This Startup Wants To Level The Playing Field For Muslim Girls

Fatimah Hussein and Jamie Glover say the participation rate of Muslim girls is nearly half that of their peers, and they believe a major barrier is the clothing worn for religious and cultural reasons.

Co-founders Fatimah Hussein and Jamie Glover. Courtesy photo

Asiya co-founders Fatimah Hussein, left, and Jamie Glover. Courtesy photo

Recognizing that participating in sports is key to building confidence and leadership skills, two women in Minneapolis are determined to level the playing field for Muslim girls.

Fatimah Hussein and Jamie Glover say the sports participation rate of Muslim girls is nearly half that of their peers, and they believe a major barrier is sartorial. To hurdle it, they’re producing culturally appropriate activewear, starting with “sport hijabs,” which add an athletic element to the head coverings that some Muslim women wear in public.

Hussein and Glover’s new company, Asiya, is based in Minneapolis, where Hussein is a social worker and Glover is a full-time MBA student at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management. Asiya is the name of the wife of the Egyptian pharaoh in Moses’ time, a woman revered in Islam for her unshakeable faith. It is also a word with many meanings: pillar, supporter, sorrow lifter. “Our mission is to help more Muslim girls participate in sports, while upholding their religious beliefs,” Glover says. “I was introduced to Fatima through a connection at the Carlson School. She had been working on this idea for some time, and was ready to take the next step and make it a business.”

GIRLS-ONLY GYM TIME

Hussein, a member of the Muslim community in Minneapolis, volunteered for several years at a local community center where many East African families would socialize. The center had a gym, and she noticed that only boys were using the space. She believed the girls, mostly ages 8-18, were intimidated or worried about keeping their headscarves on while trying to play or use gym equipment.

So Hussein organized girls-only gym time, where they could shut the doors and work out without those concerns. That grew from one night a week to three. Hussein then moved on to another challenge — designing hijabs that would make it easier for the girls to participate in team sports at their schools.

A FULL-TIME STUDENT

Glover, meanwhile, was starting her first year at the Carlson School, and says at first she was “zero percent” pursuing entrepreneurship. But she had also just had a baby, and motherhood helped her realize what she wanted to spend her time doing.

“I had a baby, and it was like — okay, work is important to me, so if I’m going to be spending time away from my child, then it better be making the world a better place,” Glover says. When she heard that Hussein was looking for a business partner, she felt like she had found a fit.

Glover’s MBA experience evolved with her changing goals. If she weren’t doing Asiya, she says, she wouldn’t be getting nearly as much out of it. “In December, when I jumped on board more fully, I quickly changed around my whole course-load for the spring,” she says. “I have a marketing background, and I couldn’t have told you what an income statement was. But this summer we competed in a startup competition called the Minnesota Cup, and we had to submit a pretty thorough business plan, including financials. So my finance courses applied right away, and this semester I took negotiation strategies and the psychology of marketing and business — and those came into play right away, too.”

THE KICKSTARTER

Asiya Kickstarter campaign image

Asiya Kickstarter campaign image

For now, Hussein and Glover are the only official employees of Asiya, but they have a group of informal mentors and advisers who helped them launch a Kickstarter campaign.

The campaign has already raised more than $20,000, but will only be funded if it meets its $25,000 goal by Nov. 17. “We wanted to launch in a way where we could start to generate pre-orders, and also have a marketing vehicle to get the word out about this mission,” Glover says. “And the money will be used for the first order of fabric and manufacturing.”

Each hijab will be sold for around $35. Glover says for the time being, the company’s margins will be pretty slim. “But it’s important to make this and sell it in a way to get it to as many people as we can,” she says. “We’ll continue to look for lower cost options, so we can lower the price.”

THE SPORT HIJABS

For now, the sport hijabs — co-created with the community center girls, and brought to life by a local Minneapolis designer — will be made in the U.S. out of a stretchy, breathable, sweat-wicking fabric. The three different styles are called Asiya Lite, Asiya Sport, and Asiya Fit, and all feature a headband that will keep the hijab secure without using pins.

The Lite and Sport styles are ideal for sports practice or games, according to the Asiya Kickstarter campaign page. Both fit closely to the head, and the Sport is designed to be tucked into a uniform collar to avoid being snagged or grabbed by other players. The third style, the Fit, provides a bit more coverage.

‘THAT’S WHY I DRESS MODESTLY’

Fatimah Hussein and Jamie Glover with Asiya products. Courtesy photo

Fatimah Hussein and Jamie Glover with Asiya products. Courtesy photo

Hussein and Glover hope that by wearing the sport hijabs, young Muslim girls will be able to join teams and communities they felt they couldn’t join before. And with a greater presence in these communities, perhaps more people will be able to understand their culture and have conversations with them. “Our hope is that through sports, a culture of understanding will build, as opposed to defaulting to fear around the Muslim community in the U.S.,” Glover says.

There are those, she acknowledges, who disapprove of the hijab altogether. She says they’ve prepared for backlash, but so far none has happened. “It’s such a fascinating dialogue, with both sides arguing human rights,” she says.

But if anyone did question her for producing hijabs, Glover has her answer ready. “I would share what I’ve learned from these women and girls,” she says. “Everyone I’ve had the opportunity to speak with will tell me that it is their choice. They’ll say, ‘I dress this way because I want to be respected for who I am as a person, and my beliefs, and my values. I don’t want to be judged for my appearance, and that’s why I dress modestly.’”

WHAT’S NEXT?

When the Kickstarter campaign is over and the first hijabs in their line have been sold, Asiya’s next step is to open an online store and start selling directly to customers. After that, Hussein and Glover will start working on their next product: custom uniforms, activewear, or swimwear.

“Our heart and our mission is in sports — because of the value in leadership skills, teamwork, and learning how to win and how to lose,” Glover says. “Our dream would be that Muslim girls are as involved in sports as anyone else.”