Over the course of the next couple years, Manal Rostom hopes to become the first Egyptian woman to climb the Seven Summits. The 37-year-old budding mountaineer, who currently lives in Dubai, is a veteran long-distance runner and was the first Egyptian hijabi to run China’s Great Wall Marathon back in 2016. She learned about mountain climbing in 2007 after seeing social media posts from Egyptian mountaineer Omar Samra and went on to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, Africa’s highest point, in 2012. Rostom has also summited Russia’s Mount Elbrus, the tallest mountain in Europe, and led a team to Everest Base Camp. This year, she made an attempt at Aconcagua but was turned around by a storm.
Rostom has done most of her training and climbing while wearing a cotton-blend hijab. But cotton isn’t ideal for hot or cold climates, so Rostom was excited to see Nike debut a new athletic hijab this month that will go on sale to consumers in early 2018. The Nike Pro Hijab is made from a high-performance synthetic and marketed at the growing number of professional athletes from Islamic cultures. Rostom, a Nike+ Run Club coach who was featured in a recent Nike marketing campaign in the Middle East, was part of the testing team for the new hijab.
“The one obstacle that’s always there if you’re a hijabi is, ‘What are you going to wear on your head?’” Rostom says. “To have the number one sport-and-fitness brand in the world facilitate this for us is a real gift. It’s going to change everything.”
While smaller Muslim brands have created athletic hijabs in the past, Nike is the first major corporation to debut a performance hijab. To develop the Pro, Nike designers met with elite female Muslim athletes from around the world—including Rostom, Olympic weightlifter Amna Al Haddad, and figure skater Zahra Lari, both from the United Arab Emirates—at Nike’s global headquarters in Beaverton, Oregon. The athletes tested prototypes and gave feedback, urging designers for a fabric that is soft, breathable, and unobtrusive. “I told them it has to be light and cover our head and neck fully,” says Rostom. “It has to absorb sweat, look good, and preferably come in color options.”
The result is a pullover headpiece made from Nike’s high-performance, single-layer Nike Pro mesh, a lightweight polyester built for wicking sweat and stretching during activity. It comes in three dark colors: black, vast grey, and obsidian.
Rostom first got involved with Nike after emailing the brand in 2014 to ask why the company never featured hijabi athletes in its imagery. It was a surprise when she got a response from the head of Nike running coaches in the Middle East asking her to take part in a photo shoot. The campaign came out in January 2015. “I just want to inspire the younger generation perhaps struggling with the same dilemma of wanting to embrace religion and at the same time fit in,” Rostom says. “This goes beyond being a new product that Nike is selling—it’s going to empower all women to embrace hijab and who they are.”
The move by Nike to create performance gear for women in the Muslim community has been widely welcomed. Sameena Usman, government relations coordinator for the San Francisco chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, says the move signals a broader culture acceptance.
“For a company like Nike to recognize that need and be able to provide that for a big market of people is a positive, and also a lucrative, step,” Usman says. “For a Muslim woman, to see a major brand recognize them as being a valued part of our global community and of the sports community, it sends a message of inclusiveness.”
Going forward, Rostom wants to redeem herself on Aconcagua and is planning another summit bid in December. A summit bid on Everest should follow within the next couple years. Rostom knows her pursuits are a bit of an anomaly for someone from the Middle East, but that hasn’t stopped her.
“The thing about mountain climbing is that it’s a risky sport, and we don’t grow up in an environment supporting a sport like that,” Rostom says. But “I have gone from being told to completely forget about this whole ‘mountain climbing thing’ to my family supporting my dream of becoming the first Egyptian woman to climb Everest one day.”