A built-in hijab just changed the game for these Afghan women.
10 years ago, the women of Afghanistan didn't even have a national soccer team.
It wasn't until 2007 that the Afghanistan National Olympic Committee formed the team. Even then, things weren't quite smooth sailing, as the players regularly received death threats, were forced out of practice spaces, and were shamed because they had to leave the country to find another team to play.
There was another challenge too.
For many Afghan women, playing soccer meant having to choose between honoring their religion and culture or being able to perform at a high level.
In 2011, athletic outfitter hummel became an official sponsor of the Afghanistan men's, women's, and youth teams. The uniforms were simple: red shirts, black pants, and green socks.
For women who wore hijabs, however, there was no easy way to incorporate their scarves into their uniforms, which hindered their ability to play.
That's why now, finally, in 2016, the women's uniforms are getting their first major revamp in team history.
Gone are the standard red shirts, replaced by something custom made for the team highlighting its heritage.
Designer Paul Fitzgerald consulted with former women's team captain Khalida Popal, who suggested they start by paying tribute to the mountains of Afghanistan. From there, they worked in a lion motif, meant to represent the courage the women's team showed in its performance.
Design aside, there's one feature you won't find on uniforms anywhere else in the world: a built-in hijab.
"The uniform launched on International Women's Day for women’s empowerment,” Popal 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.' "
“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." — hummel owner Christian Stadil
The hijab — as well as a set of leggings — remain optional additions to the uniform, so nobody is "stuck" with one option or the other. This move comes just two years after FIFA — international soccer's governing body — lifted its ban on religious head coverings. That ruling, and this new uniform kit are big steps toward inclusivity.
This move is a major win for inclusivity in sports, and it makes you wonder what more can be done to help knock down cultural barriers when it comes to athletics.
What other situations could benefit from similar innovations? Odds are, there are some major examples that simply haven't yet come to mind. Good for hummel for identifying and solving this issue.
“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," says hummel owner Christian Stadil in a press release. “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.”