Running up and down the basketball court, eighth-grader Muna Mohamed couldn’t shake the thought: Was her loosely wrapped hijab going to fall off in front of her male coach?
Many Muslim females cover all but their faces in front of men in public, which can make running, jumping and other physical activities difficult. Headdresses routinely come undone, traditional clothing can rip, and girls often trip over their long dresses.
One solution for Mohamed and other Muslim girls in Minneapolis was to go to girls-only sessions at the gym of the Brian Coyle Community Center in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood.
Every Wednesday and Sunday for the past several years, about 30 East African girls have piled into the gym, where they exchange their hijabs for more comfortable gym clothes and play in what has become their exercise sanctuary. (To ensure their privacy and keep nosy boys at bay, they’ve sometimes stuffed their hijabs into the crack between the gym’s double doors.)
But demand for the gym is high and girls-only time is limited to five hours a week. That’s why leaders of the gym program teamed with the University of Minnesota to produce culturally sensitive athletic apparel for Muslim girls.
The outfits will “allow the girls to go out to the YMCA and Life Time Fitness and outdoor basketball courts,” said Mohamed, now a junior at nearby Augsburg College. “I think they’re going to be a lot more comfortable wearing it.”
Having an exercise uniform is the latest development in a yearslong effort to encourage Muslim girls to be more physically fit.
For GIRLS only
In 2008, when Fatimah Hussein was in high school, she noticed that the only people using the gym at the Coyle Center were boys and men. She founded Girls Initiative in Recreation and Leisurely Sports (GIRLS) and started girls-only gym time on Sunday afternoons.
The program immediately struck a chord — with girls, that is.
In the first few months, the girls heard the same thing every week: the bang! bang! bang! of boys pounding on the gym doors, asking to be let in so they could play, too.
“In the beginning that’s how it was,” Mohamed said. “Even now on Wednesdays, people sneak in and they don’t understand it’s an all-girls gym.”
Seven years later, the program has gained widespread community support, although some traditionalists still frown on girls being active.
“There are some people who are close-minded still,” Hussein said. “Even though some of the parents are very strong in their culture, we tell them that even in our religion physical activity is important.”
To develop the uniforms, Hussein teamed up with professionals from the University of Minnesota, including Chelsey Thul, a lecturer for the university’s School of Kinesiology, and Elizabeth Bye from the College of Design.
Bye worked closely with the girls on the design of the outfits, getting many suggestions for pink and sparkle patterns. They eventually came to a less flashy consensus, including one with a blue stripe on a black background. The clothing also features leggings and a knee-length tunic, which minimizes tripping.
“The reason they picked the outfit they did was that it met all the criteria,” Bye said. “It was modest, but it was still fun.”
Two blocks from the Coyle Center, Bye and graduate students set up workstations at Mosque Shafici to make the outfits. For four weeks in April the mosque served as the apparel’s assembly line. Sporadic rattling from sewing machines, coupled with an Arabic voice announcing afternoon prayers over a loudspeaker, filled the room with noise.
Volunteers from the community also took part. Fosiyo Mohamud got involved once she recognized the GIRLS program’s impact on her daughters. About a year after her oldest daughter, Samira, joined the program, Mohamud brought her to a pediatrician for a checkup.
“The doctor said, ‘What are you doing differently?’ ” Mohamud said. “She wasn’t obese anymore.”
The new uniforms, including a red-and-white one designed for the traveling basketball team, will be celebrated in a community fashion show.
Mohamed coaches the team, which is called the Women Warriors. She does so, she said, to help expand the program that first gave her a comfortable place to exercise.
“We really want to make this a lifelong thing for the girls to be engaged in sport,” said Jennifer Weber, a GIRLS coach.
Jack Satzinger is a University of Minnesota student reporter on assignment for the Star Tribune.