It was the middle of basketball's offseason, and a few of the Lady Warriors were shooting around in their street clothes in a bright, windowless gym in Minneapolis. Eleven-year-old Samira rolled to the bucket but couldn't move very quickly because of the long dress she was wearing.
The Twin Cities are home to one of the largest Somali populations in the world. The community is concentrated in the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood of Minneapolis, where these pre-teen players go to school. And for many girls of East African descent like Samira and the rest of the Lady Warriors, balancing their cultural and religious standards of modesty with sports can be tricky.
"Sometimes our hijab, our scarves, got off, and we would have to time out, pause, to fix it," Samira said. "Our skirts were a problem — they were all the way down to our feet."
Eleven-year-old Ramla and 12-year-old Rayan agreed.
"‘Cause when we’re running, our shoes get caught up in our dress and then it starts ripping," Ramla said.
"And when we’re wearing the scarves, it can just get on top of your head, and you can’t see anything," Rayan said.
Last season, some of the girls opted to wear long pants instead of dresses. But that still put them at a disadvantage when playing other Minnesota teams.
All I know is there’s a need. There’s a huge gap. And sometimes in sport, and historically we’ve seen this in sport, we kind of just go with the status quo, right?Chelsey Thul, Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport
"We have more layers than they do," Rayan said. "They just wear their jerseys, and we have to wear our dress with it and our jerseys."
And because the girls’ team didn’t have their own jerseys, they had to share with the boys. Ten-year-old Amal says the experience was unpleasant.
"Horrible! Very horrible," she said. "And the boys, their jerseys were all sweaty and yucky and nasty."
That’s where a local nonprofit dedicated to expanding sports and recreation opportunities for local Muslim girls stepped in. It had been using a grant from the University of Minnesota to provide a girls-only space for physical activity — all of the Lady Warriors attend. But the group wanted to take it even further, so they brought in researchers and designers from the university to help the young athletes find a new solution to the stinky jersey problem.
Jennifer Weber, the girls’ coach, said the players did most of the work themselves, with guidance from the experts.
"So they got to make paper dolls with outfits, and then they got to look at prototypes," she said. "They knew what they wanted. It was just getting it on paper, getting it into the design."
The final product aimed to solve a lot of the problems the players described. Chelsey Thul from the university's Tucker Center for Research on Girls and Women in Sport described some features of the new uniforms: "And so this sport uniform has black leggings. It’s longer, probably about to the knees," she said. "It has long sleeves, and it’s a breathable fabric."
The uniform also includes a special “sports hijab.”
"The biggest change to the hijab is that it’s not a pullover, so that instead, it fastens with Velcro at the neck," Weber said. "So it’s got some give to it, and it’s forgiving, and it moves as they move."
And of course, with the young girls’ input, there’s a bit of color. Samira and Amal said the team had a lot of ideas.
"We wanted a lot of designs, like stripes or diamonds or stuff like that," Samira said.
"So we could be cute. And cool," Amal said.
Once the designs were finalized, community members came together to hand-stitch the uniforms. Then it was time for their big night. The project culminated in a fashion show in an auditorium on campus this summer. The players strolled down the runway, modeling the various iterations of the new activewear. Amal said she had a blast, but she was still a bit jittery in front of the crowd.
"At first, we thought the fashion show would be fun, but when we got backstage my stomach starting hurting," she said. "I had butterflies. I had butterflies in my stomach."
Thul said similar products — including a modest swimsuit called the "burkini" and sports hijabs — have been available for adult women for years. But this team, she said, will be the first to put on matching uniforms of this kind when they take the court this season.
"All I know is there’s a need," she said. "There’s a huge gap. And sometimes in sport, and historically we’ve seen this in sport, we kind of just go with the status quo, right?"
And after all the publicity surrounding the fashion show, Thul found out exactly how much of a need there is. She said she’s been getting calls from teams, coaches and schools all over the country.
Back in their home gym, the Lady Warriors practice shooting, passing and crossover dribbles. They'll suit up in their new uniforms later this fall, and then they'll finally be able to practice dribbling between their legs.
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