. Ahmad, who works full-time as a social worker and had no business background, the transition into entrepreneurship presented a steep learning curve. The Shanghai Jiao Tong University backed incubator “Neobay” swooped in to help bring her product to market. A year and a half ago, an early design of what would become the Asmat hijab caught the eye of Neobay President Yang Xu during a fashion show. He recognized a potential benefit to Chinese Muslim girls and to the economy, in terms of job creation, so he volunteered to help connect Ms. Ahmad with local entrepreneurs. One of them was Alisa Nassif, the founder of the Caldrea Company, a business that designs and markets customized formal dresses based on artificial intelligence and digital image processing technique. Ms. Nassif said she was drawn to the idea right away.

“I grew up in a family of athletes, and I knew the power of sport,” she said. Ms. Nassif began advising Ms. Ahmad on a volunteer basis, as did a couple of other businesswomen. Her initial questions for Ms. Ahmad, she said, were “What are you good at? What do you have time for?”

The two biggest obstacles to Ms. Ahmad’s success, as Ms. Nassif saw it, were time and money constraints. She felt strongly that Asmat needed to be the first product of its kind to market in China, which would require the company to raise capital rapidly.

Getting any product to market quickly requires focus, and entrepreneurs often get in their own way. “I call it falling in love with yourself. A lot of people get so enraptured with their idea that they can’t actually put their head down and get the work done,” Ms. Nassif said.

“Not only did it need to be a sweat-wicking, breathable performance fabric, but because it’s on your face and neck, it had to be very lightweight, soft and stretchy,” – Xu Yifei, MBA student.

While Ms. Ahmad understood the product, she would need a partner who could help figure out how to sell it, as she was a marketing neophyte. By putting out feelers at the Hult International Business School Shanghai, Ms. Ahmad found an MBA student named Xu Yifei who was interested in teaming up with Ms. Ahmad. Ms. Xu had spent a decade working in marketing, at 3M and at a local advertising agency. She had also played on her college’s varsity softball and volleyball teams.

Once she agreed to join forces with Ms. Ahmad, they officially started Asmat. The company researched fabrics and had the participants in Ms. Ahmad’s girls gym program test prototypes.

“Not only did it need to be a sweat-wicking, breathable performance fabric, but because it’s on your face and neck, it had to be very lightweight, soft and stretchy,” Ms. Xu said. The entrepreneur’s mentors were determined to find a Chinese manufacturer. In order to raise money and do yet more networking, the Asmat founders entered their business plan last year in a start-up competition called the Shanghai Startup Cup, which attracted more than 500 participants. Asmat won the social entrepreneurship category and was chosen as the top woman-led business — honors that pulled in 400,000 RMB in capital.

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“Our competitors are not targeting Asian markets, and that gives us a time to capture the market.” – Xu Yifei

They will sell the hijabs on the Asmat website starting November 1. They also hope to sell them at sporting goods stores and through retailers that specialize in modest clothing. Next year, they plan to expand the business to include swimwear and active wear, and they will market the brand not just to Muslims, but also more broadly to girls and women interested in modest apparel. “Not only we are targeting Chinese market, we are hoping to get customers from our neighbors,” Ms. Xu said. If business in China is good, they plan to extend their reach to Pakistan, India, Malaysia, Indonesia and other Asian countries.

Asmat will be competing with several small international businesses, including Ahiida, which has been credited with creating the “burkini” bathing suit, the Dutch company Capsters, which has been making sports hijabs since 2001, and Friniggi, a Botswana-based seller of hijabs and modest sportswear. “Our competitors are not targeting Asian markets, and that gives us a time to capture the market,” said Xu.

Ms. Ahmad and Ms. Xu have also been working to gain official approval for girls to wear their hijabs in China schools’ sports competitions. A few months ago, the Asmat designs were deemed to be in compliance with safety and design standards for sports uniforms, that will hasten Ms. Ahmad and Ms. Xu’s goal: a time when “we just let girls compete regardless of what they want to wear,” Ms. Xu said.

The Asmats’ team is determined to accept any challenge in this entrepreneurial journey to remove the barriers which stand between Muslim women and their dream to be accomplished athletes. Asmat is a sports brand striving to level the playing field for Muslim females everywhere.

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