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Sport is a cornerstone of Australian society, and since the 2005 Cronulla Riots, a violent sectarian clash in a beachside Sydney suburb, it has also been at the forefront of efforts in community awareness, integration and acceptance of the diverse multicultural face of modern-day Australia. But beyond faith, ethnicity and cultural ties, sporting apparel has experienced 12% growth in Australia over the past five years, which is a significant figure given that total apparel has grown 9% during the same period.
Australia is not alone in this case: around the world surging consumer interest in health and fitness participation, coupled with an increase in the number of brands merging sportswear with fashion, led to a 7% rise in sportswear’s global retail value in 2014 and 31% growth (at a 6% CAGR) over the past five years.
Source: Euromonitor International
Although women’s products significantly outsell men’s in the global apparel and footwear market, for years sportswear was strictly a men’s market. This is changing, however, and women are now the key target audience.
In Australia, local and international companies within women’s sportswear have developed an entire lifestyle concept, providing customers with clothing items and experiences. For instance, Lululemon offers customers complementary yoga classes where it promotes its clothing and accessories through brand ambassadors. Nike has successfully organised “She Runs the Night”, a women’s-only fun run, supported by an extensive marketing campaign that includes brand ambassadors in charge of organising weekly run clubs in different locations around Sydney and sharing tips, such as workout apparel and footwear preferences.
Given this growth trajectory – and renewed focus on gender-based marketing and new product development – there is globally a movement to encourage women and girls in sport, irrespective of their religion.
Veiled Muslim women, however, have long faced obstacles to participating in sport, both from within their communities – as exercising in public with mixed gender crowds is considered unacceptable – and with opposition from sporting federations in regards to uniform requirements.
However, Islam encourages both men and women to engage in physical activity as a way to maintain a healthy lifestyle. It is just a matter of ensuring that the sports are practised in an acceptable manner, which largely comes down to dress code and single gender sports.
The availability of modest sportswear for women has been limited in the past, but the landscape is changing as opportunities within sporting apparel are explored.
In an interview with Euromonitor International, Aheda Zanetti, the creator of the “Burqini” and founder of Ahiida, an Australian-based company that has pioneered modest sportswear for Muslim women, revealed she was inspired to act after watching her niece struggle to play netball in a cumbersome hijab. The lack of suitable sportswear ignited her desire to revolutionise sportswear for the modern Muslim woman in Australia. Since its prototype in 2004, the Burqini is now more comfortable and practical, made from a lightweight high-performance polyester fabric, which acts as a water repellent. This means that the garment doesn’t cling to the body, thus still maintaining the wearer’s modesty.
As the Australian community was left reeling in the aftermath of the hatred and violence of the Cronulla Riots, fought between young Anglo- and Lebanese-Australians at Sydney’s Cronulla Beach, it was Zanetti’s Burqini that emerged as one of the most positive images of the whole incident.
Following the riots, the federal government funded ‘On the Same Wave’, a programme run by Surf Life Saving Australia and designed to increase the ethnic diversity within local surf lifesaving clubs, in particular, by training young Muslims as lifesavers. Mecca Laalaa, one of the program’s first female recruits, was photographed wearing a burqini in the traditional red and yellow surf lifesaver colours on Cronulla Beach, and soon after Zanetti was inundated with orders.
Zanetti also created the “Hijood”, which is essentially a hood that fits snugly around the face and chin, with a pocket in the back for a woman to tuck her hair in. In 2004, Bahrain’s Ruqaya Al-Ghasra, became the first Muslim female runner to wear a hijab at the Olympics and did so wearing Zanetti’s patented Hijood. Al-Ghasra won the women’s 200m final at the 2006 Asian Games in Doha, making her the first Bahraini-born athlete to win a major international athletics gold medal.
Indeed, there has been a conspicuous increase in the participation of Muslim women in elite sports as amendments have been made to the regulations regarding their apparel.
In 2011, for instance, weightlifter Kulsoom Abdullah won a campaign to change the sport’s rules regarding what athletes can wear in competition, with the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) approving new guidelines for female competitors who wish to cover up.
In March 2014, FIFA announced the lift of the ban on head covers after a two-year trial. The wearing of head covers had been banned as FIFA considered that these garments could pose a threat to players’ safety. With the new guidelines competitors are allowed to wear a hijab or turban during football matches.
The International Basketball Federation (FIBA) announced a two-year trial of head coverings, such as hijabs and turbans, in September 2014, in certain competitions. Anything larger than a 5cm headband had previously been banned by the sport’s governing body.
Although veiled Muslim role models in sports are somewhat limited, overall participation and attitudes towards sports have improved in recent years. The common voice of the elite athlete Muslim women are that they are happy to defy fundamentalist views on them participating in sports, so that they may pave the way for future generations of Muslim women to have equal opportunity to compete and experience the health benefits of exercise.
There are opportunities for modest sporting apparel beyond competitive sport, with government, communities and individuals pushing initiatives for a more inclusive approach to sports in Australia.
Given Australia’s outdoor lifestyle and multicultural population, demand for modest sportswear is expected to continue to grow. With most of Australia’s population concentrated in coastal regions and families sharing a fair amount of time at the beach or swimming pool, items like the Burqini are expected to gain in importance as more Muslim and non-Muslim women recognise its multiple benefits, including sun protection, flexibility and modesty. In the case of Muslim women, particularly, the Burqini has become a stepping stone as it has enabled them to be more involved in beach-related family activities and lifted limitations of those who felt confined in the domestic sphere, thus further strengthening their family bonds.
Although new product development within halal sporting apparel has been relatively slow, with the Capster, a sporting hijab from Dutch designer Cindy van den Bremen, and Burqini introduced to the market more than 10 years ago, the segment has benefited from global trends in the sports category, including the emergence of sports-inspired apparel. With a new generation of fashion designers, retailers and bloggers closely following global fashion trends and adapting them to be religiously acceptable, there is certainly vast potential for halal variations on contemporary “sports-luxe” or “athleisure” trends.
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