MISHREF, Kuwait — On a perfectly breathable Friday near sunset in the spring, you might have spotted what residents say you never would have spotted 10 years ago: women, here and there, on the pathways that twist near a sports park, walking briskly or jogging, in their abayas.
Look more carefully, and you would have noticed another novel sight of the 2010s: six cyclists on their bikes, zipping back and forth, coed — four men in helmets, two women in helmets and hijabs.
These two sisters have happened upon a passion for triathlon in their 20s, and the sport has driven them around the world and even to the wilds of eBay. That’s where Najla Al Jeraiwi, determined that being covered would not impede being competitive, bought 15 body suits some time ago, fearing their obsolescence because swimming’s governing body had banned them from world competition. She gave three to her sister Nada. She gave four to friends. “I have the rest, but with time it’s getting worn down,” she said. “So now we’re struggling.”
Count the Al Jeraiwi sisters, all inconspicuous 5 feet 1 (Najla) and 5 feet 3 (Nada) of them, among a fresh wavelet of human athletes: women who find sport such an essential part of themselves that they compete in traditional hijab headscarves, loose-fitting abaya robes or other covering.
Especially for triathlon, that combination of swimming, cycling and running, this means exhaustive searches for ever more agreeable fabrics. It means there’s a novel fashion item of the 21st century, the sport hijab, and a trickle of companies making it.
Hijabs and abayas, both a tradition and a personal choice in most Middle Eastern cultures, have begun to dovetail more with sports. They have appeared with flair, such as when Shinoona Al Habsi, then a 19-year-old runner for Oman, entered the Olympic Stadium at the London Games four years ago to run the 100 meters in a memorable hijab of a fine red, “red because of Oman,” she said, referring to a dominant color in the country’s flag.
They have caused policy advancements, such as when FIFA, the world governing body of soccer, opted to allow hijabs in early 2014. “Look, it’s a popular sport,” Prince Ali bin Al Hussein of Jordan, a FIFA member archly supportive of women’s sports, said in an interview. “We had, for example in West Asia, we had a tournament. I’m president of the West Asian Football Federation. And when we first introduced women’s football, the Iranians resisted by saying they would not allow their girls to play if men are present in stadiums. But if you put it to them properly, which we did, they have to accept the status quo. And things are easy to move ahead.
“We had the same issue with headscarves. The way we did it in FIFA was to say that, ‘Look, you have to have mutual respect.’ In fact, our women were the first girls who went and played in Iran without headscarves after the decisions were made. So there’s a lot of things that can be done as long as we take the politics out of it.”
Yasmeen Khair called it “one of the best decisions that was made.” Khair, a defender on Jordan’s women’s national soccer team and a designated ambassador for Jordan’s upcoming Under-17 Women’s World Cup, said, “In Arab countries, hijab, it’s a main thing, you know. In our team, we had a lot of girls wearing hijab. . . . Three, four of them, they were with the national team, and they were some of the main players, you know? So if this decision wasn’t made, then you’re going to lose a lot of the girls playing football. Even the young ones.”
In turn, athletes have set off seeking better fabrics. Najla Al Jeraiwi still uses a custom-made hijab of “normal fabric, not ideal for racing” but not terrible, just not quite cool and dry enough. It’s still an improvement over 2012, when her Spanish coach, Vicent Beltran, first found her swimming in routine sports clothes and long-sleeved shirts, then found long-sleeve swimwear that proved unfit for cycling and running, until a Spanish company made a trisuit for Najla. She improved her 100 meters by 14 seconds. “We all almost cried of happiness that day at the swimming pool,” Beltran wrote in an email.
“The situation of the women in this area is very different from one to another,” said Marisol Casado, president of the International Triathlon Union, “because in some of these areas they are really very open, like Lebanon, and then they have no problem at all, and in others like Iran, for example, they have more problems, but with hijab, they allow to compete. The movement is coming from people, from women from Iran. . . . I hope that they will decide not to wear it. This is my hope. But it’s up to them.”
Sport-hijab makers have materialized, shipping the hijabs to about 15 countries in the case of one Dutch company, Capsters. Its roots lie in the case of a Dutch high school student forbidden from gym class in 1999 because of her hijab. Cindy van den Bremen, then a design student in Eindhoven, Netherlands, began thinking, never imagining that 17 years later a livelihood would stem from her designs, with fabrics once futuristic.
“Capsters believes the choice to cover yourself should be yours and yours only, otherwise you deny the right of the women themselves,” van den Bremen wrote in an email. “Both the Muslim community as well as people outside the community are forcing their ideas upon the women to cover or not. So on both sides there is social pressure as well as connotations that are based on assumptions and stereotypes and deny the rights of the women themselves.”
Perhaps even more often, people root for the singular. Roquiya Cochran told of a three-day process in 2012 when she and her daughter, Zahra Lari, a figure skater from the United Arab Emirates, first appeared at an event in Italy.
At first, fellow skaters and their coaches stared quietly and quizzically, having never seen a skater dressed in a hijab. (Lari even received a points deduction because judges deemed this novelty a prop, a matter long since cleared up.) The second day, people began to smile. By the third, they took selfies.
“When I go to competitions, people usually have a lot of questions about it because they’ve just never seen anyone like that,” Lari said. “But it’s just that they’re curious about it. They’ll be staring and they’ll come and they’ll ask me. They want pictures with me or something like that. I think it’s a good way to spread the word, like, ‘We’re normal. There’s nothing different between me and you.’ ”
With the abaya, some athletes report even an unforeseen boon. Sarah Attar, a Californian who ran for Saudi Arabia in the 2012 Olympics , has visited Saudi Arabia with her Saudi father and American mother umpteen times in her 23 years to see her father’s populous side of the family tree. Nowadays, she runs in an abaya when in Saudi Arabia and in American running gear while training in Mammoth Lakes, Calif.
“A lot of the girls I’ve talked to, it’s not that the abaya itself is the obstacle, but just making one that’s easier to run in, so you just have to kind of think they’re obstacles only if you let them be,” she said. “It goes down to your ankles, and it’s an extra layer on top of running clothes underneath, and it is much warmer.”
She laughs slightly. “So it’s just like, it’s just part of it. . . . You know, it’s interesting because when I’m there and running it, I’m like, ‘This is just extra training.’ Or it’s like a different form of endurance. Or ‘If you can get through it when it’s harder, then when you race . . .’ ”
Nesreen, a Saudi mother of four in her early 40s and based in Jeddah and who asked that only her first name appear, said running had revamped her life after she joined a coed group called Jeddah Running Collective. “When the weather is good, it doesn’t bother me much,” she said of the abaya, “and we rarely get good weather here, maybe two months a year. But when the weather is hot, like now, I feel like I’m a walking sauna, literally. I do feel like I’m heavier and uncomfortable as well. But all this won’t make me stop running. On the days I’m feeling really into the run, I don’t remember I’m wearing abaya.”
The issue of attire has been, of course, markedly different in swimming, in which athletes compete far less covered than in, for example, taekwondo.
Faye Sultan, 21, who swam for Kuwait in the 2012 Olympics and for Williams College in Massachusetts for four years, recounts stories that tell of change.
When she was 11, Sultan went to an international meet in Kuwait, then went right home when authorities shut it down after learning that boys and girls would compete concurrently. From when she was 9 to when she was 17 at the London Olympics, her father, Tarek Sultan, a former basketball player for the Kuwait national team and also for Williams, wasn’t allowed to watch her swim competitively. She grew to 6 feet tall, and as the only girl rising at 4:30 a.m., coming to school with wet hair from training, eating in morning class for replenishment, she usually swam very much alone. As the only girl around competing in her teens, she never got to swim a Kuwaiti relay — when she reached Williams, she didn’t know how to do one, which drew some ribbing from teammates — and she spent much of her teens in undersized, non-Olympic pools where her limbs would hit concrete.
Finally, when she was 17, her father asked Kuwait’s swimming federation whether his daughter could train in the Olympic-size pool with the men’s team. The federation complied. For her first appearance, Tarek accompanied her, his lone daughter among three athletic offspring whose sports participation the parents viewed equally.
“You could tell she looked nervous,” said Mohammed Madouh, a team member who had swum for Kuwait in the 2008 Olympics and for Arizona State. After all, it was a pool to which, simultaneous to the team’s training, parents brought small children to swim.
Said Madouh: “So you can see the parents from the distance looking at Faye like, ‘Oh my god, how can a girl train with boys?’ So we got that feeling. We saw that. I can understand it can be uncomfortable, but then the same parents that show up every single day, they saw that it’s normal. . . . It’s all about breaking the rule and then getting used to it, and then you’ll find it normal, and that’s it.”
On the first day, Madouh, then 25, walked over to the teen. He handed her a Kuwait swim cap. “Welcome to the team,” he said.
In May in Dubai, he said, “It’s an honor to have a female swimmer in Kuwait,” and, “I think I’m very lucky to witness that.”
Yet change has rumbled for a while. Madouh said that at the 2010 Asian Games in Guangzhou, China, as Sultan swam in a standard swimsuit for international competition, Madouh wearied of hearing Kuwaiti officials from various sports bemoan Sultan competing “in a bikini,” a word he found objectionable out of his respect for her dedication. At the 2014 Asian Games in Incheon, South Korea, Madouh heard no such whining. While Sultan studied and swam at Williams, her mother, Muna Al-Mousa, told her of seeing a Kuwait swim club advertising that parents should bring girls to learn to “swim like Faye.”
Said Tarek Sultan, “I think recently, certainly seeing Faye attend the Olympics, I think there’s been a real shift in people’s attitudes, and the number of women participating is off the charts.”
The Elite Swim Team in Kuwait, he notes, has 850 members, about 400 female. “Isn’t that something?” he wrote in a subsequent email.
Even now, though, the Al Jeraiwi sisters are on their third pool for training because others discontinued women’s hours. They know that one former Kuwaiti triathlete had to train in a lagoon near a construction site, with jellyfish and jet skiers, and that she no longer competes after marrying.
While driving from the cycling training session on the Friday evening, Nada Al Jeraiwi spoke of generations. The gap between her generation and her mother’s, she said, actually is smaller than the gap between her mother’s generation and her grandmother’s. Two generations back, she explained, women stayed entirely at home. Last generation, they began going off to university and going out with friends. With this generation, Al Jeraiwi said, they have mobile phones whereby parents can check on their safety.
She and her sister realize they’re at a forefront. They tell about how a Kuwait Olympic Committee executive, at a meeting in 2014, had no idea Kuwait even had female cyclists until Najla’s friend and fan Saleh Al Duwaisan stood and corrected him. “I said, ‘Yes!’ ” Al Duwaisan said. “I said, ‘This girl got lots of medals and nobody had an accident while she was cycling.’ ” Najla recalls that the executive “became supportive” and said, “Oh, that’s good.”
They have heard the occasional gossip about themselves. “For me, I heard some people were chatting about it behind my back,” Nada said. “But I wouldn’t care, because I’m telling you, the girl, she said that if her husband allows her to do that, she would do it, and she would do more.” Such negativity, she said, comes from “only maybe 5 percent.”
Nada’s husband, Osama Al Othman, figures his support of his wife’s athletic pursuits place him roughly in a 35 percent minority. “I think the old people reject it generally and the young people accept it,” he said. “But the strange thing is, the young people here in Kuwait, if they’re married, they reject it for their wives.”
He laughed slightly and said, “This is the strange thing I cannot understand.” He added, “Even to my friends, I am talking to them, [telling them] that my wife is participating, and I am posting her participation on the Instagram, Twitter, because I am very proud of my wife and I’m proud of what she’s doing and I don’t hide it anywhere.”
“In any situation in any incidence,” Najla Al Jeraiwi said, “there are some people who criticize you, about the way you dress, about what you’re doing, but in every side of the world. Doesn’t matter if you’re here or anywhere else. So just continue what you’re doing, and you’ll get shocked from the support you’ll get from the people.”
They’re hoping to get more children involved, with earlier starts in life. Najla does just that on a Saturday morning, bouncing around with her uncommon energy to oversee a kids’ mini-triathlon in her job organizing events at a seaside health club. Nowadays she gets questions from parents about nutrition, crucial for a region with a high rate of diabetes, as Tarek Sultan points out.
At 5 a.m. on Sunday, then, it’s quiet in the club parking lot. The first light of day has come. In close view are a mosque and a P.F. Chang’s. Into the parking lot comes an SUV, and out pops a 5-1 force of nature whose determination makes her “the perfect athlete every coach would like to train,” Beltran said.
Najla goes inside, readies, swims in the Kuwait cap she used at the Asian Games. Amid one drill, she churns, reaches the wall, pops up. Her coach, a Filipino woman named Chal Burns, reads out her time.
The Female Muslim Athlete
Muslim countries from the Middle East might send an unprecedented number of female competitors to next month’s Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. With the support of other women and a growing number of men, they have widened the cultural possibilities about the role of women in their societies, including standards about when they should marry, how soon they should start a family and what they should wear while competing. This series is about the courage and perseverance of female athletes in one of the last regions on Earth to celebrate them.