Former competitive weightlifter Amna Al Haddad is helping develop a mass-market sports hijab
This week, Nike announced its plans for a hijab specially designed for athletes.
"I did not grow up with the concept of sports in my life. I've had very little role models to look up to," she says. "So [being a weightlifter] was a very unusual route for people in our country or in our region."
Al Haddad became interested in sports in her late teens.
The path that I took, it was bigger than myself as an athlete, but it was one that was going to change the world.- Amna Al Haddad, former UAE weightlifter
"I had a very unhealthy lifestyle, and I used to deal with a lot of negative thoughts, depression, bad eating habits," she explains.
She decided to make a change in her life, and that included eating properly and working out.
"I just picked up sports, you know, going to the gym, exercising. That took me to crossfit, from crossfit to weightlifting, to competing for the UAE national team for the Olympics."
Al Haddad laughs when asked if she had a lot of support in her newfound love for sport. She says weightlifting is often presumed to be a sport for men, and as a Muslim woman, her decision to participate resulted in accusations that she was not being modest.
While she was not fully supported in her foray into weightlifting, Al Haddad says there was a small group of people who believed in her and understood the broader implications of her sporting career.
"The path that I took, it was bigger than myself as an athlete, but it was one that was going to change the world," she says.
Being covered and competing was like some sort of dream.- Amna Al Haddad, former UAE weightlifter
She says her critics have a lack of understanding about the positive effect sports can have on a person's physical and mental health.
"I think it's all a misconception or lack of awareness, and lack of education about what sports actually does for a person, and how it can actually have them develop their sense of confidence, self-esteem and physical health," explains Al Haddad.
She says weightlifting is a very empowering sport and that it helped her through a dark period in her life.
The sports hijab
Al Haddad spent four years competing as a weightlifter with the UAE team. In that time, she won six world gold medals.
"Being covered and competing was like some sort of dream," she says. "It was something that was not very common. And it got a lot of traction because, 'Oh, she's a woman, she's covered, she's Muslim, she's doing weights'," she says. "Everyone was just like, 'Whoa!'"
You could still be someone who holds onto your faith and still pursue your passions.- Amna Al Haddad, former UAE weightlifter
For Al Haddad, wearing a hijab was a personal choice. She didn't think it was a big deal to wear one while competing — although she acknowledges that it could get hot.
While visiting the Nike research lab, Al Haddad suggested the development of a more breathable material for hijabs.
She worked with the company in their creation of the Pro Hijab, which it hopes to have on the market by the spring of 2018.
"I'm glad to see that there's a lot of big brands who are taking a step toward creating a product to cater to athletes in different segments."
Al Haddad hopes that if sports hijabs are more widely available, it will create more compassion and understanding about wearing the hijab and being Muslim. She hopes more people will realize it's a choice, not a form of oppression.
After breaking down barriers for Muslim women and women everywhere, Al Haddad has now retired from sports. But she hopes she has paved the way for more women to follow their dreams.
"It was an interesting time to show the world that ... you could be someone who holds onto your faith and still pursue your passions."