Thanks to the Danish sportswear brand Hummel, Afghanistan’s women’s soccer team is the first national team ever to have a hijab built into its official uniform.
“Our core value,” Hummel owner Christian Stadil told the Associated Press, “is to change the world through sports.”
Stadil said the company’s focus was to make something “cool and fashionable” that was more soccer-friendly than everyday hijabs, which would often fall into the player’s eyes during matches.
The resulting “sports hijab” makes it easier for women to be athletes and practice their faith at the same time. It is attached to a long-sleeve shirt worn underneath the jerseys. Leggings are included in the uniform, but both the leggings and the undershirt with the attached hijab are optional.
“The uniform launched on International Women’s Day for women’s empowerment,” Khalida Popal, the former captain of the team, told People Magazine. “And the uniform means a lot for the national team of Afghanistan — especially for the women — because they fought to wear it and it says, ‘I am a woman and I’m able to play under the flag of my country.'”
Popal is an outspoken advocate for women’s rights, and was one of the founding members of Afghanistan’s first women’s national soccer team in 2007. But in 2011, the death threats and backlash to her advocacy were so intense that she had to flee her hometown of Kabul for an asylum camp in Denmark.
“Football was not easy for us to play, especially in a male-dominated country,” Popal told the Associated Press. “It was not acceptable for women to play. Football is a man’s game.”
Popal worked with Hummel to help create the Afghan national team’s uniform. She wanted it to reflect both the strength of the Afghan character, and the country’s traditions and heritage. “I think this shirt has achieved both,” she said.
The sport of soccer has not always been welcoming to Muslim women who wear a hijab. The sport’s governing body, FIFA, only officially allowed hijabs to be worn during matches in 2014. So having hijabs incorporated into a team’s official uniform is a significant step.
“We don’t sponsor the biggest teams in the world, but we make partnerships with teams and clubs with a story to tell, like Afghanistan,” Stadil said on Hummel’s website. “We try to meet the Afghan people where they are, and right now that is by helping the women play football with or without a hijab.”